Democracy promotion continues to be championed as the remedy to many of the world’s ills – from poverty to war and terrorism – vociferously and eloquently by the Bush administration, but also by an increasing number of the world’s governments and by multilateral institutions.
Leading human rights defenders from 21 countries met in Atlanta this week and concluded that the question in not whether the international community should place human rights and democracy promotion atop the policy agenda, but how to do it effectively. While free and fair elections may be a sign of hope to many, they are not enough. Strengthening of rule of law, democratic institutions, and a greater focus on implementing and upholding human rights in transitional societies is needed to better ensure democratic progress.
What is needed most is a renewed commitment to uphold international human rights standards through bilateral and multi-lateral channels, long after headline-grabbing elections have come and gone.
The protection of human rights is a primary measure of progress toward democracy. Years of experience have taught us that exactly at these critical moments, when accurate reporting about human rights performance is needed, governments tend to stifle critical voices. Local human rights defenders inside countries that are undergoing democratic transition or contending with authoritarianism have an essential role to play as evaluators and guarantors of democratic progress, and their voices must be protected.
Specifically, those gathered in Atlanta observed the following [SDP’s note: How many of these excuses are used by the PAP?]:
1. Rather than rejecting democracy outright, many authoritarian governments adopt the language of democracy and human rights for their own purposes. Imitation or “hollow” democracies, where dictators pay lip service to democratic ideals, have allowed autocratic governments to receive the support of the international community, including many democratic states. Authoritarian governments may also create state-sponsored “non-governmental organizations” to provide the international community with a false sense of the freedom with which civil society operates inside the country. External donors may inadvertently help to create and sustain imitation democratic institutions that consolidate authoritarianism, rather than diminish it.
2. Authoritarian governments also suggest that “premature” democracy would produce negative effects for the country and delay the transition to meaningful democracy. Western governments accept this self-serving reasoning all too readily and therefore hesitate to push for democratic reforms.
3. Other factors tend to encourage the international community to overlook undemocratic state practices, such as the exploitation of natural resources, including oil and gas, and strategic partnerships in the “war against terror.”
4. Inconsistent messages in democracy promotion result from these influences. Such double standards undermine the impact of these programs, while fueling cynicism and rising anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiments in authoritarian states.
5. Authoritarian governments propagate the idea of being a “fortress under siege surrounded by enemies” which enables them to subvert their internal critics from civil society and independent media and to dismiss external criticism of poor human rights conditions as aimed at undermining national interests and sovereignty.
6. Democratization is seriously undermined when democratic governments that seek to promote democracy and human rights abroad fail to respect human rights in their own practices, such as by condoning torture, secret detention, detention without trial, or other denials of due process.
7. Elections without attention to long-term, sustainable, institutional human rights safeguards, including civic education, an independent media, enjoyment of basic freedoms of expression and association and an independent judiciary, risk the election of populist leaders who do not respect human rights and who actively undermine democracy once in office.
8. In many countries the transition to democracy has been accompanied by economic hardship and a growing gap between the rich and the poor, leading to erosion of public support for democratization. However, poverty is not always caused by a lack of resources, but often linked to poor management of public resources and an absence of democratic control on public goods.
9. Provision of technical assistance to governments has been meaningless in countries where civil society is being suffocated and in contexts where governments lack the political will to implement human rights reform. The training of journalists in the absence of a free and independent media, or of judges where there is no independent judiciary is ineffective or even counterproductive. Training and other programs should be geared toward the creation of a free media and an independent judiciary as priorities.
10. Where human rights standards and principles are not enshrined in a constitution and safeguarded by an independent judiciary, nominally democratic structures – such as local and national elective bodies – are passing laws that infringe on the rights of women and minorities.
Human rights defenders participating in the Policy Forum made the following recommendations to democratic states and inter-governmental organizations seeking to promote democracy around the world:
1. Demonstrate consistency in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms in each region, applying the same standards across the region yet using different tools in different countries depending on the specific national context, human rights track record, and participation of respective governments in international organizations.
2. Democratic states should work together – unilateral calls for democracy are less effective. The United States and the European Union have to elaborate detailed, well conceived and clear policies aimed at reversing authoritarian developments and deterioration of human rights. Ideally, this should be a common policy implemented by the U.S., the E.U., and other leading democracies.
3. Do not abandon new democracies simply because an election has taken place; rather, continue supporting human rights defenders and work with them to develop independent human rights organizations and to build state institutions that legitimately protect human rights and promote democratic principles. International funding commitments to promote democracy should likewise prioritize long-term, sustainable support for true democratic institutions.
4. Focus support on promotion of media that is independent of political or commercial influence and provides information on public affairs, governance, and international standards. Access to information is universally cited as one of the most important aspects of a true democracy.
5. Ensure that indigenous and other disadvantaged or marginalized groups with limited access to democratic institutions and education are included in all democratic processes.
6. Democratic governments and inter-governmental organizations should demonstrate their strong solidarity with human rights defenders and effectively intervene on all levels in those cases when defenders come under threat from authoritarian regimes. They should increase the visibility of human rights defenders, and engage them in regular dialogue as effective monitors of democracy promotion programs.
7. Governments should stop using security concerns as pretexts to undermine democracy and human rights; such efforts are ultimately counterproductive and self-defeating.
8. Democratic governments should reaffirm their own commitments to human rights standards, including cooperation with international and regional mechanisms, and call for the same by democratizing states. The U.N. human rights protection system should be reinforced. The newly created Human Rights Council should renew and strengthen the mandates of the special procedures, including special rapporteurs and representatives.
9. Human rights organizations promote, defend and sustain democracy. Besides providing resources and aid directly to such organizations, the international community should exact prompt and effective pressure on governments that attempt to restrict NGO human rights activities – including through adoption of legislation – and maximize their opportunities to build strong roots and constituencies of support within their own countries.
10. Democratic countries should adopt targeted diplomatic and economic sanctions against individual public officials from authoritarian states that are responsible for gross human rights abuses and involved in corruption.