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World: France Tries To Spoil The Democracy Party

After a two-day conference in Warsaw, more than 100 of the world's foreign ministers have adopted a declaration setting out basic principles of democratic governance. The Warsaw Declaration aims to serve as a basic charter for democratic countries to follow, and also provides a blueprint for those states aspiring to a democratic system. RF/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports from the Polish capital.

Warsaw, 27 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With two exceptions -- France and Honduras -- all the foreign ministers present signed a document that referred to their countries as a "Community of Democracies." They resolved to act jointly to encourage the growth of democracy in countries where it is suppressed, although the declaration only pledges its signatories to act within existing institutions. It does not, as some had hoped, provide any new mechanism for punishing governments that do not respect democratic norms.

Despite the seemingly benign wording of the declaration, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine stunned his colleagues by announcing before the conference ended today that France was abstaining from voting on the document. Vedrine issued a statement this morning which said that, while the Warsaw conference had offered an opportunity for valuable dialogue, France could not agree with the final declaration. He said the declaration could be interpreted as offering a political commitment to future intervention in a state's internal affairs in the name of supporting democracy.

The Warsaw declaration makes no mention of possible intervention and sets no rules for the intervention of the international community in a state's internal affairs. In fact, the thorny issue of when a state should lose the right to absolute sovereignty -- if it harms its citizens -- remained unresolved at the conference. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan told RFE/RL that the issue was deliberately left off the agenda:

"It would be naive to pretend that more than 100 countries can easily agree on a precise definition of when a violation of human rights reaches such a scale that it stops being the internal affair of an individual country but instead -- due to its impact -- becomes a concern of the international community -- which must then find a way to influence or limit this violation of human rights. It would be naive to think we would be able to agree on this here, and the issue wasn't even on the conference's agenda."

Some diplomats in Warsaw say France was displeased at not being among the meeting's organizers and had used the opportunity to express its opposition to what it considers U.S. attempts to play a leading global and, particularly, European role. Speaking to the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reaffirmed Washington's position that intervention can sometimes be justified in cases where human rights are massively violated. The conference's host, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, concurred in this view.

Neither Albright nor Geremek, however, suggested that this should be decided lightly, and Albright took pains to stress the need to respect the principle of sovereignty in international affairs. Vedrine said France saw the conference as an opportunity to discuss key issues, but did not want the dialogue to end up in the formation of what he described as new coalitions.

France's refusal to go along with the declaration, just days before it assumes the presidency of the European Union, signals Paris is not afraid to use its influence and will resist attempts by the United States to dominate global foreign policy.

But some observers questioned the wisdom of France's action, which they saw as an attempt to upset an important multilateral gathering. If France's own foreign-policy ambitions lead it to refuse to sign a declaration on democracy, they ask, what incentives will other states have not to follow? Honduras, emboldened by France's move, also withheld its vote.

At the start of the democracy conference yesterday, Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi urged ministers in a videotaped message not only to talk about punishing violators of human rights, but to take action. "For us," said the Nobel peace prize laureate who has spent years under house arrest, "the observance of democratic principles is not just an abstract principle."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan today also expressed the hope that the world's democracies will come together, as a community, to act against tyrants when necessary:

"I hope that democracies will reinforce each other, that they will help democracies in distress and democracies that need to be strengthened. And this sort of a collaborative effort and peer pressure, where required, to steer governments right -- I think -- is going to be extremely important."

But for now, it appears politics -- and international rivalries -- will take precedence over democratic principle.