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Promoting Democracy: What We Have Learned, Gareth Evans

Presentation by Gareth Evans, President of International Crisis Group, to American Enterprise Institute Symposium, How Much do we Really Know about Democracy Promotion?, (Panel with William Kristol, J Scott Carpenter and Judy Van Rest), Washington DC, 19 September 2006.

Sometimes looking out upon the world around us it doesn’t seem that policymakers have learned very much about anything, but I would suggest that there are four big things we have learned about democracy promotion from the experience of recent years. Let me spell them out.

1. Democracy is Best Conceptualised as a Human Rights Issue

Democracy should not be thought about as a security issue, nor as some separate overarching value in its own right. The UN Charter doesn’t mention democracy at all (which will no doubt reinforce some of the instincts of this audience about that great global institution…) but it does articulate clearly and well the three great civilisational aspirations – state and human security, economic and social development and human rights. And of these three, human rights is where democracy fits.

Of course there is some element of fit of democracy with security and development as well – there are linkages and interconnections in the sense that democratic states are less likely to go to war with themselves and each other, and good democratic governance is one of the keys to successful development. But there is a similar interconnectedness and inter-causality between all three of the aspirations.

Why do I suggest there is virtue, or utility, in thinking and talking about democracy as a subset of human rights, rather than of security or development or, as is more common, as some kind of separate value to which we should all aspire? For three reasons:

This comfortably accommodates the way in which we in the West think about democracy – as above all involving the right of individuals to have a voice in the choice, and the tenure, of those who govern them, and as requiring enjoyment of the basic rights of speech and association if it is to be effectively exercised.

This enables the promotion of democracy world-wide to be credibly portrayed as a genuinely universal value, rather than just a Western hang-up, and (while not pretending that ‘universal human rights’ is an easy sell in many parts of the world) that is helpful in terms of getting buy-in.

It sets certain constraints on the way in which democracy is promoted by its enthusiasts. Many of us have a sense by now – after decades of international effort on human rights – as to how far it is possible and appropriate to go in pressing even the most critical human rights issues like racial and sexual equality and judicial independence and due process. Bombing for human rights is something we don’t even think about as a credible option (except in those situations like genocide and other large-scale atrocity crimes where a human rights issue has morphed into a major human security one). But bombing for democracy, by contrast, has had its supporters - to demonstrably unhappy effect, and it’s time that this kind of thinking is banished once and for all.

2. In Promoting Democracy, Consistency is a Virtue

If there is one thing more damaging than espousing human rights standards about due process and all the rest which you don’t then embrace yourself (and many are still in denial about the impact of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib on US credibility), it is advocating the case for democracy only when you are sure the that democratic process will produce an outcome you like.

It has not been a pretty sight in this respect to watch the public disavowal of Hamas after it won the Palestinian election that the West had so enthusiastically supported. An International Crisis Group report shortly after that election argued strongly that the international community needed to focus on encouraging Hamas to govern responsibly, not to force it out of government, and we summarised the Hamas response as we found it as ‘let us govern or watch us fight’. Events since then have done nothing but reinforce the accuracy of that assessment.

Another less than edifying experience has been the constant wriggling of Western, and in particular U.S. policymakers, in the face of Pervez Musharaff’s continuing authoritarian rule in Pakistan, and in particular the contempt that continues to be expressed by so many of them – more veiled in public, but often quite open in private - toward the democratic parties as they struggle, with signs of growing popular and elite support, to recover ground. One does not have to be naive about the manifest failings of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and their colleagues in the past, to nonetheless feel strongly, as I for one do, that New York Governor Al Smith was absolutely right when he said in the 1920s that ‘The only cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy’.

Of course we have to face the prospect in the Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, that if full electoral democracy is introduced there is a prospect that Islamists will be elected – and a risk that cannot be ignored that the first such democratic election might be the last: Hitler was after all democratically elected. But it is absolutely critical to recognize to recognize that ‘Islamism’ or Islamic activism is not a single-stranded phenomenon, and that it is only a small minority of Islamists – which are in turn only a minority of Muslims - that would even be tempted to go down this absolutist path.

As Crisis Group has spelt out in detail in our 2005 report, Understanding Islamism, there are in Sunni Islamism alone three very clearly distinguishable groups - the missionary (with no political agenda at all), the political (seeking power but by constitutional means and invoking democratic norms), and the jihadi (embracing violence, and with an extremist agenda) - of which the last is much the smallest. For those who think there is a risk in any brand of Islamism gaining a toehold through the democratic process, and would act accordingly to exclude that possibility, Algeria stands as an awful warning – with cancelled elections followed by a further ten years of brutal conflict.

3. Democracy is About More than Elections

Holding elections – although good for political show business (and, in post-conflict peacebuilding contexts, much loved as an exit benchmark for governments anxious to meet their commitments and go home) - quite often has nothing much to do with democracy. Crisis Group was one of the first organisations to really make this point loudly and clearly, opposing as we did a rush to an early election in Bosnia in 1996 because we feared this would consolidate ethnic divisions which hadn’t had the chance to be counterbalanced by the development national secular political forces, or at least strong civil society institutions. Since then this has become a very commonly chanted mantra, best encapsulated in Richard Haas’s observation that ‘electocracy is not democracy’.

We know that the period of transition to democracy is in many ways one of the most dangerous and fragile of all: as Timothy Garton Ash put it recently (Guardian 3 August 2006), ‘ especially in countries divided along religious and ethnic lines, and where you rush to the party-political competition for power without first having a functioning state with well-defined borders, a near-monopoly of force, the rule of law, independent media and a strong civil society. That’s what happened in the former Yugoslavia. That’s what’s been happening, in different ways, in Palestine, in Lebanon and in Iraq. Full liberal democracy contributes to peace; partial, half-baked democratization can increase the danger of war.’ This all leads him to conclude, as I do, not that we should retreat from democratization, but that we should rethink our priorities in the way we pursue it. As the title of his piece puts it, in another version of Al Smith’s dictum, ‘A little democracy is a dangerous thing, so let’s have more of it.’

The most important of all things to prioritise is the rule of law. I can’t put this better than it has been by an experienced Australian election specialist, William Maley, drawing on his observations of East Timor, Angola, Namibia, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq: “Elections should be preceded by concerted steps to restore a functioning judiciary and a culture of legality, and a functioning police and a culture of law-enforcement… The rule of law is central to democratic civility, and without it there can be little in the way of meaningful democratic choice. Meaningful choice is free choice, and without a framework that protects citizens’ freedoms, ‘the “choices” people make should be seen as a form of theatre rather than as an exercise in popular decision-making” (Chicago Journal of International Law, Winter 2006).

4. Modesty is the Best Policy

There are a number of variations on this theme, which for the sake of brevity I’ll put as a series of not very modestly expressed commandments:

Don’t even think about trying to impose democracy by force – it’s counterproductive. Not only having backfired in Iraq, this is now inhibiting effectiveness of all the flow-on democracy promotion in rest of Arab world that was supposed to capitalize on the momentum from a successful transition in Iraq – a point trenchantly made, inter alia, by Francis Fukuyama and Adam Garfinkle (Wall Street Journal, 27 March 2006).

Don’t make democracy promotion a visible part of your national security strategy, particularly if regime change is an inherent part of that strategy: in particular, it is totally counterproductive for the credibility of those democrats around the region trying to work for change from within.

Don’t try to make democracy promotion a visible part of your anti-terrorism strategy. This certainly has some relevance in failed state situations, where creating effective governance is an important strategic aim in this context, but generally speaking other priorities are much higher, not least addressing the major political grievances which continue to fuel Islamist terrorism, Israel-Palestine and Iraq. Authoritarian regimes may also be part of some terrorists’ grievance lists, but changing them is usually a very long haul, with no guaranteed positive returns.

Don’t pin too many hopes on Democracy Caucuses and similar grand international strategies. While in principle an attractive idea, there are simply too many institutional and interest differences between democratic countries for a united front to be sustained on anything very much, and it is not at all clear that the tentative moves to create such mechanisms have so far placed any useful pressure on non-democracies, or generated any net positive returns.

Do by all means make government resources available for democracy promotion, in strengthening civil society and institutional underpinnings for democracy: the role played by NDI and IRI has been particularly important in this respect in Latin America and the Balkans. USAID has been usefully supporting civil society (human rights NGOs, organizations of women, labor unions, universities, and small businessmen and women) for many years. Rule of law issues have also featured prominently and usefully in USAID programs since the late 1980s, with support for law reform, the training of prosecutors and judges, open court hearings and effective legal defences, anti-corruption NGOs, inspectors-general in government for more transparency, ombudsmen and civic education.

Recognise that external governments are often not the best primary players in democracy promotion. It has to be said, painful as this may be, that in the present environment in most countries, any perceived association with the U.S. government is not helpful to the cause. One way to have an impact without such visible badging is working through collaboration with multilateral coordinating mechanisms in UN and elsewhere - the new UN Democracy Fund now getting off the ground will hopefully prove of real utility in this respect.

Recognise that most successful support for nascent democracy movements on the ground is by NGOs directing private funding to local groups. I have to say, though again this may not be especially palatable to this audience, that George Soros’s Open Society Institute remains one of the best examples around. It is crucial that such organizations not operate in a partisan manner, favouring particular candidates, or overtly supporting ‘regime change’: they are best to focus, as OSI does, on promoting honest and level playing fields, with emphasis in elections on transparency, voters rights and information dissemination rather than any particular outcome.

Recognise that ultimately all outsiders have serious limitations when it comes to advancing the democracy cause. Ultimately, as democracy activists usually acknowledge, the struggle has to be fought primarily from within: until that internal opposition reaches some kind of active critical mass, with its own momentum, external support is likely to be of only marginal impact. Zimbabwe currently may be a case in point. The piece by Akbar Ganji in the New York Times of 1 August 2006, on the utility of U.S. funding to support the Iranian democratic opposition, is also instructive in this respect: it’s title is simply ‘Money can't buy us democracy’. I am not normally in the business of advocating caution in pursuit of anything worth doing internationally. But this is an area in which many fingers have been burnt, and where modesty really is the best policy.