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A Voice for Palestinian Rights

Spokeswoman Ashrawi turns energies to creating a watchdog group to monitor national authority

FOR the past two years, Hanan Ashrawi has been the Palestinian people's face and voice to the world. Now she is changing tack, planning to become her people's voice to the Palestinian autonomous government.

After a high-profile spell as spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks that began in Madrid in November 1991, Ms. Ashrawi is extending her leave of absence from Bir Zeit University, where she once taught English Literature, to launch the Palestinian Independent Commission of Human Rights. Ashrawi's new organization

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She sees her nascent brainchild as ``more of an ombudsman than a human rights organization'' - a wide-ranging, watchdog body to keep the future Palestinian national authority up to the democratic mark.

``It has not been founded by the authority, nor will it be subject to the authority, but it is recognized by the authority to have rights,'' Ashrawi explains. ``It will have teeth.''

Though Ashrawi says she is confident that the Palestinians' first steps toward self-government will go well, the mere fact that she is setting up the commission is an indicator of the kind of reservations that are becoming widespread among Palestinian intellectuals.

Since the Palestine Liberation Organization signed its historic peace accord with Israel at the White House in September, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has resorted more than usual to an authoritarian leadership style that has sown doubts about his democratic vocation.

Nonetheless, Ashrawi persuaded him to sign a decree establishing the committee, giving it the authority to review legislation passed by the Palestinian National Council and to monitor officials' activities, with access to their offices and records if need be.

While Ashrawi believes many countries, especially in the Middle East, could do with this sort of body, she thinks the Palestinians have a particular need for a public watchdog.

``We are in a period of adjustment and transformation,'' she says, ``and in the transformation from a national liberation movement to statehood we have a very active civil society, but no civil service, and no government institutions.''

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With the decree creating the commission emanating from Mr. Arafat's office, how independent will it really be able to be, if push comes to shove? Especially since Ashrawi herself acknowledges that in these earliest days of Palestinian self-determination a state-appointed watchdog, such as Israel's State Comptroller, would not be credible?

Partly, she answers, the commission's authority will derive from the Basic Law that the Palestinians intend to draft, based on the declaration of Palestinian independence five years ago, which will refer to the commission's status. Choosing the commissioners

Almost more important will be the character of the commissioners themselves. ``You need a legal basis, and you need strong people to do this,'' Ashrawi says, and she is talking with ``Palestinians from all over the world with legal experience, moral standing, intellectual authority, and integrity.'' Names such as the poet Mahmoud Darwish and historian Edward Said spring to mind, but Ashrawi is reluctant to say yet who she has engaged.

Hoping to open the commission's offices, with perhaps a dozen members, by mid-January, Ashrawi is seeking international funds as actively as she is canvassing for partners. Instantly recognizable to political decisionmakers the world over from her endless television appearances, she is well placed to raise money, and she has already secured $120,000 from the Swedish development agency, SIDA, with which to start work.

Ashrawi is also hoping for aid from the United States National Endowment for Democracy, the Canadian government, and other Scandinavian countries. ``There's tremendous interest and support for this,'' she says. ``In a sense, it is a precedent.''

But even in her enthusiasm, she wonders how interested Western countries really are in fostering democracy in the Palestinian government.

``What worries me,'' she says, ``is that, despite lip service to democracy, the outside world does not care that much: What they want is stability.''

In this, many local Palestinians worry, the outside world's priorities will match Arafat's when he brings his PLO bureaucracy from Tunis, where the organization is currently based, to the West Bank next year.

In the occupied territories, Palestinians have developed democratic habits that the exiled leadership has not shared, and Ashrawi is adamant that ``Tunis will have to be made to adopt the democratic traditions of inside'' the territories.

``We need a process of depoliticization,'' she argues. ``Now [that] we are establishing statehood in a way, we need a real free judiciary, and we need appointments on the basis of merit, not used as a system of political checks and balances'' among the PLO's various factions.

This is revolutionary talk, and Ashrawi says she is ``ready to put my money where my mouth is.

``I don't want to start by adopting a confrontational attitude'' toward the Palestinian authority that Arafat will head, she insists. ``Let's give a chance to the system to work. We are not out to make trouble, ... but I know we will have problems, and we have to be prepared for them. This is not a time to be intimidated.''

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