By Alex Johnson, Policy Advisor and Lale Mamaux, Communications Director
United States Representative Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Chairman of the United States Helsinki Commission and Special Representative on Mediterranean Affairs for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), recently concluded a visit to all OSCE Mediterranean Partner States, with the exception of Jordan. Hastings traveled to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Israel, where he met with parliamentarians and senior government officials to discuss greater OSCE engagement by the Mediterranean Partners, reinvigoration of the Barcelona Process through the new Union for the Mediterranean, the Middle East peace process, resolution of the disputed Western Sahara, enhanced economic cooperation throughout the Maghreb, and the Iraqi refugee humanitarian crisis. Chairman Hastings met with Jordanian officials in Egypt and expressed his intention to visit Jordan to complete his tour of the region in 2009. Hastings concluded his trip in Lisbon, Portugal where he briefed OSCE PA President João Soares on the outcome of his meetings and gave his recommendations on how to foster greater engagement by the Mediterranean Partners within the OSCE PA.
Mediterranean Partner Status in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly
In meetings with parliamentarians and government officials, Hastings expressed his vision for increasing opportunities for Mediterranean Partner States to engage in OSCE activities. Chairman Hastings shared his dissatisfaction with current limitations on participation which do not optimize the potential contributions from Mediterranean Partners. He insisted that participants from Mediterranean Partners have tremendous experience in the realm of security cooperation and other endeavors that would greatly benefit ongoing conflicts currently in deliberation throughout OSCE forums.
To address these concerns, Chairman Hastings plans to hold a meeting of the Mediterranean Partners in Washington in the coming year. This working meeting held under the auspices of the U.S. Helsinki Commission will establish a framework to direct the Parliamentary Assembly, as well as other institutions of the OSCE, on how to improve relations with the partner States. In particular, Chairman Hastings intends to bring together parliamentarians and experts of the Mediterranean Partners in an effort to collaborate not only on regional challenges, but to promulgate their contribution to the Helsinki Process in other spheres. In particular, Chairman Hastings committed to engaging parliamentarians from the Mediterranean Partners in the development of the agenda for the working meeting. Chairman Hastings noted, “I hope that this meeting will help foster greater engagement by the Mediterranean Partners and the Parliamentary Assembly. It is imperative that we move forward together and work to seek clarity and understanding on the vexing problems we face on the global stage. As I shared with President Soares, I remain committed to working with the Mediterranean Partners in order to increase dialogue and enhance our already strong cooperation.”
Union for the Mediterranean
Following the July 13-16, 2008 Paris Summit on the Barcelona Process of the European Union (EU), the establishment of the Union for the Mediterranean proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy has generated an opportunity for regional empowerment. This initiative has reinvigorated the Barcelona Process with the goals of increasing political mobilization at the highest level through summits; promoting shared and equal governance; and to prioritizing regional projects to increase solidarity. Given the parallel aims of these EU goals and OSCE initiatives, the Union for the Mediterranean was a recurring discussion topic throughout the trip.
In each meeting, Chairman Hastings engaged parliamentarians and government officials about the potential of the Union for the Mediterranean and how it might best interface with OSCE initiatives. Particularly discussed was the potential for cooperation on regional projects with regard to economic empowerment, countering environmental degradation, and water resource development. Specific priorities for projects highlighted by parliamentarians and government officials included depollution of the Mediterranean Sea, desalinization for potable water, and alternative energy development. Other interlocuters also observed that the Union for the Mediterranean should not divide Africa, but should cooperate with similar regional cooperation mechanisms of Africa in addition to the institutions of the European Union and OSCE. Chairman Hastings asserted in his meetings, “The dimensions of the OSCE can be a great compliment to the Union for the Mediterranean, if we are cognizant of the capacity of the Helsinki Process to further dialogue in the Mediterranean.”
Chairman Hastings discussed the ongoing dispute of the Western Sahara with officials of all governments throughout the Maghreb. Decades of tension between Algeria and Morocco over self-determination or territorial integrity for the Western Sahara have long been one of the greatest barriers to the unification of the Maghreb. Currently, the border between Algeria and Morocco remains one of the few closed land borders in the world due to ongoing disagreements aggravated by uncertainty in Western Sahara. Parliamentarians and other government officials shared their genuine interest in resolving the dispute to better facilitate North African economic integration. Government officials conveyed to Chairman Hastings their determination to not let other issues on the world stage distract engaged parties from negotiating a resolution to the status of Western Sahara. Chairman Hastings offered that the OSCE may be an optimal forum to resolve the dispute and in doing so would be a tremendous example for some of the unresolved conflicts throughout the OSCE region.
Middle East Peace Process and Conflict Resolution
In his meetings, Chairman Hastings raised the issue of the Middle East peace process and examined the prospects of a comprehensive solution becoming a reality.
The Annapolis Summit that President Bush convened in November 2007 helped to launch a new round of peace negotiations. The summit brought together over 50 countries to discuss international support for the peace process, institutional reform, and capacity building; a comprehensive peace to include Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon; and advancing normal relations and security between Israel and the Arab states. The Annapolis summit and a recently passed resolution by the United Nations Security Council, which charts a course of bilateral negotiations, has helped to reinvigorate the process. However, in light of the current barrage of attacks against Israel by Hamas – a known terrorist organization, peace negotiations have been placed on hold.
Chairman Hastings noted during his meetings that, “the peace process faces immense challenges and that until Hamas abides by a sustainable ceasefire agreement, Israel must do everything in its power to defend itself.” He further stated, “the United States must remain committed to bringing about a more stable and peaceful Middle East. If a comprehensive peace agreement can be realized, it will help to solve many of the difficult problems in the region.” Hastings made a commitment to remain engaged in the process and to work with the Obama Administration on finding a lasting peaceful solution.
In Egypt, Chairman Hastings met with a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regarding the Iraqi refugee crisis. It is estimated that more than 4.7 million Iraqis are displaced within their own country and in neighboring states such as Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon. This is the largest displacement of individuals in the Middle East since 1948. UNHCR estimates that approximately 20,000 Iraqi refugees reside in Egypt and that over 10,000 Iraqis have registered with them. (Note: Population figures by other organizations operating on the ground estimate that the number of Iraqis is greater than 20,000).
The Egyptian government has placed many restrictions on Iraqis and other refugees on access to employment, education and health care. For those Iraqis who arrived in Egypt with some resources, they have since depleted their savings and their socio-economic conditions continue to worsen daily. This deepening crisis threatens to further destabilize the entire region. In Congress, Chairman Hastings introduced the Iraqi Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement, and Security Act (H.R. 6496), comprehensive legislation that addresses this worsening situation. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has introduced this bill in the Senate. This legislation will be reintroduced when the 111th Congress commences.
Throughout his entire tour of the Mediterranean Partners, Chairman Hastings echoed, “the United States has a moral obligation to take the lead and provide a ‘humanitarian surge’ in responding to this crisis. The future of the Middle East depends on it.”
U.S.-Mediterranean Partner Bilateral Relations
Many countries throughout the Maghreb and Mediterranean Partner States have long been partners in security cooperation and trade with the United States. Morocco and other countries in the region were among the first to recognize the sovereignty of the United States of America and have long sought to prioritize bilateral relations. Thus, each destination of the tour had a keen interest in the outcome of the 2008 presidential election in the U.S. Given the timing of his visit, Chairman Hastings was the first Member of Congress to visit each of these States following the November 4, 2008 election.
Chairman Hastings received a number of recommendations to convey to the new Obama Administration. The paramount recommendation was prioritizing personal and high-level visits to the Mediterranean Partners early in the new presidency. Many leaders of the Mediterranean Partners resented the neglect that they had received from the Administration of President George W. Bush. The neglect was further punctuated by only a brief visit to the Maghreb by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the closing days of the current Administration. Many leaders felt that the history of cooperation with the United States would have led to a higher priority for collaboration on regional concerns. Leaders from each of the Mediterranean Partners expressed resounding optimism and higher expectations for cooperation with President-elect Obama.
Future of the OSCE Mediterranean Partners
Chairman Hastings concluded his tour of the Mediterranean Partners with great optimism, which he shared with OSCE PA President João Soares. Strong commitment to continued participation in the OSCE was evident throughout the tour. This strong commitment exceeded the structural limitations of observing partners for cooperation within the OSCE. Chairman Hastings conveyed his interest in further empowering the Mediterranean Partners through procedural adjustments within the OSCE PA. He specifically recommended identifying the necessary adjustments in a working meeting that he plans to host in Washington. President Soares agreed with Chairman Hastings’ recommendations and offered support for the proposed working meeting.
Beyond matters of engagement among the current partners, Chairman Hastings also recommended strong consideration in the expansion of the OSCE Mediterranean Partners for Cooperation for regional continuity. The current partner States are engaged in various bilateral relations in the region that could be significantly improved through another opportunity for regional cooperation. Following normalization of regional relations and other reforms, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, and a future Palestinian State were discussed as possible future candidates for participation as Mediterranean Partners of the OSCE. Meetings throughout the tour confirmed significant interest among the Mediterranean Partners for more active engagement with these prospective countries within the framework of the Helsinki Process.
Chairman Hastings also repeatedly illuminated the need to promote further dialogue and engagement with Mauritania. He recommended taking steps to further integrate Mauritania with the rest of the Maghreb to counter humanitarian and security concerns that are exacerbated by Mauritania’s omission from key regional dialogue. Chairman Hastings maintained that productive engagement with Mauritania will be fundamental to the security of the Mediterranean Partners and the broader international community.
Another consistent message that Chairman Hastings conveyed throughout all of his meetings was the need for the Mediterranean Partners to encourage robust international election observation efforts and greater commitment by parliamentarians and government officials to observe elections in other countries. Chairman Hastings recommended these efforts as one particular channel to enhance engagement within the OSCE. Chairman Hastings commented during his meetings, “The primacy of openness and transparency of elections on the OSCE agenda make international election observation exchanges a tremendous opportunity to improve international cooperation.”
At the conclusion of his tour Chairman Hastings remarked, “The Mediterranean Partners have faithfully engaged the Helsinki Process. A commitment from the OSCE to allow for greater contributions will be essential to shaping the future of this vital regional partnership.”