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up to global bullies who beat back democratic progress
October 25, 2006
The notion that democratic governments, including the United States,
should promote democracy abroad has come under intense criticism.
Critics write of the "folly of exporting democracy" or of the "failure"
of democracy promotion. Others deride support for human rights advocates
and press freedom in closed societies as incursions on sovereignty.
Some argue that
America, especially, is naive to expect that its efforts can expand
freedom's reach in authoritarian settings. Naive, because Americans
do not recognize that for many people, security and jobs have much
more value than electoral procedures or a free press.
have a familiar ring. Apologists for the Soviet system and proponents
of Asian values have claimed that democracy was unsuitable for certain
societies, by which they meant central European countries, such
as Poland and Hungary, as well as societies in Asia, Africa, and
Europe is solidly democratic, as is most of Latin America, much
of Asia, and parts of Africa, too. As the late US Sen. Daniel Patrick
Moynihan cogently observed: "There is no nation so poor that it
cannot afford free speech...."
today's demoskeptics, one could easily get the impression that the
people of Iran, Belarus, or Zimbabwe are hostile to political freedom
and opposed to assistance from the international community. In fact,
the inability to move the democratic revolution forward in these
and other societies can be traced to a familiar source: ruling elites
who fear that change will jeopardize their power. In the debate
over democracy promotion, this point trumps all other arguments.
are less concerned with political dissidents than with civil society
- the media, women's-rights organizations, minority-rights groups,
and think tanks that have blossomed in recent years. The rise of
such groups has triggered a furious backlash. But the techniques
used to muzzle them are more sophisticated than the brutality employed
by the Soviets or South American juntas.
act in ways that are superficially legalistic. State authorities
will discover irregularities in an organization's registration documents;
the tax police will find that an organization owes millions in back
taxes; the authorities will accuse an organization of pursuing a
mission hostile to the national interest. Some regimes have passed
laws outlawing foreign funding of local nongovernmental organizations.
This is a critical issue, because in many societies there are either
no viable domestic sources of support, or the regimes themselves
have prevented domestic funding of organizations that have inconvenient
obsessively on foreign funding and "sovereignty," authoritarians
such as Russian President Vladimir Putin are trying to deflect attention
from the real issue - the state's attempts to crush virtually all
independent voices, no matter what the source of their funding.
advocates have been naive, it is in not having foreseen the ruthlessness
with which the resistance to democracy has been waged. One after
another, centers of independent thought and civic engagement have
been extinguished with scarcely a murmur of protest from the outside
have even established mechanisms of international collaboration
to stifle civil society. Consider the statement issued at last year's
summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which consists
of Russia, China, and several central Asian countries. It attacked
democracy assistance by asserting that "the right of every people
to its own path of development must be fully guaranteed."
have also not anticipated the intellectual support for the push-back
from commentators in the democratic world. Driven by their hatred
of the Bush administration or by admiration for Russia and China,
they are voicing doubts about the appropriateness of outside efforts
to promote freedom.
of assembly and freedom of expression are enshrined in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. Those rights, and the role of the international
community in supporting them, are now questioned.
In recent years,
repressive regimes have outmaneuvered the democracies to prevent
criticism of their practices at the United Nations. That's why democratic
governments must collaborate to launch an investigation into the
global campaign against civic independence, and to reassert the
universally accepted freedoms that are the foundations for the UN's
democracy's supporters need to emerge from their current state of
self-doubt. We have an obligation to speak up for those who are
being silenced, jailed, and murdered by their authorities. This
is not the first time that freedom's adversaries have taken the
initiative. Current conditions may demand new strategies. But on
the universality of freedom, there should be no second thoughts
- and no apologies.
Windsor is executive director of Freedom House.
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