Don’t compromise universality of democracy and rights

carlportrait1Aiding 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

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Anti-Islamist claims win as election completes Tunisia’s transition

tunisia mohsen-marzoukAnti-Islamist candidate Beji Caid Essebsi has claimed victory in Tunisia’s first free presidential election which reportedly completes the country’s transition to democracy. But bitter rival and incumbent Moncef Marzouki dismissed the declaration as unfounded and refused to concede defeat, AFP reports:

Tunisians took to the polls on Sunday for the leadership runoff vote, with many calling the ballot a landmark for democracy in the country where the Arab Spring was born. Official results are not due until Monday evening but shortly after polls closed Essebsi’s campaign manager [and former human rights activist] Mohsen Marzouk (above left) said early indicators signalled a victory for Essebsi, leader of the Nidaa Tounes party.

Accepting former regime officials — known as the “Remnants” by their critics — back into politics was one of the steps that initially helped restore calm and keep Tunisia’s often unsteady transition to democracy on track, Reuters reports:

Essebsi took 39 percent of votes in the first round ballot in November with Marzouki winning 33 percent. As front runner, Essebsi dismissed critics who said victory for him would mark a return of the old regime stalwarts. He argued that he was the technocrat Tunisia needed following three messy years of an Islamist-led coalition government.

TUNISIA UGTT“The presidential elections have awoken old wounds in Tunisian politics,” said Michael Ayari, Tunisia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

He points out that the polarization between Islamist and secular groups overlays a fracture between the impoverished south, long excluded from economic development, and the more prosperous coast. The coastal areas have traditionally supplied Tunisia’s ruling elites, exemplified by Mr Sebsi…..Mr Ayari says that whoever wins the presidential election will need to find ways to work alongside the new government to calm tensions and heal divisions.

“Each camp has legitimate grievances and genuinely felt fears about the other,” he told the FT. “Airing them out is a first step to finding a way to coexist peacefully and minimize tensions.”


If Mr. Essebsi’s claim is confirmed by election authorities, his win would culminate the meteoric rise of the anti-Islamist party he established with a message that rebranded him and other former regime figures as experienced statesman uniquely positioned to govern the nation, The Wall St Journal adds:

It would also give the party Nida Tunis control of both the legislature and the presidency, a prospect that some have seen as a setback for Tunisia’s largely successful but halting path to democracy and that risks re-establishing one-party rule.

Mr. Essebsi appeared to try to tamp down such fears in remarks to state television, thanking his rival, Moncef Marzouki. He said he was dedicating his “victory to the martyrs of Tunisia” and called for inclusive politics.

“The divide is not between secularists and Islam,” Marzouki told The New York Times. “The divide is between democrats and nondemocrats.”

Marzouki points to Essebsi’s role in the government that forced him into exile. “Beji Caid Essebsi has nothing to do with democracy,” he said. “He has always been part of the dictatorship.”

Essebsi has enjoyed support from left-leaning journalists, with a number of newspapers endorsing the secularist. But critics maintain that he is a symbol (if not an architect) of the country’s corrupt, authoritarian past, UPI adds:

Marzouki is concerned about losing the election, but he’s more concerned about the political escalation that could follow.

“It will be a confrontation between corrupt dictatorship and radical Islamists,” he said. “These will be the main key players, and we as democrats and human rights activists will be thrown away. And this will be a huge confrontation. This will be terrible for the whole Arab world.”

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Cuba ‘has given little, gained a lot’

cubaPayá_&_Cepero_II_Aniversario_SMALL_02The U.S. will continue to press for democracy in Cuba, President Barack Obama insists. But the daughter of a well-known Cuban dissident who died under mysterious circumstances two years ago believes that the Cuban people “are being ignored” in the new shift in U.S. policy which also ignores the abuses of Cuba’s ally Venezuela, Buzzfeed reports:

“The government of Obama is in some way rewarding the Cuban government for the release of the hostage,” said Rosa María Payá, the daughter of Oswaldo Payá. Payá was a Cuban activist who opposed the Castro regime and won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for his petition calling for free multiparty elections. “There is something paradoxical about this. The Obama administration has right now on [Obama’s] desk the deal passed in the Congress asking for sanctions against the Venezuelan government. And the Venezuelan government is very influenced by the Cuban government.”

Other observers suggest that if the embargo is to disappear, so should Cuba’s dictatorship.

Raul Castro, 83, has said he will step down in 2018. His ailing older brother is 88 and virtually absent from public life, The Washington Post reports:

Miguel Diaz-Canal, the 54-year-old vice president who would be in line to replace him, remains very much in the shadow of the Castros and their circle of aging army generals ….But if tensions with the United States ease, Cubans will increasingly look inward at the shortcomings of their anachronistic system and Soviet-style planned economy.

“I want to see who they blame now for the economic collapse and lack of freedoms that we have in Cuba,” dissident activist Yoani Sanchez wrote on Twitter.cubayoani

But other Cuban dissidents are more critical of a deal which threatens to bolster the regime.

“For a government that denies economic freedom and property rights it seems clear that the changes proposed will first benefit the state apparatus,” said Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the Cuban Patriotic Union dissident group in Santiago, the island’s second largest city. “Only in the medium or long term will we know the effect on the Cuban people.”

The deal was also a major propaganda boost for the ruling Communist Party.

“Getting the rest of the Cuban Five back has been a huge priority for Raúl Castro,” Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Slate:

cubayoanipicThere are two more looming factors guiding Raúl Castro’s thinking. One is that the 83-year-old leader plans to step down in 2018, meaning the country will not be governed by a Castro brother for the first time since 1959. ……

“I do think that they’re trying to lay the groundwork for a process of change in which they can keep their scalps and guide the country toward a more sustainable political system,” Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director and chairman of the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told Slate:

The other big factor at play here is the turmoil in Venezuela. The South American nation threw the tottering Cuban economy a lifeline during the regime of Hugo Chávez, providing the island with 100,000 barrels of oil per day. Today, in the aftermath of Chávez’s death and bruised by political turmoil and the plummeting price of oil, Venezuela’s economy is in chaos and the government is on the verge of defaulting on its debt.

cubazuela“You don’t need to be a capitalist to realize that Venezuela’s economy is in very dire straits,” said Sabatini, a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy. “It’s getting worse literally by the day. So they’re going to lose that benefactor.”

The deal is a triumph of ideology over interests, according to Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American President believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “A majority of democratic activists on the island, including many that I have met with, have been explicit that they want the U.S. to become open to Cuba only when there is reciprocal movement by the Castro government.  They understand that the Castros will not accede to change in any other way,” he added:

Today’s policy announcement is misguided and fails to understand the nature of the regime in Cuba that has exerted its authoritarian control over the Cuban people for 55 years. No one wishes that the reality in Cuba was more different than the Cuban people and Cuban-Americans that have fled the island in search of freedom. In November, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights & National Reconciliation (CCHR) documented 398 political arrests by the Castro regime. This brings the total number of political arrests during the first eleven months of this year to 8,410. This is a regime that imprisoned an American citizen for five years for distributing communications equipment on the island. 

“In the medium and long term, this is a challenge for the Cuban system, because it undermines the climate of hostility that has long been used to justify one-party state,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a former Cuban government analyst who now teaches at NYU.

No fundamental change has been made by Raul Castro in the effort to control expression of dissent in society in general. He is gaining quite a lot without yet making much change, a leading democracy advocate tells Deutsche Welle.

“Perhaps people in Cuba will get access to more information and freedom ,” says Mark P. Lagon, the incoming president of Freedom House. “But it is incumbent upon the United States to use a heightened diplomatic engagement with Cuba to press for basic freedoms there. This may give the Castro brothers a lifeline to continue in power and that would not be a good thing.”

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Supporting democracy should be US Asia strategy

asiaCFRdemocraticregression_lrgWhen the people of East Asia care enough to demand more accountability, transparency, and respect of the fundamental human rights as stated in the international agreements their very governments have signed, it is morally right for the United States and our allies to stand by their side, says Scott Bates, President of the Center for National Policy based in Washington, D.C.

When democracy builds and becomes the norm and expectation in Asia as opposed to the “Beijing Way” of authoritarian political control, it is strategically smart for America. Hard-earned experience has taught us that in places where respect for human rights and the rule of law within democratic structures takes root, peace and prosperity are soon to follow, he writes for The Diplomat:

There are clear examples of the Asian future that the United States should stand by and actively support. Japan embraced democracy wholeheartedly after the end of American occupation. South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan all emerged from decades of authoritarian rule to bloom into nations with open democratic systems where citizens have a voice. They have systems that respect and protect the human rights of their citizens as well as the rule of law.

In much of Asia however, ruling elites are looking to see which way the winds of change are blowing before agreeing to open the door to democracy.  Burma has begun a process of reform, but the road is very slow and a true transition to democracy is far from assured.  What message is sent to Burma’s leaders when they see how authorities were able to crush the democracy movement in Hong Kong? In May, Thailand experienced the second overthrow of its elected representatives by anti-democratic and violent means in less than a decade.  What lessons do the new rulers in Bangkok take away from the suppression of the protestors in Hong Kong?


Scott Bates has worked on democracy assistance missions in ten nations and taught International Human Rights Law at the University of Indiana-Indianapolis School of Law. He is President of the Center for National Policy based in Washington, D.C.


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Gautam Adhikari discovers a liberal space

adhikariThe former Times of India Executive Editor Gautam Adhikari has joined the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. As a Senior Fellow, he will work with other researchers and policy experts to provide expert insight into U.S.-India relations and CAP’s work with progressives around the world.

“Gautam has been a strong voice for progressive policies and values and a strong advocate of the U.S.-India relationship since the 1990s,” said CAP Vice President for National Security and International Policy Vikram Singh. “We could not be more pleased to have Gautam contributing to our India: 2020 program and our Global Progress initiative.”

Adhikari joins CAP’s India: 2020 project, an initiative focused on elevating the foreign policy debates in South Asia by looking at the short- and long-term U.S. policy priorities and analyzing the gap that exists between the current realities and hopes for the U.S.-India relationship. He is the founding editor of Mumbai’s Daily News & Analysis, or DNA, and has held several academic and public policy fellowships, including serving as a resident fellow and adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, a J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro fellow at George Washington University and senior resident fellow at the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Adhikari has published widely in the popular and academic press. His books include The Intolerant Indian: Why We Must Rediscover a Liberal Space; India: The First 50 Years; and Conflict and Civilisation.

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