Friday, October 26, 2007

Are democracy and human rights universal concepts?

Human rights and democracy are distinct concepts. In the Western mind, they are intertwined. A convenient shorthand for many Americans is that “human rights” include the ones mentioned prominently in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and those enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The Declaration of Independence does not mention democracy and mentions elections only once. The writers of the declaration were much more concerned about the King’s affronts to their personal liberties and for ruling like a tyrant without concern for the effect of his rulings on those in the colonies. Likewise, the Constitution and Bill of Rights say very little about democracy or elections but quite a lot about the rights of individuals and states. It is not until the amendments that were passed in the 20th century to we have universal suffrage for all adults. The constitution only allows for men to vote for representatives to the House of Representatives. Senators were to be selected by the State Legislatures, which could themselves be constituted any way the states wanted. The President was to be selected by electors appointed to the task in the way that the state legislatures chose. The Constitution of the United States was written as if to exclude individuals from having a voice in government. On the other hand, the Bill of Rights was written to ensure that the individual was protected from the government.

As a practical matter, generations of Americans grew up confident in the protection of their rights, and confident in their ability to govern themselves. Though the framers of the constitution may have envisioned that the most educated and wise among us would somehow rise into positions of power, subsequent generations decided to write laws ensuring that the people themselves would vote for all legislative positions and many judicial positions. The American perception of human rights resulted in the people demanding more direct votes to express their democracy.

However, voting does not necessarily equate to democracy. The word democracy itself is from the Greek meaning “rule of the people.” The Athenian conception of democracy was that a select group, the “citizens,” free-born men, would rule the rest. This was essentially representative democracy in which all heads of families would represent everyone else in their households. Would this first version of democracy have met the UN standard? Well, no: Article 21, para (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Given that the Athenians would not have met the UN definition of democracy, was Athens ruled by the people? The Athenians themselves thought so, as did their fellow Greeks. But given that their “democracy” did not meet the standards of Article 21, does that mean Athens was not a democracy? Rather than drilling down to paragraph (3) of Article 21, we should instead look at paragraph (1): “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. This paragraph seems closer to describing what most people would recognize as democracy.”

When democracy is defined as “rule of the people,” it is much easier to see democracy as a universal concept. The Papua New Guinea tribesman of last week’s readings whose tribal head serves in the legislature is “ruling”, even if he has never actually voted for that chief with a secret ballot. Clans in Iraq lead by sheiks representing their clan-members who have agreed to the succession of power, either overtly or tacitly. In both cases, what protects the “rule of the people” is the fate that would await a tribal leader who did not represent the rule of the people he represents. A canton President in Switzerland might face recall by the voters or indictment in court for malfeasance but a tribal chieftain risks death at the hands of his constituents should he fail them.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, the “rule by the people” is protected by the right to change the government. “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” In other writings, he stated that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” So long as the people retain their rights and abilities to change their government, they are a democracy. Therefore, even though the American Colonists had immediately before been subjects of the British crown, when they declared independence, they immediately became a democracy.

Safeguarding human rights preserves a democracy and a democracy is needed to safeguard human rights. When a government must respect a people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness as the Declaration of Independence lists them, or life, liberty and security of person as the Universal Declaration puts it, then, those people have autonomy. Kathy Ward, in “Advancing Human Rights and Peace in a Complex World” puts it this way: “Democracy, a pillar of respect for the rights and value of each individual, remains key to obtaining lasting peace and a resolution to a number of scourges that face the world today, including terrorism, famine, corruption, and refugee flows.”

Even though the UN Universal Declaration recognizes democracy and human rights as the natural order of human relations, there are still agglomerations of countries that put out statements that contradict this position. 40 Asia governments states that they have something called "Asia's Different Standard," that recognizes "the principles of respect for national sovereignty...and noninterference in the internal affairs of States" and "discourages" "any attempt to use human rights as a conditionality for extending development assistance," and it gives special weight to collective (as opposed to individual) rights, such as the "right to development." (David Little, Human Rights East and West) Supposedly, Asian countries value to worth of the group more than the worth of the individuals.

In a similar vein, Arab countries are concerned that the Western and UN vision of human rights conflicts with Islam’s cultural and religious view of women. The UN’s Arab Human Development report of 2002, referenced in the USIP’s Special Report on Promotion Middle East Democracy, summed up the plight of women in the Islamic world: “As a result, the process of political liberalization has by-passed too many people. For example, in one country that has an elected national assembly, women are denied the right to hold office. In other countries, despite the legal equality of women and men in terms of political rights, women are greatly underrepresented in all political organizations. The proportion of women in Arab parliaments is low. ” (pg 106) The reason is that for cultural and religious reasons, women are not seen as the equal of men. The current Western concept of human rights for all including women means little to most on the Muslim side of the secular-Islamist divide.

Yet, the fact that there is little manifestation of recognized human rights in many countries in Asia and the Muslim world does not mean those rights are illusory. On the contrary, Asian and Muslim groups go to strained lengths to show how they agree with the concept of human rights, even if they do not put honor these rights in practice. Leszek Kolkowski quoted in the “Nature and Basis of Human Rights” sums the attitude in these non-Western cultures this way: “When we extend our generous acceptance of cultural diversity...and aver, e.g., that the human rights idea is a European concept, unfit for, and [not] understandable in, societies which share other traditions, is what we mean that Americans rather dislike being tortured and packed into concentration camps but Vietnamese, Iranians and Albanians do not mind or enjoy it?" Of course, representatives of governments in these non-Western Countries know the answer. Even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 2004 called for unfettered transfer of power and rights of both men and women to serve in parliament, things that they clearly do not believe. If, as Rochefoucauld states: "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue,” then so too is the Muslim conference statement that says Islamic countries must respect voting rights of their populations and the rights of women.

There is little real debate about the meaning of human rights and democracy. Though some cultures may not provide every person in that country a vote, countries can be “ruled by the people” if there is opportunity for the people to replace their local representative. With regard to human rights, even despots know that humans yearn for their rights to life liberty, happiness, and to rule themselves. This explains why despots must forcibly put down democracy demonstrations and mouth the language of human rights even though they have no intention of actually recognizing those rights.

I would argue that just because some people perpetrate despicable acts in a cultural context does not mean that those acts are right. Although this is a trite observation, the framers of the Declaration of Independence held slaves. Some cultures to this day still enslave members of other ethnic groups. Do these facts somehow argue against the idea that freedom from slavery is a basic human right? One can find many statements from religious and political leaders in the Islamic countries that condemn “honor” killing. Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan routinely prosecute “honor” killers. Just because criminals do things that the rest of the world considers violations of human rights does not mean these acts are alternatives to the Western vision of human rights, it just means those acts are crimes that must be prosecuted.

Regarding the universality of democracy, it depends on the definition of democracy. If you mean a Western style of government with universal adult suffrage and secret ballots, think you are right that some people who have never been exposed to those concepts would have a hard time imagining them. But if you define democracy as rule of the people, you would find that people relish the opportunity to rule themselves, in whatever form that rule takes. Do a thought experiment. If the Burmese were suddenly free of the ruling junta, would they yearn for its return? The answer is of course no. Chile and Argentina were rid of their juntas and established democracies. It is the natural order of things.

And I think you are exactly right about the despots wanting legitimacy by sitting on the UNHRC. These despots are applauded for their commitment to human rights. Meanwhile, sitting on the Council allows them to obfuscate their crimes and direct scrutiny away from themselves because these criminal despots know they are violating human rights.