In a presidential runoff on 8 November 2005, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of the Unity Party defeated George Weah of the Congress for Democratic Change—becoming Africa’s first democratically elected female president. Excerpts from her January 16 inaugural address appear below:
Vice President Boakai and I have just participated in the time-honored constitutional ritual of oath-taking as we embark upon our responsibilities to lead this republic. This ritual is symbolically and politically significant and substantive. It reflects the enduring character of the democratic tradition of the peaceful and orderly transfer of political power and authority. It also confirms the culmination of a commitment to our nation’s collective search for a purposeful and responsive national leadership.
We applaud the resilience of our people who, weighed down and dehumanized by poverty and rendered immobile by the shackles of 14 years of civil war, went courageously to the polls, to vote—not once but twice, to elect Vice President Joseph Boakai and me to serve them. . . .
Committed to advance the spirit of inclusion, I assure all Liberians and our international partners and friends that our Government will recognize and support a strong democratic and loyal opposition in Liberia. This is important because we believe that our democratic culture and our nation are best served when the opposition is strong and actively engaged in the process of nation building. . . .
And so, my Fellow Liberians let us acknowledge and honor the sacrifices and the contributions of all as we put the past behind us. Let us rejoice that our recent democratic exercise has been a redemptive act of faith and an expression of renewed confidence in ourselves. Let us be proud that we were able to ultimately rise above our intense political and other differences in a renewed determination as a people to foster dialogue instead of violence, promote unity rather than disharmony, and engender hope rather than disillusionment and despair. [End Page 181]
My Administration therefore commits itself to the creation of a democracy in which the constitutional and civil liberties and rights of all of our people will be respected. . . .
And now, before I close, I would like to talk to the women—the women of Liberia, the women of Africa, and the women of the world. Until a few decades ago, Liberian women endured the injustice of being treated as second-class citizens. During the years of our civil war, they bore the brunt of inhumanity and terror. They were conscripted into war, gang raped at will, forced into domestic slavery. Yet, it is the women who labored and advocated for peace throughout our region.
It is therefore not surprising that during the period of our elections, Liberian women were galvanized—and demonstrated unmatched passion, enthusiasm, and support for my candidacy. They stood with me; they defended me; they worked with me; they prayed for me. The same can be said for the women throughout Africa. I want to here and now, gratefully acknowledge the powerful voice of women of all walks of life.
My Administration shall thus endeavor to give Liberian women prominence in all affairs of our country. My Administration shall empower Liberian women in all areas of our national life. We will support and increase the writ of laws that restore their dignity and deal drastically with crimes that dehumanize them. We will enforce without fear or favor the law against rape recently passed by the National Transitional Legislature. We shall encourage families to educate all children, particularly the girl child. We will also try to provide economic programs that enable Liberian women—particularly our market women—to assume their proper place in our economic process.
In January 2005, Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, lost a defamation suit the government had brought against him for comments he made during the 2001 election. Unable to pay the US$300,000 fine, he was declared bankrupt by the High Court on 10 February 2006. At the bankruptcy hearing, Chee submitted a statement criticizing the judiciary for its lack of independence, spurring the attorney-general to charge him with contempt of court. In reaction, Chee issued another statement on March 2, entitled “Defamation Suits Against the Opposition Must Stop.” Excerpts appear below. (See the Web site for a blog with the latest news about Chee Soon Juan.)
Singapore is probably the only country that cannot produce enough opposition candidates to contest in more than half of the seats during elections, thereby conceding power to the ruling party even before the first vote is cast. The coming general elections expected in a few months will be no exception.
A major cause of this crisis is the use of defamation lawsuits brought [End Page 182] by ruling party officials against opposition leaders to obtain crippling amounts of money in costs and damages, and subsequently making them bankrupts when they cannot make the payments. Bankrupts are barred from contesting in elections. Mine is but the latest in a series of cases that have terrorized Singaporeans into submission. . . .
For the sake of democracy, freedom of speech, and openness, these defamation suits must stop. And they can be stopped if the country’s judicial system exercises its powers to become a bulwark to protect the people from an authoritarian executive bent on crushing the opposition and the media.
I have now been charged with contempt of court for making the statement that Singapore’s judiciary is unfair and not independent. Imprisonment for me is inevitable. But as one who cares deeply about democracy and freedom, I could not have done otherwise.
For too long the international community has ignored this injustice and repression that has gone on in Singapore. And because of the silence, the practice has spread to other countries in Asia: Cambodia’s Hun Sen recently sued Sam Rainsy and colleagues for defamation, Thaksin Shinawatra has sued the media in Thailand and openly professed his admiration for the Singapore system, and Malaysia’s establishment has also used defamation suits to silence its critics. Even Martin Lee has raised concerns about the “Singaporization” of Hong Kong. . . .
In a few weeks I will face my accusers in court and will be judged by the very institution I have spoken out against. The outcome is a foregone conclusion. I will accept whatever penalty is meted out, for as much as I dread going to prison, continuing to keep quiet when injustice is used to subvert democracy is even more painful.
It is my hope therefore that Singaporeans and members of the international community alike will join me in the struggle to make Singapore’s judiciary independent, and from there turn Singapore into another bastion of democracy and freedom in Asia.
On January 25, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe narrowly passed a resolution calling for “International Condemnation of the Crimes of Communist Regimes.” Against a strong Russian-led opposition, the resolution was approved by a simple majority. This is the first time that an intergovernmental organization has officially condemned human rights violations perpetrated by totalitarian communist regimes. The resolution is excerpted below:
The totalitarian communist regimes which ruled in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century, and which are still in power in several countries in the world, have been, without exception, characterised by [End Page 183] massive violations of human rights. The violations have differed depending on the culture, country and the historical period and have included individual and collective assassinations and executions, death in concentration camps, starvation, deportations, torture, slave labour and other forms of mass physical terror, persecution on ethnic or religious bases, violation of freedom of conscience, thought and expression, of freedom of press, and also lack of political pluralism. . . .
The fall of totalitarian communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe has not been followed in all cases by an international investigation of the crimes committed by them. Moreover, the authors of these crimes have not been brought to trial by the international community, as was the case with the horrible crimes committed by National Socialism (Nazism).
Consequently, public awareness of crimes committed by totalitarian communist regimes is very poor. Communist parties are legal and active in some countries, even if in some cases they have not distanced themselves from the crimes committed by totalitarian communist regimes in the past.
The Assembly is convinced that the awareness of history is one of the preconditions for avoiding similar crimes in the future. Furthermore, moral assessment and condemnation of crimes committed play an important role in the education of young generations. The clear position of the international community on the past may be a reference for their future actions. . . .
The debates and condemnations which have taken place so far at national level in some Council of Europe member states cannot give dispensation to the international community from taking a clear position on the crimes committed by the totalitarian communist regimes. It has a moral obligation to do so without any further delay.
The Council of Europe is well placed for such a debate at international level. All former European communist countries, with the exception of Belarus, are now its members and the protection of human rights and the rule of law are basic values for which it stands.
Therefore, the Parliamentary Assembly strongly condemns the massive human rights violations committed by the totalitarian communist regimes and expresses sympathy, understanding and recognition to the victims of these crimes.
Furthermore, it calls on all communist or post-communist parties in its member states which have not so far done so to reassess the history of communism and their own past, clearly distance themselves from the crimes committed by totalitarian communist regimes and condemn them without any ambiguity.
On February 7, Haitians went to the polls for the first time since the 2004 rebellion that deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, electing [End Page 184] René Préval as president. The election process was marred by violence and allegations of fraud. Excerpted below is a February 22 statement by Albert R. Ramdin, assistant secretary-general of the Organization of American States:
The presidential and legislative elections held on 7 February 2006, must be seen as a critical and historic event in Haitian history. Among other aspects, it is closing a difficult chapter which emanated in part from the dispute surrounding the year 2000 legislative elections. . . .
Despite the on-going challenges, in terms of completing this year’s electoral calendar, let us acknowledge the advances made and seek to continue this positive trend. The time to pursue positive change is now—let us not miss this opportunity and fail the people of Haiti at this important juncture. We must build on the success achieved so far. . . .
Regarding the weeks and months to come, it is our hope that the transfer of power from the interim Government to President-elect René Préval be smooth and forward-looking, with the swift appointment of a Prime Minister and cabinet that will set the tone for a government of inclusion and broad-based consensus.
It is imperative that the vote tabulation process for the February elections be concluded as quickly as possible, and preparations [be] made for the holding of the second round of legislative elections before the new government takes office.
Similarly, it is critical that the preparations for, and holding of, local and municipal elections not slip off the agenda of the Haitian authorities. A full return to constitutional and democratic order in Haiti will not be complete without the timely holding of elections for local representatives.
In addition to social and economic development, it is imperative that priority attention be paid to consolidating democratic institutions and practices in Haiti. . . .
Specifically in the field of democratic development, I wish to reiterate our concern that the experience of past Haitian elections not be repeated and that we work assiduously to ensure that the investment of the interim Government and of the international community in the current electoral process not be lost for the future building and consolidation of a permanent electoral institution and a modern, integrated civil registry and identification system. . . .
I close my remarks with my congratulations, once again, to the interim Government for creating the conditions necessary for arriving at the holding of this month’s elections and hope that they will continue their resolve to see us through the critical second round of elections, now pending. But, above all, I reiterate our congratulations to the Haitian people for the unequivocal confirmation of their democratic vocation, as witnessed on 7 February 2006 with the massive participation and enthusiasm displayed in the democratic exercise of voting.