EU inconsistent, confused and ‘hazy’ about promoting democracy?

Two and a half years after the Arab Spring exposed European leaders’ cozy relations with the region’s autocrats and the European Union’s foreign policy chief promised that human rights would be a “silver thread” running through Europe’s external relations, analyst Petr Pribyla considers how Brussels is performing. Despite recent commitments to fund a new European Endowment for Democracy, the bloc’s commitment to promoting human rights and democracy remains ‘hazy’, conceptually confused and more rhetorical than substantive, he suggests.

The first step goes back to December 2011, when the European Commission adopted a new document called “Human Rights and Democracy at the Heart of EU External Action – Towards a More Effective Approach” aiming to boost the human rights policy and foster democratization efforts throughout the matrix of EU foreign policies. The next step followed with the appointment of former Greek foreign minister Stavros Lambrinidis as Special Representative for Human Rights and the most recent initiative was the publication of a “Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy” from June 2012…..

Within a plethora of the EU instruments and initiatives developed over the last years, the substance of democracy promotion remains blurred and unclear. ….. As Anne Wetzel and Jan Orbie stated in a Policy Brief for the Centre for European Policy Studies, “[the] EU’s haziness with respect to the goal of democracy promotion and the steps needed to reach this goal allows it to stretch the definition of democracy promotion too far; potentially too far. This may be beneficial to the EU’s own interests since it allows for a flexible interpretation of what will (not) be supported under the banner of democracy, but (…) it may actually be detrimental from a democracy promotion perspective.”

In other words, the EU should seriously reflect on a role of elections, economic development, civil society and rule of law within its democracy promotion activities and bring more clarity of what it aim support in the first place.

Throughout the Strategic Framework, no attention is given to clarifying the relationship between human rights and democracy. “Human rights” appears 149 times, “democracy” 31 times and “human rights and democracy” hand-in-hand only 16 times.

In sum, if the EU aims to have a strong voice in human rights-related initiatives and start stitching the patchwork of EU external policies with the “silver thread”, it still needs to: (1) clarity what it aims to support through democracy promotion initiatives; (2) clarify the relationship of human rights and democracy in external policies; and (3) demonstrate stronger commitment to human rights protection within European borders, including the treatment of asylum-seekers, refugees, migrants and Roma.

This is a slightly edited extract from a longer paper published by the Foreign Policy Association. RTWT 

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Vietnam’s ‘road to Market-Leninism’ a cul-de-sac?

Vietnam’s rapid growth has not undermined social cohesion, which helps explain the country’s 53rd place ranking on the Legatum Institute’s 2012 Prosperity Index — placing it higher than China, Thailand or Indonesia. But, while lauded as the poster child for economic liberalization, Vietnam’s ‘market Leninist’ attempt to blend capitalism with authoritarian governance is not a success, writes Jonathan Pincus, Dean of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City and resident academic advisor to the Harvard Kennedy School Vietnam Program.

Aid-donor reports on Vietnam typically open with an homage to doi moi, the ‘economic renovation’ policy announced in December 1986. This event is said to mark a deliberate shift in policy away from central planning and toward a mixed economy—what the Vietnamese term a ‘socialist market economy’.

Shortly thereafter, as the story goes, the government decollectivized agriculture, liberalized prices and foreign trade, and allowed greater space for private sector activity. Two decades of rapid economic growth followed, during which per capita income increased more than three-fold in terms of purchasing power and the official poverty rate fell from 60% of the population to 12%.

No one was surprised, then, when the most recent Vietnam Development Report published by the World Bank concluded, “Vietnam’s transition … is now a case study in development textbooks.” Or as a former World Bank representative in Hanoi inelegantly put it, Vietnam is the “poster child” for economic liberalization.

However, the panegyrics to doi moi miss an unintended consequence of the reforms that is anything but serendipitous. The shift from central planning to market allocation while retaining government control over productive assets within the state sector has led to the progressive commercialization of the state itself. Driven by a worldview in which private capital was identified with imperialism, the Communist Party was deeply committed to keeping what Lenin called the “commanding heights” under state ownership, even as markets replaced central planning as the primary means of allocation. This gave rise to powerful interests within state enterprises, banks, ministries and local authorities who benefited personally from the new arrangements and gave them strong incentives to prevent the growth of competing private centres of economic power.

Weak administrative capacity and decentralized political structures subsequently thwarted Hanoi’s attempts to impose discipline on the economic agencies of the state. And as ideology faded as a motivating factor, the desire of these elites to protect their privileged positions emerged as the main obstacle to change. To put it another way, the doi moi reforms achieved productivity gains that fit a classic vent-for-surplus model seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia. But much of the gains have been hijacked by government functionaries and their private-sector allies, who stand in the way of the vigorous market competition needed to sustain rapid growth.

The main determinants of economic success (or failure) will be political in nature. The most effective means of disciplining SOEs and their supporters in government would to be to introduce more competition—even competition confined to the state sector. It would require the creation of independent regulatory agencies and courts of law that are shielded from the influence of large state firms and the Communist Party. And it would require greater transparency, including enforceable codes of corporate governance that mandated independent directors and the de-politicization of personnel decisions. Yet such reforms would challenge market Leninism and the concentration of economic power in the hands of the loyal political elite.

Jonathan Pincus served as senior country economist in Vietnam for the UN Development Program. This is a brief extract from one of a dozen specialist reports commissioned to complement the 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index. The studies range from essays placing contemporary challenges in historical context (Iran, China, Mongolia) to surveys of barriers to economic growth (Egypt, Japan, India) to controversial alternatives to conventional policy interpretations (Iceland, Colombia, Vietnam). Download the reports here.

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Human rights – the new ‘realist’ ideology?

“Human rights has become a new world ideology, even a kind of secular religion,” writes Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan, reviewing a “superb” history of the international human rights movement. Recent history and current events demonstrate that “continued pursuit of human rights is not idealism, it is realism,” he insists, noting that “the international human rights movement has often been a significant factor in changing the behavior of states.”

A marginal factor in international politics for the 30 years following the Second World War, Aryeh Neier’s new book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, describes how human rights emerged in the 1970s as a critical factor in facilitating the collapse of Communism and challenging right-wing military dictatorships:

Human rights has been mainstreamed into American foreign policy, with each president, to be sure, framing it in a different way (Carter as human rights, Reagan as democracy promotion, George W. Bush as a “Freedom Agenda,” and so on). Human rights became a pillar of European Union foreign policy with the adoption of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) in 1993. The family of U.N. institutions devoted to human rights has grown—the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was established as recently as 1993. The European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights were established in 1953 and 1979 respectively, but both experienced dramatic increases in their dockets starting in the late 1990s. The African Court of Human and People’s Rights was established in 2004. “Humanitarian intervention”—justified if not necessarily motivated by human rights priorities—has become an increasingly common feature of international politics.

Like many human rights activists, Neier was wary of bi-partisan efforts to go beyond protecting human rights to advancing democracy, initiatives that led to the formation of the National Endowment for Democracy.  But the former executive director of Human Rights Watch concedes in his book that the NED’s institutes have “played a significant role in efforts to promote electoral democracy worldwide during the past three decades.”

“What emerges above all from Neier’s account, however, is the importance of politics,” Nathan notes in The New Republic:

Human rights were created under American dominance after World War II in order to consolidate and to extend American influence. Until the mid-1970s their growth was blocked by a Cold War stalemate between the two camps. But Carter revived the American interest in human rights in part to rally the country behind the need to remain engaged in the world after the defeat in Vietnam. Reagan used his democracy initiative to push back against an assertive Soviet Union. Human rights and democracy became a seeming juggernaut with the U.S.-aided “third wave” of democratic transitions that started in Portugal in 1974 and spread through southern Europe, Latin America, Asia, the socialist world, and Africa, bringing the number of democracies from thirty-nine in 1974 to 121 in 2006. Europe also played a role: the EU used human rights as part of a low-cost values diplomacy that sought to reduce turmoil in the zones of instability that abutted it to the south and east.

The new approach to promoting democracy had its “most profound” impact in Reagan’s second term, with breakthroughs in Chile, Haiti and the Philippines, writes Neier, who retires this year as president of the Open Society Foundations. In a marked departure from earlier covert efforts to support U.S. allies, he notes, NED “provides funds openly to organizations” promoting democracy and human rights, including support for efforts that “probably would not have qualified for the kind of aid” given by Cold War-driven covert agencies.

“Yet many of Neier’s own insights are reasons for concern,” writes Nathan:

Abroad, the challengers to human rights include powerful authoritarian governments such as those of China and Russia, which exert increasing influence on the way newly emerging norms are defined for such issues as the proper bounds of freedom of information on the Internet and the right of civil society organizations to receive financial support from abroad. Women’s human rights continue, as always, to be under attack in fundamentalist communities not only in the Muslim world but also in Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and other societies. Advances in communications technology empower not only citizens but also political police. New weapons such as drones raise new challenges to the laws of war. Even the human rights movement’s friends can hurt it, when they stretch the norms too far and reduce the sacrosanct quality of the original idea, which in the end is its most important asset.

As Neier observes, efforts to advance democracy today confront a different and arguably more complicated set of challenges and problems than during the Cold War, including a more adaptive and assertive form of developmental authoritarianism.

“China is willing to throw its weight around in ways that do damage to human rights,” he notes. “China will let a country like Angola or Sudan know that if they sell their oil to China, then China isn’t going to bother them with strictures about human rights or corruption or transparency.”

The Communist regime “makes its silence on those issues a competitive advantage when dealing with those governments.”

Beijing is not only promoting its own soft power, but actively trying to stifle freedom of expression abroad, says Neier.

“China is the first country that I am aware of that engages in active campaigns against those who try to promote human rights and tries to suggest that it will penalize governments or others who are critical of its human rights practices,” Neier says.

The democratic West appears to have lost the confidence, commitment or courage to promote human rights and democracy, Neier fears.

“One of the most serious problems in the human rights field today is that the cause does not have champions among governments or among intergovernmental bodies,” he says. “Europe is focused inwards, the US is not eager to provide leadership internationally on human rights, and intergovernmental bodies like the UN, the EU and the African Union are not willing to provide such leadership.”

As the US and Europe withdraw, Neier argues, “for the foreseeable future, it is the nongovernmental movement that has assumed and must assume leadership as the voice of human rights.”

Nathan concludes:

What is at stake remains what it was in 1948: in the words of the UDHR, “freedom, justice and peace in the world,” and even more importantly, the simple yet brilliant idea that these global goals must be founded on the micro-level “dignity and worth of the human person.” The more nations become interdependent, the more important norms are as a form of power. The continued pursuit of human rights is not idealism, it is realism.


Andrew J. Nathan is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Saudi Arabia – the new Hermit State?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is, as Christopher Hitchens once described North Korea, a place “where everything that is not absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden,” writes Michael J. Totten, the author of “The Road to Fatima Gate” and “Where the West Ends.”

Nevertheless, “For all their frustrations, most Saudis do not crave democracy,” writes Karen Elliott House in her new book, On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future. “What unites conservatives and modernizers, and young and old, is a hunger not for freedom but for justice; for genuine rule of law, not rule by royal whim.”

The roots of oppressive rule appear to be as much geographical as ideological.

“For millennia,” she writes, “Saudis struggled to survive in a vast desert under searing sun and shearing winds that quickly devour a man’s energy, as he searches for a wadi of shade trees and water, which are few and far between, living on only a few dates and camel’s milk. These conditions bred a people suspicious of each other and especially of strangers, a culture largely devoid of art or enjoyment of beauty.”

Religious edicts are crushingly enforced by state, mosque and society. Movie theaters are banned, as are concerts and just about everything else related to entertainment. Women, even foreign women, must cover themselves in public. Unrelated women and men aren’t allowed to mix anywhere. Even Starbucks coffee shops­ are segregated by gender.

Men have it rough, but women have it much rougher. According to Wahhabi Islam, men must obey Allah and women must obey men. “Fortunately for men,” House writes, “Allah is distant, but unfortunately for women, men are ­omnipresent.”

But, Totten notes in his New York Times review, democracy and rule of law are not mutually exclusive, and the former may even be a precondition of the latter.

Justice and the rule of law aren’t at all likely to develop in a system that is not democratic. If House is right, then whatever happens, a new or post-Saudi Arabia may end up like post-Soviet Russia, at least in one way. A spring-like revolution for freedom, where human rights, justice, and the rule of law replace toppled labyrinth walls, will be a dream deferred to generations unborn.


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International Human Trafficking and Forced Labor

The scourge of human trafficking and forced labor impacts every country in the world. The exploitation of women, men and children destroys basic human dignity and is one of the most challenging human rights problems due to its global reach. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates more than 21 million people were victims of forced labor this year, significantly higher than the 12.3 million victims reported in 2005.

Despite the staggering numbers of victims, anti-trafficking advocates are developing innovative strategies to address this modern slavery at both the international and local levels, through an increasing focus on recruitment agencies and business transparency as well as the monitoring of supply chains.

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on international human trafficking and forced labor. In addition to assessing this major human rights challenge and considering potential solutions from a global perspective, this hearing will examine trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labor in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012. 2:00 PM– 4:00 PM. Rayburn 2237, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

The following witnesses will testify:

Panel I

Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, Ambassador-at-Large, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Panel II

Mr. Siddharth Kara, Author and Fellow, Carr Center Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at Harvard University.

Dr. Mohamed Mattar, Executive Director, The Protection Project.

Ms. Neha Misra, Senior Specialist on Migration and Human Trafficking, Solidarity Center.

Ms. Mary C. Ellison, Director of Policy, Polaris Project.

If you have any questions, please contact the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at 202-225-3599 or

The Solidarity Center is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy. The NED supports the center’s work to combat human trafficking.

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