Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2004
Volume 15
Issue 3
Page Numbers 179-87
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Arab World

On March 12-14, Arab civil society activists convened, under the auspices of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, for a conference at Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The conference, entitled “Arab Reform Issues: Vision and Implementation,” issued the Alexandria Declaration, which is excerpted below:

Political reform refers to all direct and indirect measures for which governments, civil society and the private sector are responsible—measures that could help Arab societies and countries advance, without hesitation, towards building concrete and genuine democratic systems.

As representatives of Arab civil society, when we talk of democratic systems, we mean, without ambiguity, genuine democracy. This may differ in form and shape from one country to another due to cultural and historical variations; but the essence of democracy remains the same. Democracy refers to a system where freedom is a paramount value that ensures actual sovereignty of the people and government by the people through political pluralism, leading to transfer of power. Democracy is based on respect of all rights for all the people, including freedom of thought and expression, and the right to organize under the umbrella of effective political institutions, with an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a government that is subject to both constitutional and public accountability, and political parties of different intellectual and ideological orientations.

This genuine democracy requires guaranteed freedom of expression in all its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and audio-visual and electronic media. It calls for adopting free, regular, centralized and decentralized elections to guarantee transfer of power and the rule of the people. It also requires the highest possible level of decentralization that would allow greater self-expression by local communities, unleashing their creative potentials for cultural contributions to human development in all fields. This is closely linked to achieving the highest level of transparency in public life, to stamping out corruption within the framework of establishing good governance, and [to] support for human rights provided [End Page 179] according to international agreements. The rights of women, children, and minorities, the protection of the fundamental rights of those charged with criminal offences and the humane treatment of citizens are on top of the list. All this is in keeping with accepted practices in those societies that have preceded us on the road to democratic development. . . .

[T]he representatives of civil society, civil and nongovernmental organizations represented in this conference affirm the need for the abolition of extrajudicial and emergency laws and extraordinary courts in any form and under any name, currently in effect in many Arab countries, since these undermine the democratic nature of political systems. . . .

On March 22 in Beirut, the first Arab Civil Forum, meeting in advance of the Arab Summit, released its own initiative for political reform. It is excerpted below:

The Civil Forum expresses its grief that the reform proposals submitted to the Arab Summit do not provide any serious promise of reform and change. This is due to the lack of courage to admit the intensity of the crisis.

The apathy of the majority of the Arab states toward the [UN] Report on Human Development in the Arab world is a significant indicator of the lack of desire to reform or acknowledgment of the problem the Arab world is undergoing.

The justification of external initiatives to reform the Arab world might be ascribed to the systematic suppression of internal initiatives for reform for more than half a century. . . .

[Arab] governments should not belittle the Arab cultures and religions by invoking them as grounds to reject reform as if such cultures allow torture, collective and individual murder, forging of political will, corruption, extremism, terrorism and other cruelties; or as if such cultures reject democratic rule, integrity, transparency, and human rights.

Warning against the threats of chaos that might result from reforming the Arab world ignores the fact that anarchy has already mushroomed in some of the Arab states. The threat of total collapse would be the result of delaying the onset of reform. Extremism has the final say in the political arena in the Arab world, it is coterminous with marginalization or suppression of the other intellectual and political currents and their symbols. This is maintained under hegemony of extremist religious discourse which is contrary to the interests of the peoples and the objectives of Islam. Such deterioration per se necessitates urgent response to the calls for reform.

Half a century since they gained independence, the Arab peoples have been suffering from civil wars and widespread brutal suppression. During such years, the Arab region has achieved the lowest level of development and freedom and the highest levels of corruption, unemployment, poverty and despotism all over the world. Now reform ranks high on the agenda, being the phase of “second” independence, that is, complementing the right of the peoples to self-determination—self-rule [or] democracy and respect for human [End Page 180] rights—that was not exercised through the “first” independence. . . .

Fundamental Principles for Initiatives or Reforms:

Human rights values are the fruit of the interaction and communication between civilizations and cultures throughout history, including the Arab and Islamic cultures—the product of the struggle by all peoples, including the Arab people, against all forms of injustice and oppression whether internal or external. In this sense, such values belong to humanity at large.

Cultural or religious particularities should not be invoked as a pretext to doubt and to question the universality of the principles of human rights. . . .

Condemnation of the manipulation of patriotic feelings and the principle of hegemony in order not to abide by the international human rights standards. Moreover, the Palestinian issue and combating terrorism should not be invoked as justifications for undermining freedoms and rejecting democratic transformation and respect for human rights. . . .

Human rights in all fields, including women’s rights, can not be divided. Women’s rights to dignity and legal capacity enabling them to determine their fate should be ensured.

The Tunis Declaration, issued at the end of the Arab Summit, held in Tunisia on May 22-23, contained two paragraphs devoted to the issue of political reform. They appear below:

We assert our firm determination: . . .

To reaffirm our states’ commitment to the humanitarian principles and the noble values of human rights in their comprehensive and interdependent dimensions, to the provisions of the various international conventions and charters, and to the Arab Human Rights Charter adopted by the Tunis Summit, as well as to the reinforcement of the freedoms of expression, thought and belief, and to the guarantee of the independence of the judiciary.

To endeavor, based on the Declaration on the process of reform and modernization in the Arab world, to pursue reform and modernization in our countries, and to keep pace with the rapid world changes, by consolidating the democratic practice, by enlarging participation in political and public life, by fostering the role of all components of the civil society, including NGOs, in conceiving of the guidelines of the society of tomorrow, by widening women’s participation in the political, economic, social, cultural and educational fields and reinforcing their rights and status in society, and by pursuing the promotion of the family and the protection of Arab youth.

On June 2, a group of 34 Arab nongovernmental organizations released a response to the Arab Summit declaration. Excerpts of this response appear below. (For a full version of this text, see

The undersigned organizations express regret over the minuscule results of the Arab Summit in the issues [concerning] the Arab world—first [End Page 181] among them political reform. The organizations emphasize that these results did not reach the [level] of the demands by the civil society organizations in the Arab world for internal and regional reform—particularly [the demands included] in the Second Independence Initiative published by the First Civil Forum Parallel to the Arab Summit that was organized in Beirut in March by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, with the participation of 52 NGOs.

Furthermore, [these results] are contrary to promises undertaken by Arab governments prior to the summit. This failure to move ahead and the continued repression of reformists by Arab governments create an excuse for external [bodies] to apply external pressure, and give legitimacy to external initiatives for reform.

The clearest proof of the Arab summit’s inability to be faithful to its own undertakings regarding political reform in the Arab countries is that it makes do with a few rhetorical declarations that include intentions and promises without programs, policies, and practical undertakings for democratic reform within a time frame. . . .

The Arab governments are insisting on procrastination and time-wasting, by connecting the realization of reform with the resolution of the Palestinian problem and the ending of the occupation in Iraq—as if the liberation of Palestine and Iraq demanded the continuation of corruption, torture, and autocratic rule; and the abolition of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in the Arab world. . . .

[The fact] that the purpose of these rhetorical declarations is not reform, but rather to deceive Arab public opinion and the international community, is emphasized by what happened in some Arab countries when the draft of these reform declarations was being prepared—namely, when the oppression of the political opposition in Syria, and of those who defend human rights, was heightened, at the peak of which came the recent arrest of the Committees for the Defense of Human Rights’ [in Syria] President Aktham Na’isa, and other activists, and the limiting of the freedom of opinion and expression and the rights of assembly. . . .

The Arab summit was a total failure even in its attempt to ease the pressure for reform by internal public opinion and by the international community. It was confirmed that the task of reform will not begin as long as the Arab peoples, the political parties, the unions and the human rights organizations, and the rest of the institutions of civil society do not take this task upon themselves, and stop putting faith in rhetorical promises.


On May 26, President Vladimir Putin delivered to parliament his first State of the Nation address since his reelection. His criticisms of Russian civil society organizations that receive foreign funding were widely noted, and are included in the excerpts below: [End Page 182]

I would like to note simply that over these last four years, we have traversed a difficult but very important path. Now, for the first time in a long time, Russia is politically and economically stable. It is also independent, both financially and in international affairs, and this is a good result in itself. Our goals are very clear. We want high living standards and a safe, free, and comfortable life for the country. We want a mature democracy and a developed civil society. We want to strengthen Russia’s place in the world. But our main goal, I repeat, is to bring about a noticeable rise in our people’s prosperity. . . .

Whether or not we can become a society of truly free people—free both economically and politically—depends only on us. . . .

The only source and bearer of power in the Russian Federation is its multiethnic people. And only the people—through the institutions of the democratic state and civil society—have the right and are able to guarantee the stability of the moral and political foundations of the country’s development for many years to come. . . .

It is clear that young Russian democracy has had considerable success in establishing itself. And those people who do not notice this success, or who do not want to notice it, are not quite honest. But our social system is still far from perfection. And it must be admitted: We are at the very beginning of the path. Without a mature civil society, an effective solution to peoples’ daily problems is impossible. The quality of their daily life directly depends on the quality of the social and political system. And here, of course, we still have many questions.

I would like to remind you: Any power above all means great responsibility. It is unacceptable when civilized political competition is replaced with a self-interested fight for status and revenue. When the financial side of the activity of political groups is still hidden from society. When election technologies and lobbyist services are primarily oriented toward the shadow sector. And all this takes place against the background of the dreary monotony of most party programs. I would like to say a few words about the role of nonpolitical public organizations. In our country, there are thousands of public associations and unions that work constructively. But not all of the organizations are oriented toward standing up for people’s real interests. For some of them, the priority is to receive financing from influential foreign foundations. Others serve dubious group and commercial interests. And the most serious problems of the country and its citizens remain unnoticed.

I must say that when violations of fundamental and basic human rights are concerned, when people’s real interests are infringed upon, the voice of such organizations is often not even heard. And this is not surprising: They simply cannot bite the hand that feeds them. Of course, such examples cannot be grounds for us to make accusations against civil groups as a whole. I think that these problems are unavoidable, and of a temporary nature. To reduce these problems and stimulate the further growth of institutions of civil society, we do not need to invent anything new. Our [End Page 183] own experience and international experience have already proved the productiveness of an entire range of approaches. It is necessary to gradually transfer to the nongovernmental sector functions which the state should not or is unable to perform effectively. . . .

People who are not free or independent are incapable of looking after themselves, their families, or their countries. Freedom is not always valued and even more rarely used properly. Creative energy, enterprise, a sense of proportion and a will to victory cannot be introduced by decree, cannot be imported, and cannot be borrowed.

In aiming for a growth in citizens’ prosperity, we will continue to maintain and stand up for the democratic achievements of the Russian people. We will consolidate the security of the state and strive for civilized solutions to key issues of world politics, founded on international law.


June 4 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Once again, dozens of veteran democracy activists signed petitions and composed letters demanding a reassessment of the historical and political significance of this event. Excerpted below is a letter by Ding Zilin, leader of the Tiananmen Mothers movement:

When we took up our pens to write this letter, our hands were heavy, because before us lay the list of names that we had personally recorded of the 182 who were killed. On this list are the names of our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives. They were all ordinary students and townspeople, all ordinary Chinese citizens, and even some who were not yet old enough to exercise the rights of citizens. Today, as we face those names so familiar to us, our hearts continue to tremble and bleed. . . .

We should remember: That the system we live in is full of barbarism, inhumanity, and hypocrisy. Over the past 15 years the core leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has passed from the second to the third generation, and from the third to the fourth. But the basic characteristic of the system has not changed; it remains a system in which freedom and democracy are smothered, in which any sparks of civilization must be extinguished, and in which any who challenge this system must be ruthlessly suppressed. Over the past 15 years, nearly every leader in the Party and the government, almost without exception, has defended the suppression in 1989 with the “enormous accomplishments” of the subsequent years. In that case, we must now in equally clear and unequivocal terms tell these leaders: The massacre that took place in the Chinese capital in 1989 was a crime against the people, and a crime against humanity. . . .

Please do not continue to defraud or make fools of your good citizens! They have already been defrauded and made fools of for more than half a century—is that not enough? [End Page 184]

Today’s Chinese leaders need to prove with their actions that they are not simply carrying out a pallid and impotent “People First” image overhaul, but that they have in fact shed medieval barbarism and foolishness, and even more to prove that they have abandoned the communist dictatorship with “Chinese characteristics” that has oppressed China for more than half a century and caused the obliteration of tens of millions of lives. They need the kind of courage that can make a decisive break with the traditional authoritarian system and its ideologies, the kind of courage that abandons hypocrisy and lies in favor of a quest for truth and sincerity, the kind of courage that can face the crimes of history with true repentance.

We have not abandoned hope. We hope that today’s “New Hu-Wen Government” can with a genuine view to the future of our country and our people discard the old ways and take on the new, correcting past errors and responding appropriately to the aspirations of the people and the trends of the world. At the same time we acknowledge that the system is stronger than any individual. . . . If there is no buildup of popular strength to the point that we can apply pressure on the executive authorities, then the “New Hu-Wen Government” will simply be swallowed up by the practices of the old government, and will very possibly become nothing more than a more attractive window-dressing for the same old lies and fraudulence.

Let us come together to promote an era of reform and a new life for our people! Do not be a cynical bystander, or a defender of the old system.

The massacre that took place 15 years ago has caused us much suffering, but has also led us to experience a spiritual baptism and an intellectual revelation. Today we at least understand this reasoning: A human being cannot be oppressed or enslaved as a beast of burden by any other person, nor can a human being subject himself to dependence on a master who treats him as a plaything. As Chinese we should respect our own culture, but even more we should respect ourselves. The progress of a civilization results from the people’s thirst for freedom and dignity, and the most important quality of any authoritarian system is its use of any or all dictatorial methods to extinguish that thirst. The deepest significance of the 1989 Democracy Movement was in personifying on a grand scale the conflict and contest between dictatorship and the human thirst for freedom and dignity. The latter met with disastrous defeat, and its most direct unhappy consequence was society’s dread of and retreat from freedom and dignity. China once again hesitated at the fringe of world civilization, and our entire society was engulfed in a miasma of silence, coldness, despair, and degeneration; without fairness, without justice, without sincerity, without shame, without regret, without tolerance, without responsibility, without sympathy, without love. . . . Can it be that this is the choice of the people? No! This is the choice of the dictators, because this is the soil in which a dictatorial system survives.

Yet, we believe that in the end history will obey the will of the people, and that is the entire basis of our hope. [End Page 185]

Before ending this letter, we would like to repeat the motto of the Tiananmen Mothers in remembrance of the fifteenth anniversary of June 4:

Speak the truth, reject amnesia, seek justice, appeal to conscience.

A system that retains power through lies and fraud is despicable, but changing it requires a sustained rationality. In facing such a system, the most effective method is for more and more people to stand forward and “speak the truth.” Truth is power, and speaking the truth is the power of the powerless. Without truth, there is no historical memory, and therefore no justice or conscience. We fervently wish that all compatriots inside and outside of China can proudly live in truth. In this way, all can hope for fair treatment, and all can hope for equal respect of their freedom and dignity—not only the living, but also the dead.

South Africa

On April 27, as South Africans celebrated the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid, Thabo Mbeki was inaugurated for his second term as president. Excerpts from his inaugural address appear below:

Three-and-a-half centuries of colonialism and apartheid have more than amply demonstrated that our country could never become governable unless the system of government is based on the will of the people.

Despite the fact that we are a mere ten years removed from the period of racist dictatorship, it is today impossible to imagine a South Africa that is not a democratic South Africa. In reality it is similarly impossible to meet any of the enormous challenges we face, outside the context of respect for the principle and the practice that the people shall govern.

Nobody in our country today views democracy as a threat to their interests and their future. This includes our national, racial, and political minorities. This is because we have sought to design and implement an inclusive democratic system, rather than one driven by social and political exclusion.

We are determined to ensure that no one ever has grounds to say he or she has been denied his or her place in the sun. Peace and our shared destiny impose an obligation on all of us to create the space for every South African to make his or her contribution to the shaping of our common destiny.

Latin America

On April 21, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released a study of the state of democracy in Latin America. Excerpts from the foreword by UNDP administrator Mark Malloch Brown appear below:

Latin America today exhibits an extraordinary paradox. On the one hand, the region can point with great pride to more than two decades of [End Page 186] democratic governments. On the other, it faces a worsening social crisis. Profound inequalities and high levels of poverty persist, while economic growth has been insufficient and the dissatisfaction of citizens with their democracies—expressed in many places by widespread popular discontent—has been on the rise, in some cases with destabilizing consequences.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that while democracy has gained ground throughout Latin America, its roots are not deep. The Report notes, for example, that over 50 percent of Latin Americans are prepared to sacrifice a democratic government for genuine socioeconomic progress.

There are a number of reasons for this trend, the most important of which is that, for the first time in the history of Latin America, democracy is the form of government in power. As a result, governments are blamed when things go badly in the areas of employment, income, and many basic services that do not satisfy the increasing expectations of citizens.

The picture becomes even more complex when one takes into account the fact that a number of elements that are essential to democratic governance, such as a free press, effective protection of human rights, an independent and active judicial branch, all still need to be significantly strengthened. Moreover, many groups that have traditionally been excluded lack access to power through formal channels and therefore use alternative means and sometimes violence to express their frustrations.

Against the backdrop of this situation, there are, however, a number of very encouraging signs. First, despite the crisis, the countries of the region have not opted for a return to authoritarianism; instead, they have generally supported their democratic institutions.

Secondly, citizens are beginning to distinguish between democracy as a system of government and the performance of a particular government in office. Many of these citizens are simply “dissatisfied democrats,” a phenomenon that is well known in many established democracies, which partially explains why opposition movements today do not opt for military solutions but for populist leaders who present themselves as being outside of the traditional power structure and who promise innovative solutions. . . .

In order for democracy to thrive and flourish, Latin America needs to work tirelessly to ensure that its democratic institutions—from legislatures to local authorities—are transparent, accountable for their actions and prepared to develop the skills and capacities necessary to perform their core functions. This means that it must ensure that power at all levels of government is structured and distributed in a manner that grants a voice and genuine participation to excluded groups and provides the mechanisms through which the powerful—whether political leaders, the business class or other actors—are held accountable for their actions.

There are no shortcuts in this task. The deepening of democracy is a process and not an isolated effort.