Ashrawi to launch PLO watchdog

'IT IS not a counter-force,' says Hanan Ashrawi. 'It is an instrument of civil society to ensure democracy prevails and respect for freedoms and human rights.'

Mrs Ashrawi, formerly spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), has announced that she is to set up a human rights commission, headed by leading Palestinian intellectuals, to be based in Jerusalem.

Mrs Ashrawi, who has recently criticised a lack of PLO democracy, denies the commission is intended to act as a check on the personal authority of Yasser Arafat, the organisation's chairman. It was a decree from Mr Arafat himself that allowed for such a commission to be created, raising doubts that it can be truly independent.

Mrs Ashrawi, however, clearly intends that under her stewardship the body should be independent, and should aim to ensure that Mr Arafat is accountable to the Palestinian people. The commission would also act as a motor of democratic reform within the PLO, she believes. 'People are afraid of leaders coming from outside. They want a system of accountability. There are no guarantees the new system is going to be democratic.'

The figures she has proposed to join the commission's board have been strongly critical of Mr Arafat and elements of the peace accord. They include Edward Said, the foremost Palestinian intellectual; Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian 'national' poet; and Rajah Shehadeh, a leading human rights campaigner and lawyer. If these figures were brought together the commission would be a weighty voice in the new Palestinian debate.

Since the signing of the peace agreement in September, Mr Arafat has faced growing criticism for running a 'one-man show' and using political patronage. Until now, although local leaders such as Mrs Ashrawi have risen to international prominence, the unique nature of Palestinian 'inside-outside' politics has obliged the insiders, living under occupation, to dance to the tune of the outside leadership in Tunis.

As Mrs Ashrawi's initiative demonstrates, however, there are signs that this balance of power may be changing. The imminent arrival of the outside leadership to run the new self-rule authority has focused minds on what kind of regime the PLO will run. Palestinian intellectuals and professionals in the occupied territories, as well as outsiders close to the Tunis entourage, have been unsettled by Mr Arafat's hints that he may not hold elections. And, with security the main priority during the transition to self-rule, there are strong fears about how Mr Arafat might deploy the Palestinian police force.

'A lot of fears are being articulated about the elections and about the police and what will happen to respect for human rights. People are afraid of the unknown. This is a transitional phase and it is going to be difficult,' says Mrs Ashrawi.

Some local Palestinian intellectuals believe that when he arrives to run the new transitional authority Mr Arafat may be surprised by the strong support on the ground for real democracy. Palestinians in the occupied territories have been influenced by Israeli democracy. Acute consciousness of human rights has developed as a result of living under occupation.

'People are extremely politicised here and will not put up with anything that is not a democracy. Palestinians all over the world are aware of the importance of human rights,' says Mrs Ashrawi.

'Mr Arafat knows this. He has been told. He is politically astute and can read the mood of the people. But the leadership outside has had different experiences to the people inside. Now they have to live in a civil society, on their own land, among their own people. The direct proximity to their own people will bring a new need for direct accountability.'

She added: 'Of course the PLO needs internal reform. We have talked a lot with the chairman about putting the right person in the right place, and not using political patronage. It may be our fears are exaggerated. We must start building the institutions to make human rights a reality.'

Mrs Ashrawi blames Israel for making security the number one priority for the incoming Palestinian authority. This has focused too much attention on the strength of the Palestinian police force and its ability to curb the gunmen.

'Security does not come from a strong police force and military. It will come from real democratic participation and reconstruction of a healthy system of government, rather than by force.'