Type to search

The Case for a Union

Winter 2010 Features

The Case for a Union

unionA majestic region-wide union may well transform the strategic calculus of the sceptics and the spoilers

Victor Hugo famously quipped: « [i]l existe une chose plus puissante que toutes les armées du monde, c’est une idée dont l’Heure est venue. » Here’s one such powerful idea: a multi-state union that stretches from the Fertile Crescent to the Silk Road, connecting the Indian Ocean to the Caucasus, and the Mediterranean to Central Asia – a grand political-economic-security union (precise name to be determined) that finally brings the peoples of this ‘region’ under the same banner.

A bold proposition? Perhaps, but to recognize its merits, one need look no further than the tormented history of the ‘region’: for the past two centuries alone, it has, alas, been the continuing theatre of political and economic turmoil, senseless divisions and ruinous wars. And yes, the challenges of bringing this proposition to fruition are by no means trivial. The volatility and historic divisions intrinsic to this age-old region, coupled with foreign strategic power plays, are sure to generate resistance and friction.

To reiterate, what this region requires is a bona fide, all-inclusive regional organization founded – indigenously – on the pillars of regional security, economic interdependence and a collective commitment to reconciliation, the rule of law and human rights.

The sceptic ought to consider the following: In Europe, just over half of century ago, the notion of unification was seen by most as the stuff of fantasy. Yet today’s EU proves that human agency and ingenuity have put paid to yesteryear’s conventional wisdom. Lest we forget, the 1940s saw more than 60 million people – including the victims of the Holocaust – perish on the European continent in devastation and savagery that first brought Europe to its knees, then – more importantly – to a turning point. An epiphany was had. The events of WW2 reawakened European consciousness. Something had to be done to reduce the possibility of further regional bloodletting, do away with centuries-old divisions within the continent, ensure that human rights were valued and aggregate quality of life enhanced. And indeed, against all odds, something concrete was done. The Council of Europe was created in 1949, and then the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1951, inaugurating the European Coal and Steel Community – a pragmatic first step toward regional cohesion.

The EU of 2010, for its part, enjoys relative peace from Warsaw to London, with well-heeled institutions of governance spread across the continent, from Brussels to Strasbourg. And although not bereft of problems, the EU is united and economically vibrant, finding strength in the collective. It has in place supranational structures devising common policy, harmonizing legislation and regulation, and fostering a culture of democracy and human rights across the continent’s hugely diverse nationalities. Europe has reinvented itself. And let there be no mistake: Europe’s achievements are by no means accidental. They issued from a tormented experience – a recognized need for transformation, followed by efficacious action to effect such transformation.

Others have taken note. In a globalized and still ever-competitive world, states, quite evidently, cannot exist in a vacuum. In the Americas, the Organization of American States (OAS) is just one example in a global trend toward regional alignment. North America has NAFTA, among other mechanisms, to preserve and promote the continent’s interests through trilateral integration. And then there is the Union of South American Nations – a more recent, still embryonic push toward supranationalism. As for the African continent, the awakening took the form of the African Union (AU), a regional confederation of 53 states.

But the grand region that interests us in these pages stands alone as the only territory without a meaningful, region-wide organizing framework – and this in spite of the paradoxical prospect that, united, the states in this region would arguably form one of the most potent and prosperous regional blocks in recent history. For the region is opulent in all things valued by the human race – from oil, gas and all forms of mineral and material goods, to some of the greatest philosophical heritages of mankind. The birthplace of most of the world’s major religions (and all of its monotheistic ones), it is also home to some of the earliest state formations, civilizations, cultures and great thinkers: to name but a few, Ibn Haiyan (the ‘father of chemistry’); Khwarazmi (the ‘father of algebra’); Avicenna (the ‘father of modern medicine’); and Al-Shaybani, credited with authoring the first treaties on international law. The region’s fertile lands and strategically important topography and waterways only add to the intrinsic ‘wealth’ of the region.

And while analysts or advisers foreign to the region are all too aware of its importance as a strategic ‘core’ or ‘centre of global power,’ the region itself continues to stand largely oblivious to its own potential as a unified force. Of course, this is the very state of mind that needs to be altered.

The sceptic continues: the concept is too theoretical – a ‘castle in Spain’ rooted in the fanciful mind of the idealist; for the region is too tribal, its conflicts and political realities too inscrutable. This much is clearly conceded. But these, as the EU (and perhaps also the OAS and AU stories) illustrates, are not insurmountable; that is, supranationalism in a historically divided region is indeed possible.

Is this region today any more fragmented than was Europe in the 1940s? The answer is no, even if one considers regional tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which we take up below). Are the peoples of the region less homogenous than the Europeans? No, they are in fact far more homogenous – if one appreciates the region’s shared history, as well as the linguistic, social, cultural and religious movements that have shaped its ‘psyche’ over the course of millennia. Do its people speak more languages among themselves than do the Europeans (or, conversely, have fewer languages in common)? Again, no. While there exists a rich variety of languages in the region, the numbers do not come close to exceeding the over 200 languages spoken in Europe (23 of which are official EU languages). Have wars in the region over recent centuries been more catastrophic than those in Europe since the 17th century? The answer is once again no. The Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars together caused more bloodshed – and more intra-European enmity – than anything that the region has seen for the same period. And yet the record shows that Europe was able to move forward for the sake of its collective interests; indeed, its survival.

The existing hurdles are in large part due to the lack of a collective regional vision, itself rooted largely in historical dynamics in which the tribal idiom – Afghan, Arab, Georgian, Kurd, Persian, Israeli, Turk, Christian, Jew, Shi’a or Sunni – prevails. Historical grudges against the ‘other’ make reconciliation remarkably difficult. These ‘conceptual’ divisions, coupled with more basic or classical strategic competition between the region’s states, have together conspired to keep the region fraught with conflict, alienated and weak.

In the meantime, many Central Asian countries have opted for membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). And Europe, for its part, is busily promoting a Mediterranean Union, a project that aims to bring eastern and southern Mediterranean countries – predominantly of ‘Eastern’ culture – into the European fold. Evidently, one can appreciate the gravitation toward Europe. After all, today’s Europe boasts freer societies, stronger economies and overall stability. But what of a union proper to these countries’ own region?

The history of old civilizations very much resembles the kinetics of a roller-coaster: there are revolving highs and lows. And we are, today, clearly not at a regional high point. Faced, therefore, with decay and depression, the region has two possible paths before it: the first is to surrender before further decline; the second is to change direction, dig deep into the past, and, revived by a rich heritage, look to effect decisive transformation.

From the Treaty of Kadesh (1258 BC) to the historically important Silk Road, to trade, cultural and technical exchange, and to the Turco-Persian agreements of the early 20th century, the notion that interstate cooperation can create stability and mutual benefit is certainly not foreign to the region. More recent examples of this recognition include, of course, the Regional Cooperation for Development (1964) – later to become the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) – which, initiated in the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty, advanced joint socioeconomic projects between Turkey, Pakistan and Iran; the League of Arab States (1945); and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG) (1981). Also noteworthy is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 1986, with the primary mandate of ensuring members’ security.

What’s more, there are promising signs that the need for increased cooperation and formal integration is slowly being recognized. The region’s troubled modern history –in particular after the two World Wars and the Cold War – has gradually given rise to a new way of thinking. This new thinking has a number of hallmarks: first, a common sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis major foreign powers, and an obvious desire for remedy; second, a recognition that states in the region cannot carry on ignoring powers and trends in their own backyard; and third, as a consequence, a growing inclination to take greater responsibility for the state of their own region. Apart from recent Turkish diplomatic efforts focussed on regional cooperation, in December 2008, for instance, the Iraqi government announced that it is engaged in talks for the creation of a regional economic and security union for the Middle East. That initiative is aimed at encouraging economic partnerships, water and electricity sharing, the construction of roads between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, confronting militant extremism and settling border disputes.

While the existing regional cooperation agreements and new efforts toward integration are constructive, they, without exception, fall well short of maximizing the potential of an all-inclusive union. Indeed, in their restricted memberships (and their constricted mandates), they betray the very ‘tribal’ limitations that have plagued the region to date. The ECO, for instance, is an exclusive club of 10 countries from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. Absent from ECO membership are regional neighbours like Armenia and Georgia, as well as the Arab states and Israel. Similarly, while the 2008 Iraqi initiative includes Turkey and most of the region’s Arab states, two significant regional players were conspicuously left out: Iran and Israel. The League of Arab States and the CCASG are no different: they are composed of regional groupings of Arab countries that, by definition, exclude Turkey, Israel, Iran and a number of surrounding states. As for the SCO, its limits are equally found in its ‘exclusivity.’ In short, this proliferation of exclusive ‘sub-regional’ clubs not only fails to bring comprehensive stability to the region, but may, over time, actually beget increase inter-club and interstate anxiety and competition.

An all-encompassing, indigenous, supranational union ought to be established – one that includes all Arab states, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other states from the Caucasus and Central Asia. In time, a successful union may be joined by other nations from the Asian continent. For instance, in this new setting, South and East Asian countries may view the Union in favourable terms – their security and geo-political interests oblige (after all, “the politics of a state are in its geography”).

The Union ought to have many of the bells and whistles of the EU, OAS and AU. It should aim at regional integration through a single market, facilitating the free movement of peoples, goods, services and capital. Its governance system should have legislative, executive and judicial bodies. The first two branches will be responsible for policies and their implementation in fields as varied as peace and security; social development and culture; civil society; the environment; academic and spiritual scholarship; as well as public and private finance. As for the judicial pillar, it will harmonize laws and settle disputes between member states, in addition to enforcing member states’ obligations to uphold basic standards of human rights.

What can be achieved through the Union?

Regional Security: The Union can implement a security pact, and create a regional security organization to enforce the pact for purposes of collective regional defence. The agreement must bind its signatories, requiring that they pledge to respect each other’s sovereign rights and borders, and refrain from threatening one another with the use of force (using Chapter VII of the UN Charter as a guide). The pact should equally require signatories to commit to resolve interstate disputes through mediatory mechanisms (to be) established by the Union. The arrangement must oblige signatories to march to the defence of another member state in the event that the latter’s territorial integrity is breached, and put in place a regional military arrangement that can dispatch peacekeeping and defence forces under the Union banner when the need arises.

In a region plagued by conflict, a comprehensive security pact is critical to triggering a new era of cooperation and trust. In this new environment, many of the explosive security concerns faced by the region today – from raw, internal rivalries to external concerns over the region’s aspirations for nuclear technology, to Israeli anxieties vis-à-vis its neighbours, and vice-versa – will become increasingly insignificant. Removing the security concerns and fears of major regional players will, in turn, gradually change mindsets and precipitate (foreign) policy shifts in favour of maintaining this newly acquired ‘secure’ environment. Bringing countries traditionally isolated in the region into the collective fold under a security umbrella will also decrease reliance on proxy armed forces as a means to protect perceived national interests. Collective security will also do away with the (real or assumed) practice of instrumentalizing ethnic and religious minority populations in neighbouring states to secure and support the ‘mainland’ and/or preserve its government. A union firmly bonded in collective security will steadily see the waning of sectarian conflicts – at least those incited for political gain. (Increased regional prosperity, which we take up below, will only buttress this dynamic.) In time, militant ideologies and terrorist groups will also be eradicated – or, at a bare minimum, their operations and support bases significantly curtailed.

Improved Israeli-Palestinian Relations: The Union will have a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promoting a resolution by changing the political and security setting within which this protracted and complex dispute operates. By providing remedies to major points of contention, the Union facilitates the realization of the two-state solution, should the parties view this as their preferred option. Israeli anxieties will be addressed: the Union will provide guarantees of full normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbours; its recognition as a sovereign state, as well as the said necessary security assurances. In particular, agreements can be reached on many of the key ‘final status’ issues – to wit, sufficiency and fair distribution of water, border security and the shared status of Jerusalem. Gains on these major items will build confidence between the parties, and eventually help them arrive at reasonable agreements on complex issues like Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The international community, if serious about solving this stubborn impasse – which has brought many region-based challenges to their shores – should see in the Union a unique opportunity for radically changing the strategic calculus in favour of resolution for the collective interests of the protagonists and other regional parties.

Regional Court of Human Rights: The Union can truly flourish if its future ‘founding fathers/mothers’ recognize that they can only achieve greatness in a collective of open, pluralistic societies, where emancipated individuals – men and women alike, of all ethnicities, religious beliefs and indeed non-beliefs – are free to pursue life’s projects and participate in all aspects of civic life. The architects-to-be of this Union must equally acknowledge that diversity and liberated minds are the ‘petroleum’ of progressive, thriving and healthy societies; that systems of governance that impose an exclusive conception of piety or ‘truth’ upon an entire society are not only a threat to minority rights, but ask that liberty – the oxygen of the soul – be subordinated to imposed ideology (surely an all-loving God discriminates not between ‘men’); that a yearning for justice and respect for human rights are deeply engrained in the genetic makeup of all human beings; and, finally, that democracy, rule of law and human rights are prerequisites for sustainable peace and prosperity in the modern age – and, indeed, key to moving the region forward.

Universally accepted, fundamental rights and guarantees similar to those listed in the international covenants (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Conventional on Civil and Political Rights, inter alia) must be entrenched in a regional convention – much as is the case in the inter-American, European and African systems – and safeguarded by its custodian: the region’s very first Court of Human Rights (CHR). To draft such a convention, a working group comprising representatives of the ministries of justice, eminent jurists and respected members of civil society – from each member state – should be assembled to review the cultural and religious legacies of the region, the various societal ills in need of rectification, domestic and foreign constitutions, as well as international legal instruments dealing with human rights protection – the latter for purposes of ensuring that the convention’s text is in keeping with internationally recognized human rights norms and standards.

Unlike the International Criminal Court, which attributes individual criminal responsibility for international crimes, the CHR will ensure that contracting states respect the rights and guarantees set out in the region’s human rights convention through binding judgements (similar to its European and American counterparts in Strasbourg and Costa Rica, respectively). Should a country fail to execute a judgement rendered against it, the Union’s Parliament (or legislative branch) could, where appropriate, impose sanctions by withdrawing privileges associated with Union membership.

Apart from acting as a guardian of the peoples’ rights, such a regional court will, over time, improve the constitutional and legal frameworks (and indeed legal cultures) of member states, helping them to adapt and reform their constitutions, where necessary, to bring them into line with the specific needs and aspirations of their citizens and the requirements of the region’s human rights convention.

Economic, Social and Cultural Benefits: Revived and empowered by a new sense of independence, the region will be able to liberate itself from a historically induced, fatalistic mindset, and turn the page on its recent painful past. From this new position of strength, the region can engage with the outside world, advancing its interests with greater effect.

Freed from real or imagined fear of external interference, member states will, in time, open up to one another and the outside world – all the while looking within for areas in need of improvement. In the security and relative comfort of the Union, binding legal and policy instruments can be negotiated and implemented on a full range of socioeconomic issues that can only propel the region forward. These include agreements dealing with: combating poverty; water accessibility and distribution; corruption; literacy and education; boosting the economy and creating employment opportunities; cross-cultural exchange programmes; free press regulations; free elections; independence of the judiciary and legal reform; drug trafficking; disease eradication; science and technology; and, equally importantly, future environmentally sustainable technological solutions for the region’s energy needs (the region’s vast gas and oil coffers, although immense, are, after all, not infinite).

Furthermore, joint investments in technology, cultivation of skilled labour and broadened expertise will enable the region to increase its output of industrial goods, and decrease its reliance on oil, gas, raw materials and agricultural commodities for export. The new Union’s geopolitical strategy will, over time, be defined by the interests of the collective – largely eliminating zero-sum competition in the region. This will translate into a situation in which infrastructure – pipelines and other cross-border projects – will be envisioned, designed and delivered with the region and its needs in mind, in the early idiom of the Iran-Pakistan-India Friendship Pipeline, but even more comprehensively and in line with the strategic preferences of all member states. A large internal market, open borders and free flows of people and capital for tourism, trade and finance will not only issue in major economic gains, but will also promote tolerance and strengthen ties between the peoples and cultures of the region.

An old Persian proverb states: “One hand generates no noise.” It is a metaphor that holds that little can be accomplished alone, while together the world is the limit. The proposed Union is a signal innovation, offering great hope and promise for enduring peace, progress and prosperity in the region. History awaits the realization of this yearning. In the words of James Orbinski: “Every major advance in […] political thinking came about because someone dared the (seemingly) impossible.” It is past time for the region to toil for the creation of this Union.


Hirad Abtahi is the first legal adviser of the Presidency of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Previously, he served the Chambers of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Milosević trial.

Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, co-founder and Managing Editor of Global Brief, is a legal adviser at the ICC. He was the Court’s first delegate to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

*The authors’ names are listed alphabetically. The views expressed in this article have been provided in the authors’ personal capacity, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICC, ECHR or the UN.

(Illustration: Adam Niklewicz)

You Might Also Enjoy This in GB

Next Up