BRUSSELS, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- The United States is not the only world power having difficulties persuading North African and Middle East leaders of the need to actively promote democracy and combat terrorism.
Less than a fortnight after a U.S.-sponsored conference of 30 nations in Bahrain failed to agree on a final declaration pledging to broaden the participation of non-governmental organizations in public life, the European Union is struggling to get its southern neighbors to sign up to statements on counter-terrorism and democracy promotion.
EU heads of state are due to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a partnership between the 25-nation bloc and the leaders of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey Monday. One of the European Union's key goals at the Barcelona meeting is to get its southern Mediterranean neighbors to sign up to a code of conduct to counter-terrorism.
"Islamic countries should take advantage of this opportunity to clearly denounce terrorism," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told journalists ahead of the summit. The EU chief also called on Arab leaders to "distance themselves from the idea that there is a linkage between Islamic countries and terrorism" and condemn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent plea for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
A draft of the code of conduct obtained by United Press International is unequivocal in its condemnation of terrorism. However, as in the United Nations, there is a still a debate raging about how terrorism should be defined. Some Arab states want an exception made for resistance related activities, an idea firmly rejected by Europeans.
EU leaders are billing the fight against terrorism as a key theme of the so-called Euromed summit and claim the declaration on countering terrorism will be the first ever inter-regional code of conduct against terror. But there is a risk that in their desperation to get an agreement on the text, the code will be stripped of any content. The declaration is already vague -- it calls on Euromed countries to exchange information on terrorist networks on a voluntary basis, to sign up to all U.N. counter-terrorism resolutions and "consider inviting" partners to emergency exercises -- and it is likely to watered down still further to make it acceptable to countries like Syria and Algeria that have, in the past, been accused of state-sponsored terrorism.
The 35 countries have also run into difficulties over the very issue that sunk the Bahrain declaration -- democracy promotion by non-government organizations. One EU official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was "agreement in principle on democracy promotion, but there is a problem with wording."
A draft "common vision" the European Union hopes all leaders will sign refers to "strengthening democracy, expanding participation in political life, public affairs and decision making, and further promoting gender equality." It also calls on participating states to "enhance respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms" and "maintain the independence of the judiciary and expand access to justice to all." Brussels has pledged to set up a "substantial financial facility to support willing Mediterranean partners in carrying out their reforms."
With progressive wording like this, it is little wonder that Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, and Jordan's King Abdullah II -- two leaders not renowned for their glowing human rights record -- have chosen to stay away from the anniversary celebrations in Spain. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has also said he plans to stay away from the summit.
Amnesty International believes the European Union has lost its credibility to lecture its southern neighbors on human rights because of the heavy-handed way some member states have dealt with asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from North African states. The advocacy group also says pressure to combat terrorism and control irregular migration has led to further human rights abuses in the region. "The Mediterranean countries, rather than the EU, were generally blamed for the human rights deficit of the Barcelona process, but today it affects both sides of the partnership," says Dick Oosting, director of the group's Brussels Office.
In the 10 years since the "Barcelona process" started, much progress has been made towards establishing a free trade area around the Mediterranean. The European Union has also channeled huge sums of aid -- almost $25 billion -- to promote social, economic and political reform. But, despite countless well-meaning declarations, summits and conferences, political progress has been almost non-existent.