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Despots masquerading as democrats

By Kenneth Roth - posted Wednesday, 12 March 2008

These days, even overt dictators want to be seen as “democrats”.

The good news is that democracy has become the key to legitimacy, the label that no leader wants to be without. Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, who by all appearances blatantly stole elections in January, is the latest example of a leader who has embraced the form of democracy over its substance. The bad news is that, far too often, these autocrats are getting away with it.

Why else would so ruthless a leader as Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov bother to stage elections? His government holds some 7,000 political and religious prisoners, routinely tortures detainees, and, in 2005, massacred hundreds of protesters. No real opponent dared to contest elections in December, yet he found utility in holding an electoral charade to legitimise his reign. It’s as if Al Capone wanted to be known as a taxpaying pacifist.


In recent years, other leaders who have had the audacity to claim the democracy mantle include Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Their often-inventive techniques for taming the nettlesome unpredictability of democracy include electoral fraud, political violence, press censorship, repression of civil society, even military rule.

What makes them think this subterfuge will succeed? Part of the reason is that, unlike human rights - the traditional route to international legitimacy - “democracy” has no legally established definition. Since there is no International Convention on Democracy, dictators can hope for a flexible interpretation.

By contrast, international human rights law is specific and legally binding. It mandates not only “genuine periodic elections” with “universal and equal suffrage” and a “secret ballot”, but also a range of rights that should be understood as essential to any meaningful definition of democracy, including rights protecting a diverse and vigorous civil society and a free and vibrant press, rights defending the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law.

The problem is that the established democracies - the natural defenders of a conception of democracy that embraces human rights - have too often settled for a watered-down version, especially when other interests are at stake. But when they let autocrats enter the club of democracies without paying the admission fee of respect for basic rights, they trivialise “democracy” and weaken the defence of human rights.

The Bush administration, for example, seems to prefer promoting a narrow conception of democracy as a softer, fuzzier alternative to the embarrassing issue of human rights. Democracy is a metric by which the United States still measures up fairly well, but talk of human rights brings up such inconvenient topics as Guantanamo, secret CIA prisons, water-boarding, rendition, military commissions, and the suspension of habeas corpus.

But by divorcing democracy from the international human rights standards that give it meaning, the administration sends the message that mere elections, regardless of the circumstances, are sufficient.


Its response in November to then-General Musharraf’s declaration of “emergency rule” in Pakistan was illustrative. Even after Musharraf’s effective coup and his detention of thousands of political opponents, President Bush said that Musharraf had somehow not “crossed the line”. Bush could hardly trumpet Musharraf’s human rights record, so he declared that Musharraf is “somebody who believes in democracy” and that Pakistan was “on the road to democracy”.

But if, unlike human rights law, “the road to democracy” permits locking up political opponents, dismissing independent judges, and silencing the independent press, it is easy to see why autocrats the world over are tempted to believe that they, too, might be eligible.

European governments, too, have treated staged elections as an excuse to re-start “business as usual” with dictatorships.

Typical was the recent treatment of Kazakhstan by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a body that is supposed to promote democracy, and comprises 56 governments from Europe and Central Asia as well as the United States and Canada. In August 2007, the party of President Nursultan Nazarbaev “won” every seat in parliament after elections in which the press was censored, the opposition was suppressed, and the OSCE found vote-counting flaws in 40 per cent of the polling stations it visited. But the OSCE, in evidence-be-damned fashion, still claimed that the elections had “moved Kazakhstan forward in its evolution towards a democratic country”. Then, in December, it gave Kazakhstan the honour of being the first post-Soviet state to chair the OSCE, beginning in 2010.

When the natural guardians of democracy degrade the concept in this form, they make it easier for authoritarian leaders to masquerade as democrats and deflect pressure for more meaningful reform. Why bother complying with intrusive human rights law when, with a bit of manoeuvring, any tyrant can pass himself off as a “democrat”?

Promoting a more vigorous conception of democracy would require pressuring dictatorial friends and defending rights that some established democracies would prefer not to highlight. But that is what is needed if the embrace of democracy is not to become a ploy for bypassing international human rights standards in favor of a feel-good, empty alternative.

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Kenneth Roth is speaking at Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s international public lecture series at the Seymour Theatre Centre on Thursday, March 13, 2008.

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About the Author

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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