03/17/2014 07:02 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

Morocco Embraces Military Law Reforms

Delighting human-rights activists, Morocco has just adopted sweeping legal reforms that bar military tribunals from trying civilians.

Now, even civilians suspected for plotting the violent overthrow of the government,will face civilian trials in ordinary courts--not uniformed military judges in semi-secret facilities. There will be no secret tribunals for suspected terrorists. And, for the first time, soldiers who commit crimes unrelated to their military service--such as theft, rape or murder--will face justice in civilian courts, not military courts.

These are earthshaking reforms in North Africa, where several of Morocco's neighboring nations are governed by "emergency decrees" from secretive military juntas or weak democracies where political leaders fear to challenge military officers.

These major reforms are designed to harmonize Morocco's military justice laws with international norms and enshrine irreversible constitutional safeguards for fair trials in all courts. This places Morocco among the most developed democratic countries in this field. Indeed, it puts Morocco on par with the European Union in this area of law.

These reforms followed the adoption of new constitution, which specifically protected the rights of women and religious minorities including Jews. Since the new constitution explicitly endorsed universal values of human rights, it won an overwhelming majority of support from voters in a July 2012 referendum. The elections followed in November. Those elections surprised the liberal establishment in Rabat and Casablanca by bringing to power an Islamist coalition led by university professors and activists. Yet, the new government has worked with the bold reformist king, Mohammed VI, and new democratic reforms have kept coming. This military-justice reform is the latest in a line of new liberalizations in Morocco.

The latest reforms began with a series of very public debates about the role of the military and the role of civil society. The National Council for Human Rights developed recommendations from human-rights lawyers and activists. This led to parliamentary debates and, now, new landmark legislation. In short, these reforms emerged from a very open and democratic process. That, too, is another sign of Morocco's maturing democracy.

These reforms emerged without the public involvement of King Mohammed VI. Under the new constitution, the king is the commander-in-chief of the army and therefore the guarantor of its interests. He reminded the public that military courts were not entirely the rubber-stamp on military abuses that the human-rights campaigners imagine. During the "years of lead," (a Moroccan phrase for the long war in the Sahara with the radical Polisario Front), the king reminded the public that the military courts handed down death sentences to soldiers who committed outrageous crimes.

The king is also strongly committed to the abolishing the death penalty. A death sentence has not been imposed since 1993, long before the king's ascension. A bill is expected in parliament to formally end the death penalty in the coming months.

Morocco's reforms would be a good model for Algeria and, especially, Egypt. One of the key demands of the Arab Spring revolutionaries, especially in Egypt, was reining in the power of military courts. Yet even under Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, no reform plan was outlined, because the army did not want to hear it. The new Egyptian constitution leaves the power and jurisdiction of military courts intact, meaning that civilians can be tried without the rights of defense counsel or the right to see the evidence against them.

Throughout the region, no other nation is seriously considering any reforms to rein in the military. Morocco stands alone, in that regard. Still, it is an idea worth copying.

Since the constitution establishes broad principles and creates insitutions to embody those principles, it is now possible to make progress through the new democratic institutions. Even on issues in which the Moroccan public is divided--such as equal inheritance rights for women (the Koran seems to mandate a lesser share for women) or the right of women to control their pregnancies--are now openly debated. Morocco, thanks to its constitution, no longer needs an ever-elusive unanimity in order to act on social matters. A majority will suffice. That is real progress too.

Three years after the so-called Arab Spring, we see that the freedom and equality of individuals has not advanced in any country, except perhaps Tunisia. After all of the tumult and bloodshed, we see no real progress.

The Moroccan experience--a new democratic constitution that safeguards human rights and lets priorities be identified by public debate--is, without doubt, a stand-out success.

In August 2014, President Obama will host an African Summit in Washington D.C. He should champion Morocco as a model to be adopted by others, especially in regimes in which the military acts as law unto itself.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the Moroccan weekly news magazine L'Observateur; Chairman and CEO of MED Radio national broadcast network and chairman of the daily newspaper Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya. In the United States, he sits on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council of United States and the board of trustees of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.