From Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya, the Arab world is embroiled in conflict. It is imperative at such a time that Arab leaders make their voices heard in paving the road to peace. On September 20, former Yemeni minister H.E. Amatalalim Alsoswa addressed the Arab Center DC at its annual meeting held in Washington, DC to outline her vision for peaceful coexistence in the MENA region.

Alsoswa is the former Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, former Yemeni Ambassador to Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, Assistant Administrator of UNDP, and Director of its Regional Bureau for Arab States.

Addressing the admittedly ambitious theme of the conference, entitled The Arab World Beyond Conflict, Alsoswa laid out in her keynote speech an ambitious set of political aspirations aimed at achieving a peace that does not compromise sustainable, long-term economic development. She noted that the potential for such development lies in the Arab world’s role as a bridge between Africa, Asia, and Europe as well as in “vast unique and intangible” Arab cultural heritage, embodied in the region’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites and in the legacy of poetry and literature.

While Alsoswa lamented that the MENA region has been “victimized by foreign influences,” she also called for introspection.  The “suffering of the Arab world” is both from internal and external forces, she said.  She stressed the need for religious and educational reform to foster critical thinking in the Arab world. She spoke critically of many Arab governments’ “lack of respect for human rights [and] the rule of law.”

In her remarks, Alsoswa criticized the lack of freedom of speech in many Arab countries and spoke in support of the rights of dissidents. She noted that when reformists have emerged in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Yemen, “all [are] silenced,” a point especially poignant now in light of Saudi Arabia’s belated admission that Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed by Saudis inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Alsoswa underpinned her message with religious terms.  She asserted that the prevalence of fundamentalist strains of thought that assert their exclusivist superiority over opposing world-views means that the “central message of peace is denied.” She also criticized political leaders in the Arab world for their ineffectiveness in cooperating with each other and inability to overcome political differences.

Alsoswa echoed a point made by many observers — that “foreign military actions do not lead to political stability.” Meaningful reform must come from within the Arab cultures themselves. In particular, she suggested that parties involved in modern Arab conflicts pursue a course of bilateral reconciliation of the kind undertaken by West Germany and Japan after the Second World War.

Speaking specifically of Yemen, her own country that has been embroiled in a devastating war for more than four years, Alsoswa said that all parties ought to join forces with each other and with civil society.  She said, “only by hurling words, not bombs, at each other will conflicts be resolved.”

The conflict in Yemen has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. 22 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, 12 million are on the brink of starvation in the worst famine in 100 years, and thousands of non-combatant civilians have been killed and injured by relentless Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition airstrikes.

Although the Arab world “continues to suffer from a chronic failure to break the deadlock on differences,” she said it is not too late to “transform the rivalry of the Arab world,” and correct the “deep defects” of “systems that do not train people to think for themselves.” With the trend of “massive death and destruction and devastation in the Arab world” with “both global powers [having] armed parties to the teeth,” Alsoswa stated, “there should be initiatives to “bring warring parties together.”

As war begets war, her message is that ultimately the crisis in Yemen and other countries will only be brought to an end through dialogue.