Promoting Democracy AND Human Rights

By Dalpino, Catharin | Brookings Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Promoting Democracy AND Human Rights


Dalpino, Catharin, Brookings Review


Lessons of the 1990s

Since 1975 the number of nations under some form of democratic government has quadrupled. Today more than 2.3 billion people, 39 percent of the world's population, are living in countries rated "Free" by Freedom House, which monitors human rights worldwide. Another 1.5 billion people live in societies designated as "Partly Free," with limited democratic rule and human rights protection.

Beyond these broad statistics, some of which can be attributed to the end of the Cold War, the past 25 years have seen a striking number of first-ever political phenomena: the consolidation of democracy in Western Europe with the transitions in Greece, Portugal, and Spain; the demise of the Soviet Union; the end of apartheid in South Africa; and the emergence of the first Chinese democracy in Taiwan and the first Korean democracy in the South.

Progress has been made on human rights as well. At the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, governments voted to reaffirm the universality of human rights (albeit with initial resistance from China and several other non-Western countries). Transnational nongovernmental human rights networks have emerged, many from the 1975 Helsinki Accords, and some intergovernmental regional groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have added human rights to their agendas. Moreover, democracy and human rights are becoming interchangeable in international parlance. This year the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution declaring democracy itself to be a fundamental human right.

America's foreign policy apparatus reflects the worldwide advances in democracy and human rights. During the 1990s, promoting democracy became a core objective in U.S. foreign assistance. Before 1989, foreign aid for democratic development seldom topped $100 million a year. By 1993, that figure had climbed to $900 million. Change extended even to the bureaucracy. High-ranking positions to oversee democracy promotion now exist in the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development; an unsuccessful effort was made to create one in the Department of Defense.

Slowdown

As the 1990s drew to a close, however, the heady progress had ebbed. The surges toward greater openness often met with political reversals and backsliding. Nations such as Pakistan, which occupied the "Partly Free" middle ground on the political spectrum, switched back and forth between democratic and authoritarian rule several times. Peruvian President Fujimori has resolutely held onto rule through undemocratic means for several years. In China, although personal freedoms have expanded, the Communist party continues to reject, and repress, any challenge to its political supremacy. Most significant for Americans, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia is only a half-democracy at best. Although the Russian system continues to pursue elections and other formal democratic processes, the ruling elite is not fully committed to protecting human rights, and the unseen hands of oligarchs in public policy undermine the development of transparent, accountable government. A new generation of reformers is coming to power in the Middle East, but few countries there have made a formal commitment to democracy. In Africa, the growth of democracy has been hindered not only by continued poverty but also by violent internal conflicts, such as that in East Africa, that decimate populations and invite gross human rights abuse. Other episodes of large-scale abuse have erupted elsewhere, the most dramatic being the campaign for "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia.

Throughout the decade, non-Western governments charged that democracy and human rights are lopsided concepts, skewed toward a Western preference for political and civil rights and ignoring the basic economic rights of impoverished nations. …

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