Reforms in the Arab region: prospects for democracy and the rule of law?

August 26, 2011 - nr.75

At the moment developments in the Arab region are unfolding very quickly, so that some information in this report may already be out of date by the time it reaches its readers. The AIV believes that political transformations in the Arab region offer major opportunities for a better approach, with a greater emphasis on democracy and the rule of law, to relations between Western countries and autocratic regimes that are responsible for serious human rights violations. Although compelling geopolitical interests necessitate maintaining diplomatic relations with autocratic regimes, dialogue and limited cooperation at government level should not come at the expense of support for pro-reform forces and civil society in their countries. In the past, Western governments have identified too strongly with authoritarian regimes, on the basis of the supposition, now shown to be false, that such regimes could ensure political stability. Now too, there is a danger that the Western countries’ policy will be dictated by a calculation of an autocratic regime’s chances of survival, rather than the need to respect human rights, democracy and the socioeconomic aspirations of the population.

It is the AIV’s opinion that the Dutch government should not allow itself to be held hostage by fear that radical Islamist groups will attempt to seize power. Indeed, this scenario is made more rather than less probable by a policy that offers support, whether overt or tacit, to regimes that have permanently lost touch with legitimate popular demands in Arab societies. The AIV concludes that recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries underscore the importance of targeted support for civil society (political parties, civil society organisations and trade unions). A strong civil society cannot be built overnight, but ultimately this is the most effective way of promoting freedom, justice and democracy.

The AIV would observe that both the Netherlands and the EU have appropriate policy instruments for strengthening civil society. In recent years, however, the EU in particular has not succeeded in employing the instruments of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in the most effective way. For example, in its political dialogue with its southern neighbours, the Union has not done enough to emphasise the weakness (or absence) of adherence to the rule of law and development of an independent private sector, free from political influence. The rise of reform movements in various Arab countries is a source of new opportunities for the EU. With its Human Rights Fund and the Fund for Development, Pluralism and Participation (FOPP) in Islamic countries, the Netherlands has suitable bilateral aid instruments in place for giving a voice to civil society organisations that can sustain the current transitions in the Arab region. The AIV believes, however, that investment in additional expertise and analytical capacity is necessary to provide the government with good advice about possible Dutch contributions to strengthening civil society in the Arab region. Sufficient analytical capacity at embassies in the region and closer cooperation between the government, NGOs (both Dutch and international), institutions for building the capacity of political parties, and the trade union movement are the most efficient means for meeting this need for expertise and analytical capacity.

Advice request

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague


Date 18 April 2011
Re   Request for advice on developments in the Arab region

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

With regard to the current situation in North Africa and the Middle East, the House of Representatives of the States General passed a motion on 23 March 2011, submitted by MPs Alexander Pechtold and Frans Timmermans, asking the government to request the advice of the Advisory Council on International Affairs on the adequacy, in general and financial terms, of current Dutch and European policy in support of democracy and the rule of law in the Arab and Persian regions.

This letter is the government’s response to the part of the motion mentioned above.

Earlier this year, the Dutch government sent the House of Representatives two letters on developments in the Arab region. The second, dated 25 March 2011, was accompanied by the memorandum ‘Transitie Arabische Regio’ (Transition in the Arab region), which identified the Dutch and European interests in the region and set out Dutch policy. In this letter, the government also wrote:

‘In the weeks and months to come, the government will further adapt its bilateral policy and instruments, such as the Human Rights Fund, in response to developments in the region. In addition, the government will launch a new facility, similar to the MATRA programme, within the existing budgetary frameworks.’

The government would ask the AIV to examine the following questions:
• Are the EU’s current instruments (including dialogue in the framework of the Association Agreements, aid, trade preferences, EIB loans, CFSP instruments) appropriate tools with which to support the Arab region’s transition to democracy and the rule of law, given EU budget limits (on both the 2011 and multiyear budgets) and the need for EU budget restraint in the future?
• How can the Netherlands’ existing bilateral instruments be used effectively and efficiently to support the Arab region’s transition to democracy and the rule of law?

I look forward to your advisory report, which I would be much obliged to receive within six weeks.

Yours sincerely,


Uri Rosenthal
Minister of Foreign Affairs

1. Pechtold-Timmermans motion (in Dutch)
2. Letter of 25 March 2011 by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for European Affairs and International Cooperation to the President of the House of Representatives enclosing a memorandum on the transition in the Arab region (in Dutch)
Government reactions

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date 24 June 2011
Re   Government response to AIV advisory report on Arab region

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

The government thanks the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) for its advisory report ‘Reforms in the Arab Region: Prospects for Democracy and the Rule of Law?’. We are especially grateful that the AIV was able to produce the report in less than six weeks.

As previously stated in a letter to the House of Representatives (HR 32 623, no. 16), the Arab region is of great strategic interest to the Netherlands and the European Union (EU), and this country has done its duty to support the transition, both bilaterally and within the EU. In this light the AIV’s report offers a valuable analysis of the policy on the Arab region favoured by the Netherlands and the international community, including the EU. The report is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate, both nationally and internationally.

Broadly speaking, the government sees the advisory report as an expression of support for Dutch policy and an encouragement to maintain the present course. The government shares your opinion that the developments in the Arab region offer major new opportunities for democratisation in this part of the world. One of the report’s most important conclusions is that while the Netherlands and the EU already have appropriate policy instruments for strengthening civil society, in the recent past the Union has not succeeded in employing the instruments of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in the most effective way.

In this response the government reflects on the report’s most salient recommendations and conclusions. In its letter to parliament, the government outlined the future course of Dutch efforts in the Arab world. That letter also touches on a number of points not discussed in this response. A copy has been enclosed with this letter and should be regarded as a further response to and elaboration of your report.

Bilateral policy
The government endorses the AIV’s conclusion that the Netherlands has a broad and sufficient range of instruments for supporting the transition. Programmes like the Human Rights Fund, the Fund for Development, Pluralism and Participation (FOPP), the Stability Fund, the Reconstruction Fund and the MDG3 Fund have more than proven their value. The AIV supports the government’s decision to create a new facility to support the transitions, analogous to the Matra programme (letter to parliament of 25 March). For reasons of efficiency and effectiveness, the government has since decided that rather than establish a whole new facility analogous to Matra, it will simply make use of Matra itself. As regards those instances where the AIV draws a parallel between the Arab world and Central and Eastern Europe, the government would like to stress that EU accession is not a prospect for the former region.

The government does not agree with the AIV that preference in terms of funding should be given to independent NGOs that have a record of long-term ties with Dutch NGOs. Naturally, existing networks will play a role, but scope should also be created for new drivers of change. The uprisings were distinguished by the courage and mobilisation of groups which until recently were not active (in some cases because they were forbidden to be so), such as women and young people. An inclusive reform process sometimes means renouncing old structures and going in search of new partners.

A democratic deficit, political repression, the exclusion of large segments of society and serious human rights violations are some of the major reasons for the uprisings. With this in mind, the government welcomes the recommendation to focus as a matter of priority on supporting civil society, political parties and trade unions. This should not, however, cause us to bypass the opportunity to address socioeconomic conditions (the second reason for the uprisings), at bilateral and multilateral level. The Netherlands’ instruments for supporting business communities are well suited for this purpose because they were designed to create employment. They also offer opportunities for the business community, since there is demand for specific Dutch expertise in the region.

The AIV also makes a number of recommendations relating to expertise and analytical capacity at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassies. The government believes that in principle there is adequate analytical capacity to provide the government with sound advice on policy choices and effective policy implementation. That said, the ministry will explore ways of enhancing the organisation of knowledge and expertise on the Arab world and ensuring its retention over the years. Any gaps that may emerge in the network of foreign missions will be filled by means of reprioritisation and streamlining. Discussions about reorganising the network of missions will take account of developments in the region.

The government is keen to make use of the expertise and analytical capacity of Dutch NGOs, and it has good ties with the network on the Middle East that has been set up by various NGOs that are active in the Arab region. A direct dialogue is taking place with experts and activists from the Arab region and with well-established contacts of the Dutch embassies in those countries. An interministerial working group consisting of senior civil servants has been set up to analyse developments in the region, explore their consequences for the Netherlands and formulate a Dutch response.

The AIV’s report cautions that the Dutch government should not allow itself to be held hostage by the fear that radical Islamist groups might attempt to seize power. On this point the government would observe that its decision-making is informed by facts, not emotions. The government is aware of the opportunities that the developments in the Arab region are generating. But at the same time it is of course extremely cautious with respect to the possible risks associated with the presence of radical Islamist groups in the new political landscape of the countries in question. With that in mind, the government will follow developments in this regard with special attention. Following the principle of conditionality, it will evaluate political parties that are engaged in the political process in the Arab region, on the basis of their compliance with the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

Country choice
In its advisory report the AIV chose to focus on Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. It is in these countries that the AIV has discerned a (possibly brief) window of opportunity for fundamental improvements in their peoples’ living standards. The government acknowledges that these countries have taken significant (though not irreversible) steps toward democratic reform and the rule of law, in comparison to much of the rest of the region. The government does not, however, accept the AIV’s argument about the presence of the Moroccan community in the Netherlands, for it does not take into account the principle that support should be demand driven. It is key to focus our efforts and combat fragmentation as much as possible. In addition the government is opposed to excluding any country from the outset. As the AIV correctly observes, support for reform is especially needed in those countries where the transition is proving particularly difficult. For this reason the government has decided to make its instruments available to all countries in the region. Initially, bilateral aid will concentrate primarily on Egypt and Tunisia (see also the letter to parliament of 24 June). The AIV concludes by making a number of recommendations on the subject of Libya. The Dutch standpoint on that issue has already been expressed in various letters to parliament.

EU policy
The AIV is correct that the EU has not always employed the instruments of the ENP in the most effective way. In a great many cases, EU aid is not tied to progress in human rights, the rule of law and democracy. The government shares this criticism, and therefore it has successfully lobbied for a review of the ENP with a particular focus on smart conditionality and improved market access. The government has also been urging flexible use of other EU instruments, such as the Instrument for Stability. The AIV states that the mobility partnerships should be interpreted in broad terms. The Netherlands is prepared to take a generous view of exchange opportunities for groups such as students, representatives of civil society groups, academics and businesspeople, but it intends to maintain a restrictive policy in other respects. An influx of disadvantaged persons into the Union must be prevented.

The government would add that any enhanced policy focus on the southern neighbours must be ‘budget neutral’, i.e. accommodated within the resources the EU has earmarked for external policy.

The government only partly agrees with the AIV’s criticism of the EU for its supposedly slow response. Developments in the region have dominated the European agenda since the beginning. The EU’s humanitarian response was prompt and effective; the more systemic problems, by contrast, require a more thoroughgoing and integrated strategy, given their nature and scale. The AIV is right to point out the need for international coordination, one of the principles of Dutch policy: ‘multilateral where possible and bilateral where necessary’.
On 25 May the European Commission and the High Representative presented the Communication ‘A new response to a changing Neighbourhood’. The government submitted its response to this to the House of Representatives on 15 June.

International organisations
It is the AIV’s position that in assessing countries that are implementing reforms, the criteria should take account of both a country’s political situation and its financial soundness. The government endorses this recommendation in so far as it is in line with its favoured policy of smart conditionality: countries that are genuinely implementing democratic reforms and fostering the rule of law should be able to count on support from the IFIs, so their efforts do not founder on financial shortfalls. This does not mean that the customary economic and financial conditionalities maintained by the international institutions will be dropped.

Yours sincerely,

Uri Rosenthal
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ben Knapen
Minister for European Affairs
and International Cooperation


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