In Pursuit of Team Spirit: This Autumn, a "Treaty Event" Will Seek Signatures on 33 International Agreements to Help Celebrate the United Nations' 60th Birthday. Arab Governments Have Been Slow to Join

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WHEN THE UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY gathers in New York City this autumn, a special room will beckon diplomats as they ascend the grand staircase of the UN complex. It is an impromptu signature room, with a special table, pens, and press facilities.

Between 14 and 16 September, leaders from 191 UN member states will be invited to visit that room and participate in a "Treaty Event", to sign and ratify a raft of 33 international agreements, accords, conventions, covenants and protocols.

Many observers are keen to see greater Arab and Islamic participation.

At the heart of the issue is a question of how Arab nations function in the world community. Although Arabic is one of the six official languages of the UN, Arab governments have been generally reluctant to enter into UN treaties.

Some speculate this reflects a mistrust of the major powers, who have often masked their control of the agenda at the international body, while creating legal obligations through the treaty process.

Nevertheless, a senior UN official pointed out that while many have been loathe to sign, Arab governments have often participated in the lengthy debates which precede the drafting of any UN treaty.

Voting and ratification records show, how ever, that the Arab world lags far behind other regions in terms of its collective willingness to enter into multilateral agreements.

For example, of the 33 agreements now under consideration, Morocco has signed only 18 and ratified 15. Algeria signed 17 and ratified 21. Egypt signed 17 and ratified 19. Saudi Arabia signed eight and ratified eight. The worst record was that of the UAE, which has signed only six of the treaties, and ratified four of them. By comparison, the UK has already signed 27 and ratified 23 of the agreements included in the Treaty Event.

The treaties to be signed cover such diverse and laudatory matters as human rights, the status of international tribunals, battles against terrorism and organised crime, disarmament, and protection of the environment. Some of the documents date back to 1948; others have only been drawn up within the past year.

Action on most would seem long overdue. But an analysis of treaty signatures and ratifications to date reveals some less-than-idealistic political posturing. In fact, there is a pattern of institutional state self-interest clearly evident, often being exercised at the expense of individual people or humanity as a whole. States willingly sign agreements which re-enforce and underscore state power, while they drag their heels or decline action on international treaties which favour the rights of individuals.

Consider this: Among the agreements with the most signatures are the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (175), the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (157), and the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court (139). The fewest signatures have been applied to the Convention on the Status of Refugees (19), the Convention on the Protection of Rights of Migrant Workers (25), and a tie between the Protocol on Civil and Political Rights, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (33 signatures each).

Many Arab countries have withheld signatures from key agreements which, at first glance, would seem pre-eminently in their interests to be party to. For example, only three Arab governments have subscribed to the International Convention on the Protection of Rights of Migrant Workers, despite the millions of expatriate Arabs who currently work in low paid jobs in Europe and elsewhere. Similarly, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have neither signed nor ratified the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees--despite their oft-expressed concerns for the Palestinian diaspora. Finally, virtually no Arab government has signed or ratified the Agreement on Privileges and Immunities of the International Criminal Court (which in effect gives that court legal "teeth" to act). …