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World: Analysis From Washington -- Human Rights Organizations Warn Against Complacency

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Democracy continued to spread across the world in 1997, with Freedom House rating as free a record 81 of 191 countries.

But that human rights monitoring organization warned in its annual report issued on Thursday that the current wave of democratization may have crested and could even recede if established democracies do not do more to promote it.

Such a warning, which also was sounded by Human Rights Watch in its annual report earlier this month, raises three important questions for everyone concerned about the progress of freedom in the world.

First, what precisely can established democracies do to promote democracy?

Second, what are the limits on their ability to change the political situation in other countries?

And third, what kind of a world might emerge if the tide of democracy is reversed?

Both Freedom House and Human Rights Watch provide a clear answer to the first, noting that there are many ways that established democracies can promote democracy beyond their borders.

These states, these reports note, can both criticize repressive policies in other states and speak out in defense of the victims of those states.

These states can extend security guarantees to struggling democracies so that the governments of the latter will have both the courage and the opportunity to institutionalize their democratic systems.

And they can help ensure the free flow of information both into these countries by supporting international broadcasting and within these states by demanding that their governments live up to their commitments to freedom of the press.

Not surprisingly, the two human rights groups say less about the limits on the ability of established democracies to act.

While both note that the economic interests of these states sometimes overwhelm commitments to human rights, neither focus on three other restrictions on the ability of these countries to act that ever more people seem to be raising.

These reports do not mention the argument advanced by those like Harvard University's Samuel Huntington who suggest that some cultures are less disposed to support democracy than others.

These reports do not discuss the view advanced by so-called realists that it is not the business of one country to seek to impose its values on the internal affairs of another country and that each people must achieve democracy on its own.

And they do not address the claim by many that economic growth by itself will ultimately produce democracy.

None of these claims is without an answer. Many countries thought to be culturally excluded from democratic development have nonetheless become democracies.

Countries have an interest in what other states do internally because that almost always casts a shadow on what they do to their neighbors. And democratic groups within many states often can prosper only with the help of outside groups.

And economic growth while important has supported dictatorships as well as democracies.

But perhaps the most important question to ask at a time of apparently declining support in established democracies for human rights and democracy around the world is what kind of a world might emerge if the democratic tide goes out?

Retreats from democracy in places like Belarus and Serbia suggest that such a world could be a terrible place not only for the populations of such retrograde states but also for the international community.

In order to justify their repression at home, non-democratic leaders generally have to suggest that they are surrounded by enemies. And such suggestions both limit the possibilities for international cooperation and open the door to conflict and even war.

Still worse, should a reversal of the democratic tide begin, ever more leaders might conclude that they could behave in an authoritarian way at little or no cost. And that pattern could have serious consequences not only for countries trying but failing to make the transition to democracy but also for the currently established democracies as well.

Consequently, the current success of democracy around the world represents less a cause for self-satisfaction than a challenge to make sure that success continues to expand.