Aiding human rights and democracy is not advanced by presenting the challenge as a dilemma over the substance and universality of such rights, says a leading advocate. Further complicating the issue is the contention that during the Cold War human-rights advocacy was used to advance the strategic objective of “weakening the adversary,” notes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. With these dilemmas in mind, we’re asked to consider the meaning of human rights in today’s world and how we can “reconcile different views on their content and promotion,” he told a recent conference in Prague.
Implicit in the way the way the questions are posed the questions is the view that human rights, understood as basic civic and political freedoms as opposed to social and economic needs, are not universal, and that we should be on guard against those who would use human rights to advance political agendas. Such advocates of human rights are allegedly guilty of what a Czech official has called “false universalism,” meaning that they wish to impose a narrow Western view of human rights on non-Western cultures and countries. The debate that is being posed today is thus between two points of view – one that proudly supports democratic universalism and the other that rejects it. The latter point of view is properly termed moral relativism.
Just last month at a conference in South Korea, when I told a group of Asian democracy practitioners about this debate that is now going on in the Czech Republic, they immediately saw the parallel with a similar debate that occurred in Asia in the 1990s when Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, taking the relativist position, said that “Asian values” were inconsistent with democracy, which he called a Western idea that had no indigenous Asian roots.
The Asian-values argument in defense of authoritarianism never caught on, partly because democracy has sunk deep roots in Asia in India, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries; and also because Asians rejected the notion that democracy is a Western idea at a time when the desire for democracy was becoming a genuinely global phenomenon. The worldwide spread of popular support for democracy has been documented in a profusion of public opinion surveys, known as “democracy barometers,” that have gathered data on attitudes toward democracy in every region of the world outside the West.
Given the popularity of democracy, it’s not surprising that autocrats today don’t reject democracy explicitly but rather redefine it by attaching to it an adjective suggesting that their form of democracy is culturally indigenous and not subservient to Western values or interests. Thus we have Bolivarian democracy in Venezuela, socialist democracy in China, revolutionary democracy in Ethiopia, Islamic democracy in Iran, and illiberal democracy in Hungary. We also used to have sovereign or managed democracy in Russia, but Putin now seems to prefer “traditional values,” as expressed in the pro-authoritarian and nationalist writings of his favorite philosopher Ivan Ilyin.
What all these modified, hyphenated versions of democracy have in common is contempt for real democratic values that presuppose respect for human rights. The communists used to call this “bourgeois democracy,” and they offered as an alternative what they said was a higher and more egalitarian form of political organization called “people’s democracy” or “proletarian democracy.” So none of this is new, and it should be very familiar to people in this country who lived through four decades of this Orwellian nightmare.
What is new and also troubling is that there now seem to be Czech advocates of a point of view that, while not favoring any of these hyphenated and perverted forms democracy, is neutral toward them because they feel that we shouldn’t presume to impose our Western values on non-Western cultures and political systems.
Let me be frank. I don’t think we have come together on the third anniversary of Havel’s death to bury him for a second time. I would rather affirm the universal values he stood for and discuss how we can work together to defend and strengthen them at a time when democracy and human rights are under attack from an ideologically assertive group of authoritarian countries.
I understand that the Czech Republic is not a large country. But as Jan Patocka once said, the Czech people have had a “Great History” and a powerful voice when they have creatively engaged in matters of universal significance. It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the Czech Republic reaffirm its commitment to democratic universalism and forego the cynical siren song of post-modern moral relativism.
This extract is taken from a longer speech. RTWT