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World: Analysis From Washington -- A Universal Holiday

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 3 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The American Declaration of Independence, signed 222 years ago tomorrow, not only led to the creation of a new country but also opened a new era in the political history of the world.

Because this document enumerates the specific grievances of 13 British colonies on the eastern shore of North America more than two centuries ago and because July 4th is the quintessentially American holiday, many people in the U.S. and elsewhere have failed to focus on these broader implications.

But the men who signed this document were very much aware that the three principles at its core were not just about Americans but about all humankind.

They would not have been surprised by the way in which their declaration not only transformed the world but continues to do so. And they undoubtedly would have been pleased by the numerous times that other peoples have both used their words and acted on their principles.

By proclaiming that all people have certain rights that governments must respect, the authors of the American Declaration of Independence opened the way for ever more people to demand that their governments do so.

When the declaration was issued in 1776, few governments did, and few of the people living under their control thought they had any chance to obtain better treatment.

Now, two centuries later, people around the world clearly understand that they have certain rights. And governments increasingly respect or at least claim to respect them, a reflection of pressure from the international community and their own populations.

By proclaiming that governments reflect the will of their citizens, the authors of the American Declaration helped to promote the dramatic expansion of democracy over the last two centuries.

When it was issued, most governments openly proclaimed their autocratic nature. Now, many countries have democratic regimes, and even the most authoritarian states advertise themselves as democratic.

And by proclaiming that a people consistently denied these rights by its government has the right to form its own country, the authors of the American Declaration contributed to a dramatic explosion in the number of independent countries.

When it was issued, only a few states around the world could be described as genuinely independent, and most of the world's population lived under some form of colonial rule. Now, there are more than 200 independent countries.

But precisely because these principles are so radical and so unsettling, some peoples and governments who have been the beneficiaries of these principles in the past are reluctant to see them extended to others.

This is especially often the case when peoples denied their rights conclude that the only means they have to defend their rights is to act as the signers of the American Declaration did two hundred years ago and demand independence.

Few governments will ever look with equanimity on popular actions elsewhere that threaten existing states. Such challenges inevitably destabilize the international system. And such destabilization can have serious and negative consequences for all.

Indeed, states constantly under threat of disintegration from such challenges are unlikely to be willing or able to improve the situation within their borders with respect to democracy and human rights.

That puts an enormous responsibility both on the government most directly involved and on other countries interested in both democracy and stability: Both must promote democracy and human rights for all lest they allow a situation to develop in which the formation of a new country is the only option.

As the signers of the American Declaration of Independence knew, such a step is a very serious one, only to be undertaken when those involved have exhausted all other remedies to the denial of their rights. But as they knew and as all those who have followed their path since that time know, it is a step that sometimes must be taken in order to guarantee both democracy and human rights.

And because of that, the anniversary that Americans celebrate tomorrow is one that all who care about those values have cause to celebrate as well.

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