News and Notes

Issue Date Winter 1990
Volume 1
Issue 1
Page Numbers 128-132
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Fang Lizhi Receives Human Rights Award

At a ceremony held November 15 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., famed Chinese human rights advocate Fang Lizhi received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Human Rights Award. Speakers included Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and television newsman Tom Brokaw. Accepting the award for Mr. Fang was his friend and fellow physicist, Chiu Hongyee. Mr. Fang remains in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after seeking asylum there during the government’s crackdown on prodemocracy protesters last June.

In his acceptance speech, read by China scholar Orville Schell, Mr. Fang expressed his “sorrow and shame” about recent developments in China, but also offered “a small bit of encouragement”: “Remember that in the current climate of terror, it may well be that those who are most terrified are those who have just finished killing their fellow human beings. We may be forced to live under a terror today, but we have no fear of tomorrow. The murderers, on the other hand, are not only fearful today, they are even more terrified of tomorrow. Thus, we have no reason to lose faith. Ignorance may dominate in the short term through the use of violence, but it will eventually be unable to resist the advance of universal laws.”

In his keynote address, Lech Walesa also cited some grounds for optimism: “Thinking today of Professor Fang Lizhi we remember the young people from Beijing, the students and workers of the Square of Heavenly Peace. Many of them paid with their lives for the natural right of every man to a life in dignity and truth. We of Solidarity well understand our Chinese friends. Only recently we were in a very similar situation. And though all comparisons in this case can be dangerous or even tactless, permit me to say that our presence here today provides reason for hope for our Chinese friends.” [End Page 128]

New Turn in Nigeria’s Democratic Transition

Nigeria’s transition from military rule to civilian, democratic government took a dramatic turn last October 7 when President Ibrahim Babangida rejected the applications of all the political associations that had sought recognition as political parties. Under the military’s six-year program for transition-which began with the appointment of a “Political Bureau” in 1986 to set a timetable and design new political institutions-two and only two parties will be recognized to compete in democratic elections. Within a month after the ban on political parties was lifted last May 3, some 88 associations sprouted up to compete for the two spots. But the National Electoral Commission (NEC) established stiff conditions for recognition, and in the end only 13 associations applied.

In rejecting the bids of all 13 associations, President Babangida denounced them for reintroducing all of the political ills-corruption, thuggery, fraud, factionalism, and poor organization-that the military had sought to purge from Nigerian political life when it took the unprecedented step of banning all the old politicians from participating in politics until the expected completion of the transition in 1992. After disbanding all 13 associations, Babangida said his government would itself proceed to establish the new parties, which are to be called the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC). The NEC was charged with drafting the constitutions and manifestos of the two new parties, after which all Nigerians will be free to join a local branch of one or the other.

Despite its avowed determination to avoid foreign models, the Babangida administration has deliberately arranged for the SDP and the NRC to adhere to an American-style politics of moderate ideological cleavage. The administration’s intention is to free the Nigerian party system from the ethnic, regional, and religious divisions that have traditionally plagued it. The regime also hopes to break the power of monied interests by giving party leaders a chance to emerge from the bottom up, beginning with elections for local-constituency officers. In the same way, the transition timetable emphasizes decentralization by scheduling local government elections first. Such elections were initiated in December 1987 and will be held again early this year on a partisan basis. Later this year civilian governors and assemblies will be elected in the 21 states, and in 1992 the transition will be completed with the election of a bicameral National Assembly and a president.

Although at least a few of the political associations had mobilized significant popular support, President Babangida’s blanket rejection of them was favorably received in much of the country, a [End Page 129] sign that popular cynicism about party politics remains widespread in Nigeria. Yet many observers contend that the military administration’s action also reflects important antidemocratic currents in its handling of the transition. Other such trends include the intimidation, harassment, and corruption of the press (which nonetheless remains one of the freest and most pluralistic in Africa); the repression of student, labor, and other popular interest groups; the arbitrary arrest and detention of vocal critics; the expansion of the state security apparatus; and the lack of personal accountability among incumbent officials.

These competing pressures promise to make Nigeria’s political transition-already unique in its structure and timing–one of the most interesting and significant episodes in the African struggle for democracy in the coming years.

Vietnamese Democratic Activist Recovering

Vietnamese human rights advocate Doan Van Toai is recuperating from an attack by two unidentified gunmen outside his Fresno, California home last August. Mr. Doan, who opposed the Thieu regime as a student leader in the early 1970s and later became a persistent critic of the Communist regime, has himself been the target of criticism from both the Hanoi government and former South Vietnamese now living in the United States. The attempt against his life followed a series of anonymous death threats.

Since emigrating to the West in 1978, Mr. Doan has worked to draw attention to repression in Vietnam. He is the author of The Vietnamese Gulag, an account of his time in the communist regime’s prison camps. In 1979 he brought together folksinger Joan Baez and other former antiwar activists to condemn the mass imprisonments and human rights violations of the Hanoi regime. Three years ago he founded the Washington-based Institute for Democracy in Vietnam to support Vietnamese dissident writers, to press for political and economic reform in Vietnam, and to spotlight human rights cases.

Walesa Helps Free Chilean Labor Leaders

Chilean labor leaders Manuel Bustos and Arturo Martínez were released by the government of General Augusto Pinochet on 23 October 1989, three days before Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was scheduled to visit Chile to draw attention to their plight. Bustos and Martínez, the leaders of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the chief umbrella organization for Chile’s free trade union movement, had been held in internal exile for more than 400 days. They had been sentenced to 541 days of internal exile for organizing a general strike that led to violence in October 1987. [End Page 130]

The holding of the CUT leaders had occasioned protests by trade unions and governments from around the world. In advance of his scheduled visit, which was postponed indefinitely upon the release of Bustos and Martínez, Walesa made clear in a letter to Pinochet that he hoped to find the two labor leaders free upon his arrival.

Since Pinochet came to power in 1973, relations between the government and the free trade unions have been hostile. Labor groups have been banned from political activity, and unions have accused the military regime of repressing their members and leadership. In announcing the pardons for Bustos and Martínez, the government cited its ongoing commitment t o restoring democracy in Chile, but made no mention of Walesa’s impending visit.

Chile Holds Conference on Constitutional Change

In August 1989 the Institute of Political Science of the Catholic University of Chile, in conjunction with the Latin American Studies Program of Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), conducted a three-day conference in Santiago, Chile, on “Presidency and Parliament in the Chilean Political System.” The conference brought together noted figures from Chile’s academic and political worlds to discuss possible reforms in Chile’s constitution as the country prepared for a return to democracy following the defeat of General Augusto Pinochet in the 5 October 1988 plebiscite.

The primary objective of the conference, whose participants included Juan Linz of Yale University and Arturo Valenzuela of Georgetown University, was to examine the viability of changing Chile’s democratic system from a presidential to a parliamentary one. Both Valenzuela and Linz have argued that Chile’s sharply divided party system might be able to generate more efficient and consensual governments under a parliamentary formula than under the country’s traditional presidential one. At the conference, historians, political scientists and constitutional law experts discussed various aspects of Chile’s institutional past, analyzed the constitutional framework adopted under the military government headed by General Augusto Pinochet, and discussed various alternatives for constitutional reform.

The proposal to study a parliamentary option for Chile was greeted with considerable enthusiasm by both scholars and practitioners. At an evening forum, Andrés Allamand (Secretary General of the conservative Renovación Nacional Party), Andrés Zaldívar (President of the Christian Democratic Party), and Ricardo Lagos (President of the Party for Democracy) all expressed strong support for modifying the country’s strong presidentialist constitution and moving either to a [End Page 131] parliamentary regime or a semipresidential one similar to that of the French Fifth Republic. The serious study of constitutional reform, including the possibility of adopting a parliamentary formula, was also endorsed by the country’s leading newspaper El Mercurio.

Subsequently, the united opposition, which is favored to win the 14 December 1989 presidential elections, signalled its intention of making constitutional reform and institutional change a fundamental priority of the first democratically elected government in almost 20 years. The conference will result in two volumes on constitutional reform proposals edited by Oscar Godoy (Director of the Institute of Political Science of the Catholic University) and published by the Catholic University Press.

Christian Democrats Unite in Soviet Union

The Christian Democratic Union of Russia held its founding conference last August in Moscow. Held in a private apartment, the Union’s first conference was convened by Aleksandr Ogorodnikov, former political prisoner and editor of the samizdat journal Bulletin of Christian Public Opinion.

According to a report by John Dunlop for Radio Liberty, the 80 persons attending the Union’s inaugural conference endorsed the “Basic Principles of the Christian Democratic Union of Russia,” which calls for parliamentary democracy, a multiparty political system, free elections, and a government based on separation of powers.

The Union’s economic platform advocates a “multitiered market economy” that respects private, cooperative, collective, and state property rights.

The document also calls for an end to the privileged position of the Communist Party and endorses the right to secession as well as self-determination for the constituent peoples of the Soviet Union.

The Union’s first conference was attended by representatives from Georgia, Armenia, and Byelorussia, and delegates from Estonia and Lithuania’s Sajudis were present at a second meeting on September 9.

At the September session, an address pledging support was presented by Andreas Kohl, Secretary General of the European Democratic Union. This organization of West European moderate and conservative parties includes many of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties.

The September conference named Ogorodnikov chairman of the Union’s Coordinating Council. Later that month he was able to attend a meeting of the Christian Democratic International in Guatemala. While abroad, he complained of harassment from Soviet officials, who have not officially recognized the Union. He also stated that his organization had grown by a thousand members in the first month of its existence. [End Page 132]


Copyright © 1990 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press