Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Sept/Oct 2010, Pages 38-39

Special Report

Two Decades of Working to Improve North-South Relations

By Marvine Howe

Among the participants and former North-South Prize winners attending the North-South Center’s 20th anniversary celebration in Lisbon were Jorge Sampaio, U.N. High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations (front row, third from left); former Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi (behind Sampaio to the right, with gray tie). Also in the front row are Maud de Boer-Buquicchio (gray suit), Deborah Bergamini (white dress) and Nawal al Saadawi (with pink scarf). Standing behind Bergamini and el Saadawi is Iceland President Olafur Gaguar Grimsson. (Photo M. Howe)

As Europe finds itself buffeted by financial and economic crises and new gusts of xenophobia, a modest offspring of the Council of Europe is struggling to find answers to the challenges of global interdependence. The Lisbon-based North-South Center, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, has gained increasing relevance as a forum for intercultural dialogue and cooperation.

At a May 18 ceremony in the Portuguese National Assembly, the North-South Center presented its annual awards to two very distinct personalities: Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian statesman, for his contribution to the end of the Cold War, and Rola Dashti, Kuwaiti parliamentarian and a leader in the struggle for women's rights in the Arab world (see box). Introducing the prize winners, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, Council of Europe deputy secretary-general, noted: "What they have in common is a deep-rooted commitment to the universal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law and a desire to make change happen whether it be at a global, national or local level."

Unable to attend for health reasons, Gorbachev addressed the assembly by video. He urged Europeans to consider Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's proposal for a new pan-European security treaty. "We now have a chance for a new beginning in building a European security architecture," the Nobel Peace laureate said, blaming primarily the United States for squandering past opportunities. "The united Europe will be able to prove its right to leadership in addressing the main challenges of our time: demilitarizing international politics, narrowing the gap between wealth and poverty, and saving our planet from environmental disaster."

Dashti recalled that barely 20 years ago, women in Kuwait and most of the Arab world did not enjoy basic rights. She recounted how she and male and female colleagues struggled to free women in the region from "the discriminatory barriers created by collective misconception of women's role in society" and "the deliberate misinterpretation of religious tenets." Declaring that Kuwait has made major advances in women's rights, she noted that women won the right to vote in 2005 and the country's first four female parliamentarians were elected in 2009. "Our experience has started to be taken as an example by neighboring Gulf countries," she stated.

Lisbon hosted its first North-South conference in 1984, under the auspices of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, and aimed essentially at Africa and the Middle East. Portugal and Spain, former colonial powers and Western Europe's youngest democracies, enthusiastically embraced the Council's vision of a concerted European approach to cooperation with the developing world. In 1988 Spain, led by King Juan Carlos I, launched a European campaign for North-South Interdependence and Solidarity. This culminated in an appeal to the Council of Europe to accept Lisbon's proposal for a North-South meeting place. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall the following year, however, some Europeans feared that in the euphoria over new East-West relations, the South would be forgotten.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 16, 1989 the Council of Europe's ministerial committee approved a resolution establishing the European Center for Global Interdependence and Solidarity. There were 10 founding states, led by Spain, Portugal, France and Italy, and membership was open to all Council of Europe states. The Center's originality was its "quadripartite" structure, composed of representatives of governments, parliaments, local and regional authorities, and non-governmental organizations, giving it a broader outreach than most official bodies. The mission was an ambitious one: to provide a framework for European cooperation and solidarity on issues of global interdependence. But it was set up as a pilot project for only three years (1990-1993).

Now, 20 years later, the North-South Center is taking stock. Its principle activity has been in the fields of education and training through workshops aimed at youth organizations in European cities. Specifically, the Center organized the first University on Youth and Development at Mollina, Spain, with Spanish support. It has cooperated with the Council of Europe's programs such as the European Youth Campaign against Racism, Xenophobia, Anti-Semitism and Intolerance. Events organized by the Center include the Lisbon Forum on Human Rights and debates on freedom of conscience and religion, gender equality, and abolition of the death penalty. The Center has attracted international attention with the North-South Prize—now in its 15th year—which has been awarded to prominent figures like musicians Peter Gabriel and Bob Geldof, Irish President Mary Robertson, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and less well-known defenders of human rights.

As part of the 20th anniversary celebrations, the Center called on former North-South Prize winners and other specialists to participate in a roundtable discussion on "The 21st Century, a Century of Global Interdependence and Solidarity." A number of speakers highlighted the increasing imbalance between the North and South and the rising xenophobia in Europe toward immigrants.

Taking up the issue of cultural globalization, Jorge Sampaio, U.N. High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, noted that Europe has achieved much in human and social rights, but was now suffering from "a growing malaise." The former president of Portugal emphasized that "ethnocentric attitudes are on the rise," describing them as "a time bomb." Europeans, he said, must face "the huge challenge that cultural diversity is inseparable from human dignity."

Directly addressing the immigration issue, Vera Duarte, former minister of education of Cape Verde, compared the saga of clandestine African boat people today to the black slave trade of the past. Declaring that North-South relations must be based on "justice, equality and respect for human rights," Duarte said: "The Center has a role in listening to the voices of the South, not just the Euro-centrists as in the past." Deborah Bergamini, chair of the Center's executive council, pointed out that despite immigration problems, Italy has set up the first network of Intercultural Cities, where issues like minority language and religious symbols are discussed.

Much of the debate was devoted to the unfinished business of women's rights. Nyamko Sabuni, Sweden's minister for integration and gender equality, said that despite recent progress, women were still second-class citizens and "discrimination and oppression remain deeply rooted." Two months earlier, the Council of Europe had approved a resolution against gender discrimination, but, she stressed, "To vote is not enough. We need the meaningful participation of women."

According to Bogaletch Gebre, founder of the Kembatta Women's Welfare Center in Ethiopia, women of her country and in much of Africa are victims of "gender apartheid" and accept violence. "We women live in peril, in the fields, in the bedroom, in school," she declared, making an emotional appeal to the North-South Center to initiate a movement to liberate women.

Former Moroccan Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi focused on the problem of urgent concern to many participants—the lagging development in the South and the deteriorating economies in most of Africa. Emphasizing that development problems in the South should be reexamined, Youssoufi argued that "what is needed is international good governance, international coordination and strategic planning." He asserted: "We need a radical rupture of the economic model, a civic mobilization."

Egyptian writer and psychiatrist Nawal al Saadawi also called for a new development model. Still a rebel at 79, Al Saadawi angrily denounced "the corrupt governments" that dominate her world. Emphasizing that past development conceptions have resulted in more poverty, more wars, unimpeded immigration, and more fundamentalists, she said: "We should use our creativity to develop a new political, economic and social model based on equality, justice and real democracy."

The keynote speaker, Iceland President Olafur Gaguar Grimsson, pointed out fundamental changes in North-South relations over the past two decades, noting that climate change was now "the most critical" aspect of interdependence. He emphasized that the future of Bangladesh and the Maldives depends on what is happening in the Arctic.

Asked to summarize the North South Center's main achievements, executive director Denis Huber declared succinctly: "The Center has placed intercultural dialogue as a top priority on the international political agenda; we don't have the option of not succeeding." 

Marvine Howe, former New York Times bureau chief and author of Morocco: The Islamist Awakening and Other Challenges (available from the AET Book Club) is researching a book on immigration and integration issues in Iberia.


Kuwaiti Parliamentarian Rola Dashti

Rola Dashti—one of Kuwait's first women parliamentarians—describes herself as "a social activist...something broader than feminist." She came to Lisbon in May to receive the 2009 North South Prize for her work in defense of women's rights in Kuwait and the Arab world.

I met Dashti on the eve of the awards ceremony at the stately Hotel Ritz. She was wearing her preferred attire, jeans and a T-shirt, her long dark hair unfettered by any veil. The first four women elected to the Kuwaiti Parliament a year ago were longtime friends, she recounted—two veiled, two uncovered, all graduates of American universities, who share the same goals. Radicals had tried to force her to wear the hijab, or headscarf, in parliament, but she had taken the matter to the Constitutional Court and won. The case was dismissed because the court found she was not in violation of the election law and, under Islamic practice, a woman has freedom of choice.

"Westerners must understand the difference between the hijab and the burqa; it's a fine line between freedom of choice and the notion of security," Dashti insisted when I asked her views on European moves to ban the burqa, or full-body veil, and headscarf. "A covered face does not mean a closed mind," she emphasized, while agreeing on the need to see a person's face for security reasons. Kuwait, she pointed out, bans women from driving in burqas. But she could not understand the hostility to the hijab, which she described as "a person's religious right—like a nun's habit." The European campaign against Islamic veils, she warned, "would only radicalize some Muslims and polarize the situation even more."

Dashti, 45, comes from a complex background. Her father is a Kuwaiti of Persian descent, married to four women and father of 23 children. Her mother is a member of a prominent Lebanese family from Sidon. After Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Dashti volunteered to work with Lebanese refugees for the International Red Cross. She lived in the United States for 10 years, graduating with a Ph.D. in population economics from Johns Hopkins University. Before embarking on her political career, she worked as a financial consultant and held senior positions at the National Bank of Kuwait and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research.—M.H.