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World: Warsaw Democracy Conference Debates Merits Of Sovereignty

  • Jeremy Bransten



The first-ever international conference on promoting democratic rule began in the Polish capital yesterday, with foreign ministers and senior officials from more than 100 countries gathering to discuss how to strengthen democracy in the places where it already exists and how to bring it to the places where it has yet to thrive. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from Warsaw.

Warsaw, 27 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The goal of the two-day conference of foreign ministers is to come up with a declaration of principles, to formalize cooperation among the world's democracies and provide a blueprint for those countries which aim to join the club.

The fact that official delegations from such countries as Belarus, China, Kyrgyzstan and Peru -- to name a few -- have been refused invitations to the conference is at least a signal that there may be a price to pay for governments that oppress their citizens.

Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek said at the opening yesterday that this Warsaw Declaration -- as the working document is being called -- should be a milestone, as important in advancing the cause of human liberty as the Helsinki Accords on European cooperation and human rights.

"We would very much like this Warsaw Declaration to have as forceful an impact as the final act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1975 -- the Helsinki accords."

The idea behind the proposed declaration is that the economic globalization now taking place should be matched by the globalization of human rights and democracy.

Few details of what the declaration will say have been made public. But after a day of discussions in Warsaw, it is already apparent that the document will have to be a compromise and is not likely to include any revolutionary language.

As noted by several speakers at a non-governmental organization (NGO) forum timed to coincide with the ministerial meeting, at issue is national sovereignty -- in essence, when does the violation of human rights justify international intervention?

Up to now, this principle of intervention has been applied unevenly. And it doesn't look as if ministers at this conference will resolve the conundrum.

At he start of the session, held in the Polish parliament, a video was screened of Burmese democracy activist Aung Sang Suu Kyi. The Nobel laureate, speaking on the 10th anniversary of the Burmese militarys annulment of an election which would have made her the leader of her country, appealed to the ministers for action to defend human rights -- rather than just words. Everyone applauded.

But French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine cautioned against too-frequent intervention in conflicts around the world, saying such a policy could open a "Pandora's box."

Likewise, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said states which oppress their people must be challenged, but in a way which respects national sovereignty.

"In fostering democracy, momentum matters. Every illegal coup, rigged election, or unjust jailing may, if unchallenged, erode the foundation of democracy worldwide. Our Community [of democracies] must assess how we can best prevent and respond to such developments in a manner that respects both legitimate concerns about sovereignty and universal principles of human rights."

As the Americans say, that's like having your cake and eating it too. The requirement that tyrants be punished while safeguarding the principle of national sovereignty is the type of policy that has often hamstrung the United Nations.

Kosovar publisher Veton Surroi suggested on Sunday at the parallel NGO forum on democracy in Warsaw that states should not have guarantees of absolute sovereignty. In his words, sovereignty must be earned and governments that trample their citizens rights should lose that privilege.

After their introductory speeches, the ministers retired behind closed doors for a series of committee meetings. What emerges from those meetings will be known later today, if and when the Warsaw Declaration is finally adopted.

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