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HRW Says Democracy Charade Undermines Rights

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.

Around RFE/RL's Region

Around RFE/RL's Region


"Civilians were increasingly caught in fighting between antigovernment forces and government forces and their international supporters. Antigovernment forces, in many cases led by the Taliban, routinely violated the laws of war, [drawing] return fire from NATO and/or U.S. forces. As a result, NATO and U.S.-led coalition forces killed more than 300 civilians, but it's entirely possible the number is much higher, given the difficulty that Western forces have in distinguishing combatants from civilians and the extensive reliance on air power by Western forces."

-- Sam Zarifi, a Human Rights Watch advocate based in Washington, D.C.


"The country remains notorious for sentencing its juveniles. Today over 70 young offenders are on death row, a rate higher than any other country. Iran is also widely touted for repressing political dissidents and mistreating prisoners. Over the past year, authorities subjected people who peacefully expressed their political views to torture, beatings, sleep deprivation, and prolonged solitary confinement. Journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers, and political activists continue being at risk of arrest and imprisonment."

-- Assef Ashraf, senior associate, HRW's Middle East and North Africa Division


"I think people in Russia care very much about human rights, but it depends how you define the terms. Every Russian family that has a son who's of military age is eventually going to be concerned about him being conscripted into the army, and they're concerned because of the human rights violations that take place in the army. Many ordinary people in Russia worry a lot about coming into contact with the criminal justice system, with the police, they fear the police not because the police are authority but because the police are abusive. That's a human rights issue."

-- Rachel Denber, deputy director, HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division


"Throughout the year, Human Rights Watch has monitored with profound concern the rapidly deteriorating media freedoms in the country. We have expressed particular concern that the Azerbaijani government has used libel, defamation, and other criminal charges to intimidate independent and opposition journalists in the country. Some of the journalists have also been physically attacked by unidentified assailants. By the end of 2007, nine journalists were behind bars for what appeared to be politically motivated defamation and other criminal charges."

-- Georgi Gogia, researcher, HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division


"The main concern of the last year has been the violence that authorities used to disperse demonstrators on November 7. Hundreds of government forces violently dispersed opposition-led demonstrators in downtown Tbilisi. The demonstrations were largely peaceful and they [government forces] raided and closed a private television station, injuring at least 500 people, some of them critically. These actions triggered a very serious human rights crisis in the country, one could say the largest human rights crisis since George's Rose Revolution."

-- Georgi Gogia, researcher, HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division


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-- Rachel Denber, deputy director, HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division


"With regard to governments, there should be more pressure on Uzbekistan to really fulfill its international human rights commitments. We have often heard the argument, especially with the EU, that the EU should maintain a dialogue with Uzbekistan, and this is something Human Rights Watch is absolutely supporting. But dialogue should not be maintained as a means in itself, but it should aim towards firm benchmarks, toward an improvement in the human rights situation, and so far unfortunately we have not seen this."

-- Andrea Berg, Central Asia researcher, HRW's Europe and Central Asia Division

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