The New Democracies and the Challenge of Human Rights

Article excerpt

Human rights have a special role to play in contemporary developments that seek to sustain democracy. All human rights must be seen as "universal, interdependent and inter-related," despite many of the ways in which globalization is pursued. The problems endemic to a globalized economy-inequality, unemployment, and poverty-need not be seen as overwhelming. Signs of change can be found in recent international discussions and in the eagerness of leaders in the developing nations of Africa to address these inequities at a systemic level. The reciprocal duties that accompany claims to rights have been taken on to some extent by individuals, states, and international bodies. Still, positive change is endangered by the problems of weak or failed states, and by the tendency of powerful nations to act unilaterally. The initiatives of regional institutions such as the African Union open up opportunities for national cooperation and wide-ranging coalitions, and fuel the amazing vibrancy currently evident in Africa.

Contemporary politics is founded on the ideal of democracy. There is hardly a statement made by world leaders without stress being placed on democracy or good governance or economic responsibility. Often this is mentioned as if we are all talking a language of common understanding. I have no desire in this paper to get into an in-depth political and historical analysis of democracy. Suffice it to say merely that democracy has become one of those political systems that has come to be taken lor granted.

Democratic governance includes the means by which the popular will is tested and reflected in the programs and leadership of government. Democracy and all the mechanisms of government are regulated bv the constitution and bv law. The constitution is the basic law of the land which provides for a system of checks and balances, and sets out the powers and responsibilities of every organ of government. Constitutions are by their nature permanent documents that reflect the principles of government and the aspirations of the people. Society is destabilized if the constitution is constantly amended at the whim of the government of the day in order to remove those aspects of it which those in power consider to be standing in the way. The constitution is there precisely to check against the excessive, unregulated exercise of power.

I am, however, required to address the question of new democracies. Presumably, this refers to the systems of government that have emerged following the end of the cold war that had a domino effect in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. They are new because they are democratic systems horn out of the collapse of communist totalitarianism and of the vassal states defined by allegiance to either the Eastern or Western bloc of nations. This bipolar arrangement had defined international relations since the end of World War II, and it held in a state of paralysis multilateral relations through the United Nations. The Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin wall, perhaps, marked the two dimensions of the cold war: preparedness for war and the maintenance of peace.

The other meaning of "new" must surely refer to understandings of democracy and its management that sought to define relations between state and people in new and different ways. With a history of atrocities against their own peoples, and with an experience of being held hostage by the strong arms of cold war alliances, many of the new democracies sought to break free and define their democratic ideals afresh. Constitutionalism, I suggest, got a new lease on life following the collapse of the Berlin wall. Not only did we see the spectacle of public demonstrations, flower power or green revolutions; it suddenly seemed possible that by sheer popular will governments could be changed. That possibility for change gave added impetus to democratic governance because popular sentiment became-wide open to being tested and influenced. …