They are commissioned by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and compiled by experts from Arab states, giving special legitimacy in a period of heightened sensitivity over outside calls for democratization.
The forthcoming report, to address political freedoms, has been delayed amid reports of U.S. objections to sections critical of the invasion of Iraq and the Israeli occupation.
The agency says there has been no interference. UNDP Director Mark Malloch Brown confirmed on 10 March that the new report will be released in the region in early April.
Details are not yet known, but a UN official who supervised the report indicated it will continue the critique of Arab regimes. The official, Nada al-Nashif, is chief of regional programs for Arab states at the UNDP.
"As far as political participation, civil liberties, political rights, [and] the independence of the media, the Arab region, we found, had the lowest average score for voice and accountability in the world," al-Nashif said. "There are still debilitating constraints against civil society actors, and decision-making continues to be an exclusive process very much in the domain of governments."
Al-Nashif stressed that conflict and various sanctions regimes against Arab states have been a major constraint on development and democratization in the region.
But she outlined crucial areas of democratic reforms as key for the region: "We have focused on the elements of a governance agenda which implies for this region emphasis on representative parliaments with more women, independent judiciaries, transparent regulatory systems, public-sector reform and an empowered, accountable and socially responsive civil society."
Her comments came during a conference on democracy co-sponsored by the UNDP and a caucus of democratic states emerging at the UN.
The UN Charter does not explicitly favor democracy over other forms of government.
But Malloch Brown, who is also a chief aide to the UN secretary-general, noted that agencies like the UNDP increasingly focus on helping states in areas of democratization. "What we are looking at is a strengthened framework of international law where there are conventions, not on democracy but on human rights, on the rule of law and on many other of the components that make up democracy which many countries are signatories to," Brown said. "And so we are looking at how the compliance with those international agreements can be strengthened and made more robust."
Another speaker at the UN seminar was Abdulkarim al-Eryani, a former prime minister of Yemen. He said he is heartened by what he calls the "democratic practices and tendencies prevailing in the region." They include the January elections in Palestine and Iraq and growing calls for change in Egypt and Lebanon.
But al-Eryani said democracy in much of the Arab world is more of an event than a process. In the typical scenario, he said, citizens cast ballots but enjoy few other rights as stakeholders in their countries. "Today I cannot say that there is a mature democracy in the region," al-Eryani said. "There is an emerging democracy, there is a nascent democracy, and there is no democracy. That's what exists today in the region, but the trend is very hopeful."
He called for support within the Middle East for fledgling democracies to sustain and nurture political reforms and make them authentic.