Sunday, August 27, 2006

Democracy and Human Rights

When Bush or his followers are asked to name a success in their Middle Eastern policy, they are most likely to point to the elections in Iraq as proof that a democracy (admittedly troubled) has been established. What this proves, more than anything else, is the danger of making a fetish of elections and assuming that once a country holds an election, "democracy" has been established. Bush proclaims Iraq as democratic because it has an elective government. Iraq'a elective government is allied with death squads that kill men of military age for being named Omar or Bakr because those were the names of Sunni Caliphs. Given the choice between an elective government that kills men for being named Omar or Bakr and a non-elective government executes only for actual crimes, I trust most people would decide there are more important things than elections.

This electoral fetish did not begin with George W. Bush. It has been Republican policy since Ronald Reagan's presidency. Ronald Reagan abandoned Jimmy Carter's policy of giving at least lip service to human rights and instead backed the most savage violations of human rights by Central American governments so long as they were fighting Cuban-aligned rebels. Yet he also insisted that the Central American governments hold elections so he could claim that they were "democratic," even as their armies ran murderously amuck. This is not the place to analyze whether this policy should be considered vindicated, or to determine what went wrong with Carter's human rights policy. But I believe it is time to revisit Carter's system of classifying human rights because I believe that this approach, though unfamiliar to most Americans, sets a far more reasonable set of priorities than a policy that makes elections the be-all and end-all.

Jimmy Carter's human rights policy classified human rights into three categories and set a clear hierarchy of their importance. The first and most important category were the rights of "personal integrity" such as protection from torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading punishment, arbitrary arrest, invasion of the home, and punishment without due process. Second and intermediary were economic and social right such as access to education, medical care, clean water and sanitation. The third category, given the lowest priority, were "civil and political" rights such as freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, elections and the like. This approach is unfamiliar to our way of thinking. We tend to think (proudly) in terms of our Bill of Rights between rights that makes no distinction personal integrity and freedom of (political) expression, and makes no mention of a right to services at all.

But the distinction between rights of personal integrity and rights of political expression is a valid one. Consider the following hypothetical. There are two countries, which we will call Country A and Country B. Neither of them allows free elections, opposition political parties, criticism in the press, or anti-government demonstrations. In Country A demonstrations are broken up by government backed thugs who scatter the demonstrators and beat the ones nearest the thugs. In Country B such demonstrations turn into massacres. In Country A people who publish critisms of the government or try to organize an opposition receive rigged trials and sentances of three to six months imprisonment. In Country B such people turn up as tortured and mutilated corpses on the roadside. In which country does a democratic reform movement have a better chance of success?

And whether one wishes to call them rights or services, access to education, health care, clean water, sanitation and the like matter to a country's democratic prospects. The Bush administration has made amply clear that it considers democratic elections valid only if we like the results. The election of certain parties, it fears, amounts to "one man, one vote, one time." These fears are at least sometimes valid. Well, who tends to win elections? The answer is usually, whoever delivers services best. It becomes critical, then, to a country's democratic prospects for either government or pro-democratic private actor to deliver needed services, or some very dangerous people may beat them to it and win elections as a result.

The most obvious flaw in Carter's original concept of human rights is that it was hopelessly naive about how vicious some governments can be. Violations of "personal integrity" are not limited to torture, "cruel, inhumane and degrading" punishment, arbitrary arrest, intrusions on the home, and denial of due process. Over time, the State Department added extra-judicial killings and "disappearances" to the list. But even that is not adequate. The whole formula failes to account for massacres, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, uprooting whole communities, etc. The Reagan adminstration tended to excuse such things in Central America on the grounds that they were happening in the context of a civil war. But that just goes to show that if we favor democracy and/or human rights, avoiding civil wars needs to be our top priority.

So, what do I recommend? First, acknowledge that human rights are more important than elections and, indeed, that respect for human rights is a necessary precondition for successful democracy building and should preceed elections. Next, set some basic priorities for ranking the importance of human rights and governments' records. Governments that engage in massacres, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, uprooting of entire communities, etc. are the very worst human rights violators. Violations on such a scale most typically take place in the context of civil war. So, let us give priority to avoiding or resolving civil wars. Negotiations, diplomatic pressure, assistance to the losing side and, in extreme cases, humanitarian intervention may all be in order.

As for government that engage in such egregious violations of human rights outside the context of a civil war (Saddam Hussein may fairly be called one), there is great controversy on whether a policy of isolation or engagement, pressure or neutrality is best. Much the same goes for government that engage in more ordinary violations of "personal integrity" rights such as occasional killings, torture, arbitrary arrest, denial of due process etc. Throughout the Cold War we tended to fit such governments into one of two categories. Either they were Communists, in which case we sought to isolate and undermine them, or else they were anti-Communist, in which case we actively supported and often aided their human rights violations in the name of fighting Communism. Carter's human rights policy was a clumsy and not very successful attempt to move away from such a policy. George W. Bush is expressing an aversion to adopting adopting such a policy in the War on Terror, but has not come up with any very good alternative. A good starting place would be to recognize that there is a difference between tolerating or dealing with governments that violate human rights and actively assisting them in their rights violations. Let us explore the wide range of intermediate options and see which ones do most to promote respect for rights of personal integrity. This will not happen until we recognize the importance or respect for such rights and make it our clear priority.

Our next priority should be a combination what is known as building civil society and attention to what Carter called economic and social rights. Building a civic society means creating independent institutions outside the control of government and is a necessary precondition for democracy. That is one reason why deomocracy is so hard to build in the wake of a tyrant on the scale of Saddam Hussein; such tyrants set out to destroy all civic institutions as threats to their power. Such institutions need to regrow before democracy can flourish. It has long been U.S. policy to give aid to such institutions in countries where they are weak, and that policy should continue. In building such institutions, we need to pay more attention to delivering education, health care, sanitation and other services. Having a good system of services in the first place is the best way to keep dangerous demogogues from building a following by delivering such services. We should be encouraging governments, as a matter of pure self-interest, to give priority to basic services for the poor. We should also encourage democratic reformers and other friendly actors to get into the service business before someone else does. And since any society's ability to deliver services necessarily depends on its wealth, we should also encourage policies that encourage both rapid economic growth and fairly equal distribution.

Some may criticize this approach for slighting "civil and political" rights such as freedom of the press, political parties, and free elections. More reasonably, I am laying the basis for such rights. Civil and political rights are best developed by local initiative. Democratic reformers can operate in a non-democratic society that shows reasonable respect for rights of personal integrety. They are most likely to gain a following if they address people's immediate and concrete needs (such as bread and butter issues) and note merely abstract rights and principles. Imposing democracy at gunpoint is, as we are seeing, unlikely to be a successful policy. Democracy is far more likely to take hold if it is the product of local initiative and local movement.

If society is non-democratic but peaceful, if it offers due process and refrains from abusive treatment and other violations of personal integrity, if it experiencing economic growth widely shared and delivering basic services, if it independent institutions outside of government control, then the final push to democracy is far more likely to be successful and lasting than if a tyranny is suddenly replaced with elections before society has any chance to recovery. And if there is no local movement for democracy, perhaps it is because most people perceive such a society as really not so bad after all.

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