Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

2nd July 2000

How can we fit into western mould of democracy?

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The United States and the European Union have a single foreign policy ideology they swear by: if a country doesn't fit the Western profile of a democratic government, it has no claims for either military or development aid.

Every single military regime perhaps rightly so has been blacklisted by the Western world. At the same time, every single Third World country that switched from military to a democratic regime is touted as a political showpiece flaws or no flaws.

But how many of these democratically elected governments have really taken the West for a ride?.

In Africa, military leaders who were ostracised by the West have come back to power as civilian leaders legitimising their hold on power by manipulating the electoral system.

Suddenly, they are acceptable to the Western world primarily because of one factor: they have "held free and fair elections". But the United Nations is pooh-poohing the idea that multi-party elections alone are a supreme test of a country's commitment to political democracy.

A new report released by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) says that a true democracy has to be inclusive protecting the rights of minorities, providing separation of powers and ensuring public accountability. "Elections alone aren't enough", says the 290-page report released last week.

If a country violates human rights or marginalises its minorities, it has less claims to be a true democracy.

"The scale and extent of discrimination differ, but the histories of India, Israel, Nigeria, Russia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Uganda, the UK and the US, to name a few, show that minorities suffer serious discrimination," says the UNDP report.

Despite half a century of elected governments, India has failed to provide universal primary education.

Canada, which has traditionally ranked number one in the UNDP's Human Development Index, treats its indigenous peoples rather shabbily.

So does Australia and the US.

In Canada in 1991, the life expectancy at birth of Inuit males was 58 years and that of registered Indian males 62 years, about 17 and 13 years less than that for all Canadian males.

Meanwhile, in a dramatic reversal, democracies are also being replaced by military regimes.

In Africa, there was an "outright coup" in the Ivory Coast. In Asia, Pakistan reverted to military rule.

In South America, democracy has been undermined by events in Ecuador and Peru. And in the South Pacific, the region has been unsettled by coups in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

At the World Forum on Democracy in Warsaw last week, Secretary- General Kofi Annan said that popular sovereignty is also being increasingly threatened by a new danger: "fig-leaf democracy".

Certainly, many young democracies are making quiet but persistent progress, with regular and legitimate elections and peaceful transfers of power, Annan said.

"But last year alone has witnessed a troubling number of cases where democratic rule has been subverted, or maintained in name only, while in reality authoritarian government has taken over," he complained.

The annual UNDP report, which this year focuses on "Human Rights and Human Development", admits that the democratic liberalisation sweeping the world is making transitions more civil.

Yet, despite undoubted benefits, the transition to democracy in many countries "remains imperilled, insecure, fragile."

Democracy is the only form of political regime compatible with respecting all five categories of rights - economic, political, social, civil and cultural.

But it is not enough to establish only electoral democracy, the study argues, because several policy interventions are required to realise a broad range of rights under democratic governments.

The four defining features of a democracy are generally based on human rights: holding free and fair elections; allowing a free and independent press; separating powers among branches of government; and encouraging an open civil society. These rights are mutually reinforcing, with progress in one typically linked with advances in others.

The study also points out that many democracies fail to protect or promote human rights. "Although the global transition to democratic regimes is undoubtedly progress, problems of human rights are not resolved simply because an electoral system has replaced an authoritarian regime," it adds.

The report also says that in extreme cases of illiberal majoritarian democracy, the human rights of several groups have worsened. In other cases, the world community has been too tolerant of human rights abuses under democracies.

Addressing the international forum in Warsaw, Annan also said that "democratic accountability requires more than an electoral mandate."

For elections to be genuinely free, and for people to feel genuinely represented in government, much more is needed: institutional checks and balances, an independent judiciary, viable political parties, a free press and freedom of each individual to express his or her ideas without fear of retribution.

According to UNDP rankings this year, some of the top Third World performers in its Human Development Index (indicating high life expectancy, adult literacy, per capita income and primary schooling) are countries such as Singapore, China, South Korea, Brunei and Kuwait.

But ironically, none of these are supreme examples of countries that fit the Western mould of democracy: practising freedom of expression and thought, a free press and tolerating an open civil society.

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