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UN: 'Democracy Caucus,' Possible Catalyst For Reform, Takes Shape Slowly

Many believe a new caucus of democratic states offers the best chance of reforming UN institutions. But the group of states is grappling with a number of issues, such as the way human rights should be protected. Newly democratic states from Eastern and Central Europe are prominent in the caucus and, some say, crucial to its success. In a year in which reform will dominate the agenda, the caucus has a clear opportunity to influence the process.

United Nations, 10 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- For the moment, the UN democracy caucus remains more a promising idea than a tangible presence at the United Nations.

The United States and other supporters of the fledgling group hope that setting up such a caucus in the UN General Assembly will ensure a new focus on democratic values, the rule of law, and economic freedom.

But since its initiation at the UN Human Rights Commission last spring, the democracy caucus has moved slower than many members would like. Its work during the autumn General Assembly session amounted to issuing a communique calling for consideration of nonbinding resolutions on torture, the status of women, and enhancing the role of regional groups in promoting democracy.

The group stopped short of creating a permanent structure that would hold regular meetings at the UN. Its members -- now numbering more than 100 -- appear sharply divided over how to pursue human rights initiatives in the General Assembly.

Chile's UN ambassador Heraldo Munoz, whose country chairs the caucus, notes the challenges facing the group in an interview with RFE/RL.

He says the caucus has developed more slowly than expected but he is optimistic it will eventually become a champion of rights at the UN. The stress on reforms this year, he says, should give new impetus to the democracy caucus.

"I think democracy [has] arrived to stay as part of the agenda of the United Nations even though the charter of the United Nations does not refer to democracy. Nevertheless, it is part of the agenda of the Security Council, of the General Assembly, so that I think with this discussion of reform it will be a very major component," Munoz says.

The caucus is an outgrowth of the "community of democracies," a loose grouping formed in Warsaw in 2000 with a declared commitment to strengthening democratic values and institutions worldwide.

Chile is hosting a key meeting on 12 January of the community's 10-member convening group -- including the Czech Republic and Poland -- to make decisions on which states will be invited to a ministerial meeting in May.

Hungary is also working with the community to help establish a center for democratic transition in Budapest. Its purpose would be to share experiences on building political institutions and strengthening local governments.

Hungary's U.S. ambassador, Andras Simonyi, tells RFE/RL the center would reach out to countries that are "ready for advice" on the tough process of political and economic reforms.

He says Hungary feels an obligation to preach democracy -- whether at the UN or in Budapest -- given its recent history with repression.

"I do think that some democracies have become too complacent. They take democracy for granted, they don't see the dangers that always loom over democracies and we kind of remind ourselves of the not too distant past. It's just 15 years away. We want to make sure that we are the conscience of the world in terms of democracy," Simonyi says.

Supporters of the UN democracy caucus say crucial to its success will be maintaining a broad membership, with states such as India, South Africa, and South Korea coming together with Eastern Europe and the trans-Atlantic community to press for reforms.

Ted Piccone is executive director of the Democracy Coalition Project, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that sees the democracy caucus as key to UN reform. Piccone tells RFE/RL the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, in particular, have shown the energy for building a forum of cooperation among democracies at the UN.

"It's going to be driven by those kinds of states that have leaders who themselves personally lived through dictatorship or exile and are now in power and appreciate the value of international community pressure on democratic reforms and what can be done from the outside. That's a key constituency that will drive this forward. It's not going to be up to the U.S. or Canada or Australia or the European Union. It's going to be those states plus these other states that make it happen," Piccone says.

Talk of democratic reform dominated the annual UN General Assembly debate in September 2004 but there has been little action at the UN since then. U.S. President George W. Bush announced plans for a democracy fund within the United Nations to build the capacity for democratic governance in states in transition but it is not yet clear how the fund will work or how large it will be.