Documents on Democracy

Issue Date October 1995
Volume 6
Issue 4
Page Numbers 181-84
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Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed on July 10 by the military junta that had held her under house arrest since July 1989. Her leadership of the democratic opposition to Burma’s military regime earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. The day after her release, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a large but peaceable crowd outside her home in Rangoon. Her statement appears below:

The official intimation of the end of my house arrest was conveyed to me verbally by Col. Kyaw Win in the form of a message from Sr. Gen. Than Shwe which was kind and cordial. There were three points to the message apart from the ending of my house arrest: 1) they would be happy to help me in matters of personal welfare; 2) if I wished, the authorities would continue to take care of security arrangements; and 3) he would like me to help towards achieving peace and stability in the country.

First of all, I would like to say I appreciate deeply both the tone and content of the message. I have always believed that the future stability and happiness of our nation depends entirely on the readiness of all parties to work for reconciliation.

During the years that I spent under house arrest, many parts of the world have undergone almost unbelievable change. And all changes for the better were brought about through dialogue. So dialogue has been undoubtedly the key to a happy resolution of long-festering problems. Once-bitter enemies in South Africa are now working together for the betterment of their peoples. Why can’t we look forward to a similar process? We have to choose between dialogue or utter devastation. I would like to believe that the human instinct for survival alone, if nothing else, would eventually lead all of us to prefer dialogue.

You may ask what are we going to talk about once we reach the negotiation table. Establishment of certain principles? Recognition of critical objectives to be achieved? Joint approaches to the ills besetting the country would be the main items on the agenda. [End Page 181]

Extreme viewpoints are not confined to any particular group, and it is the responsibility of the leaders to control such elements as threaten the spirit of conciliation. There is more in common between the authorities and we of the democratic forces than existed between the black and white people of South Africa. The majority of the people in Burma believe in the market economy and democracy, as was amply proved by the results of the elections of 1990. Those of you who read the Burmese papers will know that it is the aim of the SLORC [State Law and Order Restoration Council] to return power to the people. This is exactly our aim as well.

I would like to take this opportunity to urge the authorities to release those of us who still remain in prison. I am happy to be able to say that in spite of all that they have undergone, the forces of democracy in Burma remain strong and dedicated. I on my part bear no resentment toward anybody for anything that happened during the last six years.

This statement can only end in one way: with an expression of sincere thanks to people all over the world and especially to my countrymen who have done so much to strengthen my resolve and to effect my release.


On August 24, human rights advocate Harry Wu was expelled from China after being convicted of espionage and sentenced to a 15-year prison term. Now a U.S. citizen, Wu spent 19 years as a political prisoner in China’s labor camps (laogai) and had returned to the country in order to document prison abuses. On September 8, he testified before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights of the U.S. House of Representatives. An excerpt from his remarks appears below:

Mr. Chairman, there is no doubt that if I was not an American citizen I would probably be back in a laogai coal mine, or simply have disappeared. Of course, I am glad to be alive and free. At the same time I feel sad and somewhat guilty. There are so many Chinese and Tibetans, brave men and women, workers, students, intellectuals, religious believers, so many who are being tortured, and forced to labor in the laogai simply because of their desire for freedom and democracy. Their families suffer like mine did, but they do not have the hope that my wife did. Their suffering is real, their future is dark, their sense of isolation so much greater than my own was.

Think about Chen Zeming, who is ill with cancer, being thrown into prison again. What about Gao Yu, the journalist sentenced for leaking state secrets. In America, she would have won a prize for economic reporting. There are so many others, so many others.

I learned recently that a number of Members of Congress nominated me for the Nobel Peace Prize. I deeply appreciate this gesture, but urge them [End Page 182] to withdraw their efforts and focus all of their attention and energy on Wei Jingsheng. He is a giant of a man. I am nothing beside him. He has a determination and spirit unmatched by anyone who has graced the earth in recent memory. He is a real hero, not me. He is a true symbol of the oppressed in China. He is an international treasure. Even the Nobel Peace Prize is less than he deserves. What he and so many other prisoners of conscience deserve is more precious than a prize; they deserve their freedom. I have mine again, and I must get back to work because the laogai still exists.


On April 23–25, the Montreal-based International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development brought together three “political internationals”—the International Democrat Union, the Liberal International, and the Socialist International—for a conference on human rights and democracy in Ottawa, Canada. The conference was attended by human rights activists from around the world. At the conclusion of the meeting, a “Joint Statement on Human Rights and Democracy” was adopted. An excerpt from that statement appears below:

While noting our important philosophical differences on other matters and noting the joint statement made by three of the political internationals in Vienna in June 1993, we wish to affirm our steadfast and unanimous commitment to democracy, to the universal and indivisible nature of human rights, and to the vital link between democracy, development and rights. Democracy is both a form of government and a type of society. Representative political institutions cannot flourish in a society where human rights are not an integral part of everyday life. And human rights, grounded on the equal claim to dignity of all human beings, can be best protected by governments chosen through free and fair elections.

We strongly reaffirm our support for the principles enshrined in the International Bill of Human Rights and urge all countries that have not ratified the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to do so. We further recognize the importance of promoting women’s rights as human rights and affirm that cultural and traditional practices cannot be invoked to deny women their internationally recognized human rights. While acknowledging the importance of economic development, a lack of economic development cannot be invoked to justify the abridgement of human rights. Human rights, democracy and development ought to be seen as complementary processes.

Underlying our view of democracy is our strong commitment to civil society, that vast range of private and public endeavours which exist apart from the state. Democratic civil societies are characterized by a wide range [End Page 183] of political, civil, social, economic and cultural rights and an atmosphere of tolerance. Taking part in public affairs and government is a basic human right. By exercising their full range of rights, citizens are able to freely choose their own governments. Competitive political parties are the principal means by which citizens may directly shape the nature of their state institutions and determine their public policy priorities.

During the conference we were particularly preoccupied by the following issues and make these recommendations:

  1. Noting that impunity from prosecution constitutes an important obstacle to the full recognition of human rights in many countries where massive violations of human rights have occurred and the inadequacy of ad hoc arrangements, we urge states to finally take a decision on the establishment of a permanent international criminal court to bring those who have violated international human rights or humanitarian law to justice. The cycle of violence must be broken and the rule of law must be established. Democracy cannot be built on impunity.
  2. Recognizing that there is no automatic positive relationship between trade and human rights, or economic growth and democratization, we call upon democratic governments to vigorously pursue both trade and human rights, and to understand that democratic practices and development ought to be integral parts of the same process. . . .


In January 1995, Swedish prime minister Ingvar Carlsson and former secretary general of the British Commonwealth Sir Shridath Ramphal presented the report of the independent Commission on Global Governance at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The report, entitled “Our Global Neighbourhood,” has been published by Oxford University Press. Excerpts from the report appear below:

The collective power of people to shape the future is greater now than ever before, and the need to exercise it is more compelling. Mobilizing that power to make life in the twenty-first century more democratic, more secure, and more sustainable is the foremost challenge of this generation…. It is fundamentally important that governance should be underpinned by democracy at all levels and ultimately by the rule of enforceable law….

The spread of democracy has been one of the most heartening trends of recent years. It is democracy that can ensure that a country’s affairs are conducted—and its development directed—in ways that respond to the interests and wishes of the people. Democracy provides the environment within which the protection of the fundamental rights of citizens is best safeguarded. It offers the most favourable foundation for peace and stability in international relations.