Global Democratic Development: What Should and Should Not Be Done

How can we best encourage the growth of genuinely democratic governments in countries where it is now absent?

By Ed Broadbent | 2008-04-01 12:00:00

How can we best encourage the growth of genuinely democratic governments in countries where it is now absent?

The imposition of martial law in Pakistan, the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overthrow of the government in Thailand, new levels of intolerance in Denmark and the Netherlands - and even more recently in Quebec, where antagonism toward newcomers led to the appointment of the "reasonable accommodation" commission - have important lessons for us. I believe we need to reconsider the assumptions about democracy and its development globally.

Our thinking should take us well beyond the recognition that the United States, in leading the invasion against a vicious dictator in Iraq in the name of creating a democracy, was acting in violation of international law and has failed utterly in its stated objective of establishing a democratic society. After four years there is something near anarchy in Iraq and an increase in terrorism around the world. We need to consider why this invasion went so badly wrong, and what if anything established democracies can or should do to facilitate the emergence of democracy in authoritarian societies.

We need to begin by reminding ourselves that democracy means much more than the periodic election of parliaments. It also entails a very specific kind of society. The right social conditions are a prerequisite for democratic political institutions. Roosevelt, Churchill and Atlee understood this. They realized that it was the social conditions of the 1930s in Germany that were a major contributor to the rise of Naziism. Following the war, they set out to create social conditions that would be conducive to the development of democracy.

Churchill's draft of the Atlantic Charter in 1941 and Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech of the same year envisaged a world in which peace, democracy and human rights could prevail. To the question how best can such a world be established, the answer of the wartime leaders was to build it on three new pillars: the United Nations (peace between nations), the Bretton Woods financial institutions (a stable and equitable global economy) and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (a world-wide system of rights that for the first time in history included important social provisions).

Tolerance The Key

Sixty years later, although a good deal of progress has been made, the experience of a democratic order still remains simply a future hope for a majority of the world's people. The war-time leaders, better than many of today's politicians, understood that democratic parliamentary institutions will neither come into being nor prevail in a country unless there is already a strong commitment to the values of tolerance. That is, the rule of law and basic human freedoms - in other words, a democratic civil society and at least the hope for social justice - must be present.

We need to recall today that the stability and ultimate success of democracy in the post-war North Atlantic countries came with the emergence of tolerant civil societies embedded with the traditional freedoms of assembly, speech, and association, but also with the new social rights of pensions, health care, housing, and education. It is not an accident that in the North Atlantic democracies and notably in Continental Europe, once strong undemocratic parties of both the left and the right virtually disappeared during this post-war period of social progress.

Throughout the 1990s, I served as founding President of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development-now known simply as Rights and Democracy. This institution was established by the federal government following a unanimous recommendation by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. As a result of studying the violent civil wars raging in Central America in the 1980s, Canadian MPs came to the realization that the priority should be developing peaceful, tolerant civil societies, as the foundation upon which Parliamentary institutions might be developed. As a result, the mandate of Rights and Democracy is derived from the International Bill of Human Rights, which is basically the broad set of rights supported by the war-time leaders. The words "democratic development" were added to the Centre's name by the Senate in acknowledgement that if the goal were to be democracy with its parliamentary institutions, then the necessary means would be civil societies dedicated to human rights. There have been civil societies without parliamentary democracy, but there has never been an effective and stable parliamentary or congressional democracy without a democratic civil society.

The first year of Rights and Democracy coincided with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. At that time, I had noted that the heads of almost all democratic governments proclaimed that both democracy and market economies would spread across the world during the next ten years.

Development Without Democracy

Unfortunately, unlike the leaders of World War II, the politicians of the 1990s put virtually exclusive emphasis on creating a global market. They assured us that once the core institutions of a market-based economy were in place, human rights would automatically follow. Of course they were wrong, and the evidence is clear that legally enforced markets can prevail amongst the most glaring denial of human rights. Witness both China and Russia. Both have flourishing market-based economies, but both also have widespread internal corruption, violence, controlled media, and lack of tolerance. Their governments see themselves as above the law.

So how can Canada and other democracies promote democratic civil societies and parliamentary institutions in a world where the majority still live in countries with authoritarian governments? First of all, democratic development should remain a leading objective of our foreign policy. Second, such development should, however, be undertaken by persuasion, aid, fair trade, and the development of globally enforceable international human rights law.

Third, we should attach a higher priority to assisting human rights and other non-governmental organizations. In 1970 there were only fifty-five international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at a conference organized by the United Nations. Now there are more than two thousand throughout the world. Canadian financial help for NGOs within a developing country should be funded through other international NGOs and other agencies working at arms length from governments. Rights and Democracy is exactly this kind of institution. It has a mandate for promoting a system of United-Nations based human rights, not a requirement to duplicate or attempt to impose Canadian political institutions abroad.

Fourth, outsiders can usefully help in the peaceful development of democracy within any state only when the government of that state allows the space to do so. This did happen in recent years in quite diverse nations such as South Korea, Thailand, Tanzania, Pakistan, Guatemala, and Mexico. And partly as a direct consequence, democratic development has taken place, with varying degrees of success, in these countries.

Priorities Come From Within

Fifth, agendas for the implementation of rights in a developing country must not be determined by outside governments or NGOs. Priorities must be set from within. In the 1990s Rights and Democracy helped advance the rights of women, indigenous peoples, workers and human rights organizations in Thailand, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Tanzania, Kenya, Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia. The specific rights priorities and agendas were set by the local NGOs themselves, not by us. In supporting women's rights, for example in Pakistan, we backed the priorities established by leading Pakistani women reformers, like the courageous Asma Jahangir.

Similarly, work over a number of years with Mexican NGOs and their governments on election-related rights helped produce elections that were free and fair and the legitimate transfer of power from one party to another. But we did not set the priorities: the Mexicans did.

In Tanzania, in the 1990s, we cooperated with its one-party government, NGOs, other new parties and the recently independent media to help shape a practical agenda that produced a peaceful transition to a multi-party state. This didn't happen overnight. Stable and innovative Tanzanian government leadership, strongly supported by the Canadian High Commission and domestic and international NGOs, made it happen.

Sixth, the modern history of European democracies should guide us in understanding why today's rapid globalization is a mixed blessing for democratic development. As the World Bank recently noted, amidst growing prosperity for many, there are also millions in abject poverty. Large numbers of people believe that today's leaders in the rich democracies do not care about global social justice, as I believe their counterparts did after World War II. They see our governments and elites as acting in collusion with their own elites, being more interested in their natural resources and property rights than in the civil and social rights of the vast majority. The fact that the President of Venezuela could be applauded by many in the United Nations General Assembly in September 2006 for calling President Bush the devil should be seen as symptomatic of a widespread sense of global injustice and not merely seen as opposition to the invasion of Iraq. The depth of inequality and the absence of social reform in so much of the world can and does produce romantic extremist religious and secular movements. It happened in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, and it can repeat itself again, only this time globally.

The Right To Organize

It's in this light that I add a seventh suggestion.All international trade agreements should contain an enforceable requirement that all member countries must allow the development of independent trade unions. Current agreements contain tough provisions enforcing the property rights of corporations. It's time we gave attention to the protection of the human rights of the men and women who work for those corporations.

My eighth suggestion is that we also insist that our corporations in their operations abroad meet the same health, safety, and human rights standards that they must comply with at home.

At present, we have in the Criminal Code a provision that says a Canadian who sexually abuses children abroad can be tried in Canadian courts. Similarly, by amending the Corporations Act and the Criminal Code, we can make Canadian corporate executives responsible for any violations of the health, safety and human rights of their employees overseas. If we can protect children from Canadian predators abroad, we can also protect their parents from rogue corporations.

Ninth, Mr Chrétien was right about Iraq. The imperial hubris of the present administration in Washington and that of Tony Blair in London may well have included a strongly felt goal of establishing democracy. But even when democracy is the goal, the use of military force to bring it about in Iraq was both morally wrong and a practical disaster for the world. As a consequence of this violation of international law, thousands of lives have been lost, Iraq's infrastructure has been ruined, much of the cultural heritage has been destroyed, terrorism has increased, and Iran's position in the region has been strengthened. Even if some kind of elected assembly survives in Iraq in the months ahead, Iraq's society will be characterized by distrust and deep religious and regional tensions.

Moreover, there can be little doubt that the war in Iraq, waged primarily by white Christians in the name of democracy and human rights, has besmirched the good name of these principles in the eyes of millions of Muslims and others throughout the world. As a consequence, many of the thousands of international NGOs which have worked honestly and courageously through their partners in developing countries to foster the emergence of autonomous culturally sensitive democracies are now themselves mistrusted.

A good example can be found in Afghanistan. Although the justification for an invasion was quite different there than in Iraq (the Taliban government's refusal to stop giving protection to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group which acknowledged responsibility for the attack on New York City) the unfolding circumstances in Afghanistan raise almost as many difficulties as do those in Iraq.

No Nation Has All The Answers

When I was a young socialist graduate student at the London School of Economics in the 1960s, it was my good fortune to enroll in a seminar conducted by the most important conservative of the modern age, Michael Oakeshott. Deeply and humanely immersed in the philosophy and history of European peoples, Oakeshott warned of the folly of attempting to impose our institutions and values on other people. Only they, he said, can truly understand themselves, their traditions and institutions and thereby find appropriate answers to their political problems.

Oakeshott stressed that no nation has all the answers. He said that nations can and do learn from another's mistakes and successes. But in the end each nation must make its own decisions and innovations in the context of its own traditions, institutions, and particular circumstances.

This emphasis on respect for the traditions and values of each particular society raises hard questions about where and how to draw the line between respect for cultural differences and a belief in certain universal human rights. Most of the world now believes young girls should have the same opportunities as young boys. Unfortunately, there remain many who do not share this belief in equality. There's no easy answer to this, though we can certainly adopt a basic rule of thumb in practice. First, it's clear that the International Bill of Human Rights must be the global standard.

But when it comes to the details of implementation in any given country, it's up to the human rights activists within that country to take the lead-like the women I mentioned earlier in Pakistan, the reforming politicians in Tanzania, and the civil society organizations in Mexico. They know best their own culture and circumstances.

In an age when international human rights and democratic standards are being sought by people all over the world, democrats have reason for hope. We should not be passive; we should promote the global development of democracy and rights in the ways I have suggested. But we must also show modesty and tolerance: tolerance to accept that there is more than one legitimate road to democracy, and modesty in understanding that our particular institutions may not be best for others. Modesty also in understanding that in the real world, the best plans can have disastrous consequences. We must never in the name of democracy, violate fundamental rights in order to achieve our goal.

Ed Broadbent was leader of the federal NDP from 1975 to 1989. Rights and Democracy's website is at <>.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2008, page 12. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Ed Broadbent here

Peace Magazine homepage