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HRW Says Democracy Charade Undermines Rights

  • Kathleen Moore --> HRW says that democracy is about more than holding elections (epa) A new report by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns of a "democracy charade" in which Western governments allow autocratic leaders to get away with masquerading as democrats, mastering the art of democratic talk while indulging in distinctly undemocratic practices like electoral fraud and media censorship.

As a result, HRW concludes, despots are allowed to extinguish any real chance their people will have a genuine, free say in government.

Last year, the group says governments from Nigeria to Russia and Thailand acted as if simply holding an election -- no matter how flawed -- were enough to earn the label "democratic."

"The West -- the United States and the European Union in particular -- [is] allowing countries simply to hold a vote and then give them credentials as a democratic country," HRW's Reed Brody says. "What we're seeing is that it's easier and easier for autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy because many Western governments insist on elections and leave it at that. They don't look at other things that make a democracy function, things like a free press, freedom of assembly, a mobilized and informed civil society that can really challenge a power."

HRW says Western governments act for politically expedient reasons. It says the reasoning can be commercial. Or the reasoning can be "better the devil you know," because the alternative might be worse. Or it can be because a country is an ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

The result, it says, is encouraging the world's autocrats to play the game, because they know it can be worth it.

"One might ask why countries like Uzbekistan or even China go through elections, and I think it is the reaction of the West that shows why they do it," Brody says. "People want to be considered part of the democratic club, and obviously it works, In Nigeria there were elections that were fraudulent through and through and yet the president of Nigeria is accepted now in the circles of power and the halls of the community of nations as if he were a legitimately elected president."

To be sure, Western governments and organizations do continue to criticize undemocratic practices and abuses. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe routinely decry flawed polls such as last year's Uzbek presidential election.

And when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf declared emergency rule last year and rounded up many political opponents, the United States and the European Union urged him to lift the state of emergency and release those arrested. U.S. President George W. Bush called on Musharraf to "take off your uniform" while he was still army chief.

But HRW argues that words are often not matched by actions. In Pakistan's case, it says, Western government largely continued to give aid to Islamabad instead of making it conditional on improvements ahead of next month's parliamentary elections.

The report also says the problem is compounded by what it calls inconsistency in promoting democracy. Here it singles out Washington for what it says is a "double standard" -- where the strongest criticism is reserved for countries such as Cuba or Syria while others such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt are given much softer treatment.

"We saw just in the last couple of weeks, President Bush made some very nice remarks on democracy on his visit to the Middle East in Qatar, and then stood next to [Egyptian] President Hosni Mubarak and talked about democracy and said, 'We like what you're doing,'" Brody says. "No one, no independent organization would consider the elections in Egypt to have been fair, and this is a country in which dissident speech can still be severely punished."

The report does note one glimmer of hope. The fact that autocratic leaders, increasingly, believe it's important to have some kind of democratic credentials -- albeit hollow ones.
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