Monday, May 7, 2007

Is Democracy Picking Up?

Special report on the Doha democracy forum:

Is democracy picking up?

Francisco S. Tatad

At the invitation of the Emir of the State of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, conveyed thru the Qatari ambassador in Manila, Abdulla Ahmed Al-Muttawa, I attended the 7th Doha forum on democracy, development and free trade on April 23-25, 2007. This was the seventh annual round of what undoubtedly is the most focused and fascinating discussion on these issues at this time anywhere in the world.

The Emir opened the forum, followed by President Taria Halonen of Finland and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who led the assembly of some 600 statesmen, politicians, scholars, and experts from 70 countries. Among the most notable participants were former presidents Fredrick de Klerk of South Africa and Emil Constantinescu of Romania; Britain’s former foreign secretary and now Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw; General Secretary Amr Moussa of the League of Arab States; and former prime ministers Saleem Al Hoss of Lebanon, Mawloud Hamrouch of Algeria, and Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand.

Non--Arab participation stretched around the globe, from Asia to Africa, through Canada, America, Europe, Scandinavia. But the Gulf states provided the bulk of former ministers and scholars, and Britain, the strongest non-Arab presence. From Southeast Asia, a Singaporean civil servant gave an impressive briefing on training executives; a Malaysian lady professor spoke on the role of women in development; Thaksin read a well-nuanced paper on democracy; I took part in the floor debates.

Covered live by Al Jazeera, Doha’s answer to BBC and CNN, the debates at the Ritz Carlton ran deep into the night. The Emir set the tone when in his address he said that political reform in the region should proceed at a more agreeable pace, but not on account of any pressure from outside. For his part, Ki-moon said the intrinsic value of democracy must be viewed on its own terms, regardless of its positive effect on trade and development.

The sentiment was strong. But the question was whether democracy should be imposed from outside, and whether or not those calling for it were credible enough. Jack Straw said no two democracies had ever gone to war against each other. To which Moussa quickly replied: “But have you not seen so many democracies attacking other countries? You cannot use democracy as an excuse to attack and rule others.”

In the most pungent remark at the forum, an Arab university professor said that while the Middle East covers no more than nine percent of the earth’s surface and holds only four percent of its population, it accounted for 36 percent of all violence recorded last year. He did not think political reform was possible. He believed the region’s future lay in the hands of external actors.

A Canada-based Iraqi professor said democracy could not take root in a region where people were being “slaughtered” in its name. Algeria’s Hamrouch said democracy would be rejected if imposed from outside. “We don’t want the West to intervene,” declared an Egyptian writer-activist. “Imposing democracy will not lead to democracy,” said the director of a Washington-based think tank.

Recalling the Allied Powers’ role in postwar Germany and America’s in postwar Japan, the director of the International and Strategic Studies Institute in France said not all intervention was bad. Except that the Middle East is not an aggressor and has done nothing that even remotely resembles the German and Japanese war crimes which had obliged the victorious powers to intervene in the postwar reconstruction of the two aggressor nations.

If the Middle East is so highly penetrated, it’s because its geopolitical importance makes intervention inevitable, an Islamist scholar from Durham University in Britain explained. The critical question, however, was --- is the intervention led by force, by example, or by persuasion? Even more critical: is the political culture of the place ready to receive democracy? If no, only greater instability will ensue, as in Iraq.

In a globalizing world, democracy has ceased to be a “Western thing.” It is now the common patrimony of mankind. But in a region rich in history and culture, and ruled for ages through hereditary succession, the transfer of political power through regular elections, which is basic to a democracy, is not an easy or simple question. This does not exempt certain forms of government from governing well.

South Africa’s De Klerk, who played a pivotal role in ending apartheid, recalled that in a period of absolute monarchs in most of Europe, the 18th century Englishman enjoyed the protection of a reasonably independent legal system, which put effective constraints on the power of English kings and governments to do as they pleased. It is the rule of law and respect for human rights that ultimately ensure the growth of permanent democratic institutions.

Qatar, with is visionary leadership, is obviously on track. Under a new Constitution which took effect in June 2005, Qatar has decided to shift to democracy. This year it held its first parliamentary elections, and women were allowed to vote and be voted upon. Qatar chairs the New and Restored Democracies Movement, is a major contributor to the UN Democracy Fund, a supporter of freedom of the press and of worship, which is highly valued by its non-Muslim migrant population, nearly 75,000 of whom are Filipinos. It has become the latest center of dialogue on the most important questions, like the WTO Doha round. It stands as a class by itself, in world affairs.

The Arabs alone will decide how fast and in what direction they will go. But a great deal will depend on how they perceive the performance of the practicing democracies. The pace could pick up if the region sees the democracies becoming irrevocably linked to the promotion and defense of human dignity and human rights, the genuine search for peace, the just sharing of knowledge and resources, and the determined effort to make the dialogue of nations, cultures, and civilizations produce the desired results. Yet it could slacken if the democracies become identified with the moral corruption of society or the arrogant use of power.

I am confident that, at the very least, some variant will take root in the Middle East when democracy begins to work the way it should where it should. Thus it worries me no end when some democracies try to promote the rule of law through the rule of force; when they seek peace at home by waging war abroad; when they defend the human rights of their citizens by denying the human rights of others; when they seek to avenge the death of their combatants abroad while bearing no discomfort whatsoever over the routine murder of millions of innocent unborn, by some perverse authority of the state.

Indeed, it worries me no end when a country that had first sought to establish a democratic government upon its revolution against Spain in 1898, lost it to the next colonial master, but regained it 48 years later, and became known since then as the “showcase of democracy” in the Third World is now beginning to look like a failed state.


1 comment:

svl said...

Mr. Tatad,

Thaksin was in attendance. You should have specifically addressed your statement below -

"Thus it worries me no end when some democracies try to promote the rule of law through the rule of force . ."

to Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin's twisted version of democracy 'rule of law through the rule of force' resulted in thousands of very poor villagers extra-judicially killed WITHOUT DUE PROCESS during Thaksin's anti-yaa baa campaign.

Thaksin was the wrong Thai person to be in attendance at Doha!