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1/21/04 - DEMOCRACY CONFERENCE IN YEMEN - 2004-01-21

Delegates from more than fifty nations and many international and regional organizations met in Yemen to discuss hopes for democracy in the Middle East. The conference was sponsored by Yemen in cooperation with Canada, Switzerland, the European Union, and the United Nations Development Program.

The conference comes after a U-N report that the Middle East continues to be blighted by authoritarian regimes, censorship, and the repression of women. The conference recognized these abuses. In their final declaration, the delegates said that "human rights [and] application of the rule of law" are "compatible with all faiths and cultures" and must "underpin any meaningful conception of democracy." Yemen's president Ali Abdulah Saleh said "democracy is the choice of the modern age for all the people of the world and the rescue ship for political regimes."

President George W. Bush says that people in the Middle East should not be "beyond the reach of liberty": "Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter? I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free."

In a message to the conference, U-N Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that "democracy belongs to the people. It cannot be imposed from the outside." The United States shares this view, as President Bush has made clear:

"Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us. Democratic nations may be constitutional monarchies, federal republics, or parliamentary systems. And working democracies always need time to develop -- as did our own."

As elsewhere in the world, governments in the Middle East can expand freedom and strengthen democratic institutions. "The good and capable people of the Middle East," said President Bush, "deserve to be active citizens."