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Standards Urged for Community of Democracies

Letter to Convening Countries of the Community of Democracies

 

The Community of Democracies should be a caucus of nations committed to the universally recognized human rights without which democracy cannot thrive. It should allow democratic nations to share experiences, to coordinate policies and to reach out to non-governmental actors with similar goals.

First, we believe the Community should be a caucus of nations committed to the universally recognized human rights without which democracy cannot thrive. It should allow democratic nations to share experiences, to coordinate policies and to reach out to non-governmental actors with similar goals. It should offer a forum for those still struggling in repressive societies to solicit support and to tell their stories to the world.

The Community of Democracies should not, however, become a substitute for vigorous engagement in the United Nations and its Commission for Human Rights. Achieving a consensus for democracy and human rights in bodies with universal representation may be hard, but such a consensus is also much harder for dictatorships to dismiss. Indeed, one of the goals of the Community should be to build effective coalitions so that votes for human rights at the U.N. are won, not lost.

Second, we believe the Community can help reinforce international human rights law as a set of standards that all democracies are expected to meet. And by including participants from every part of the world, it can help reaffirm that these standards are truly universal. This year, we hope the Community will be able to welcome new participants, including the newly democratic government of Serbia and the soon-to-be independent democracy of East Timor, to its ranks, so long as they continue their progress.

The Community of Democracies should not be so inclusive, however, that it renders its name meaningless. Many countries around the world wish to be called democracies and wish to be seen as respecting human rights - but on their own terms. Participation in the Community should be limited to those who genuinely seek to uphold its principles.

Last year in Warsaw, the Community adopted a declaration pledging its members to uphold a comprehensive list of "core democratic principles and practices," including the right to choose governments through free and fair elections, the right to freedom of expression, assembly and the press, the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention and torture, as well as all other rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant instruments. No nation fully lives up to the standards set forth in this declaration. Unfortunately, a few of the nations that took part in the Warsaw meeting fell so woefully short that their presence threatened to discredit the initiative.

We hope that you will be more selective in issuing invitations for the conference in Seoul, and offer the following list of countries that merit particular concern. We ask the convening states to use the time between now and Seoul to urge these countries to take specific steps toward genuine democracy and respect for human rights, including those recommended below. If they fail to make progress, they should not be invited to attend.

RUSSIA

The policies of Vladimir Putin's government pose the greatest threat to democratic freedoms in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since last year's conference, two of Russia's major independent broadcast media outlets have been brought under quasi-governmental control. Journalists and at least one human rights activist known for their critical reporting have been harassed. Several criminal prosecutions of journalists and academics on unfounded charges of espionage point to the resurgence of the Federal Security Service as a tool to curtail civic and political freedoms. Federal forces in Chechnya have continued to commit atrocities on a scale rarely seen in Europe since World War II, including the torture and execution of prisoners whose bodies are dumped in mass graves. The Russian government has not held a single high-level commander to account for these actions and ignored two successive resolutions of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Russia has made great progress against great odds in overcoming the legacy of its Soviet-era dictatorship. But in the year since it signed the Warsaw declaration, Russia has moved backwards, not forward, jeopardizing some of the greatest gains for democracy and human rights in recent history. The Community of Democracies can perform no greater service than to say that the preservation of Russia's democracy is vital to the world. Russia should not participate in next year's conference unless, at minimum, the government takes credible steps to permit independent media to operate freely, begins effective prosecutions of those responsible for egregious abuses in Chechnya, and issues an invitation to all monitors mandated by the UN to investigate those abuses.

EGYPT

Egypt remains under a State of Emergency that has been in effect since 1981. Not long after the conclusion of the Warsaw summit, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of the country's leading advocates for democratic reform, was arrested along with a number of his colleagues from the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Dr. Ibrahim was ultimately charged with defaming the country by criticizing earlier elections and the treatment of Egypt's Coptic minority. He was sentenced to seven years hard labor following a trial before the State Security Court that did not meet international standards. Independent candidates representing the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood were imprisoned until after voting in the Fall 2000 parliamentary elections was completed. Similar abuses marred elections to the upper body Consultative Council in May. Egypt's participation in the second summit of the Community should require a concrete display of recognition of the principles outlined in the Warsaw Declaration. An end to emergency rule and a halt to trials of political activists and critics before special security courts and military courts would constitute an important step forward.

TUNISIA

Since Tunisia signed the Warsaw Declaration, human rights activists have continued to be summoned before prosecutors or judges, detained for short periods, and deprived of their passports and the freedom to travel. Committed Tunisian democrats such as public health educator Moncef Marzouki, journalist Sihem Ben Sedrine, lawyer Nejib Hosni, and opposition leader Mohamed Mouada are either in jail or face jail terms and bans on working in their profession. Protests by human rights defenders and other activists have increased in the last year, not because the government has become more tolerant of peaceful criticism, but because of growing frustration with the denial of basic rights. Up to one thousand suspected Islamists are in prison, most for nonviolent activities. Basic steps that Tunisia should take to signal its commitment to political liberalization include the legalization of the now-banned Council on National Liberties and the release of all persons detained solely on the basis of peaceful political association and expression.

AZERBAIJAN

In November 2000, just weeks after it signed the Warsaw Declaration, Azerbaijan held parliamentary elections in which ballot stuffing and other falsification were widespread and blatant. Indeed, OSCE observers called the election "a crash course in ... manipulation." The repeat elections in 11 single-mandate constituencies, held on January 11, 2001, did not begin to correct the original, fraudulent vote. Not one of Azerbaijan's five nationwide elections since President Heydar Aliev came to power has met international standards, and the parliamentary elections only solidified his authoritarian control. Continued government harassment of the media and opposition political parties, and the government's failure to make significant progress in releasing political prisoners, also reflect a weak commitment to democratic principles. Lest Azerbaijan be allowed once again to make a mockery of the Community of Democracies, the convening countries should insist on an end to civil defamation suits crippling the media, release of political prisoners, and full implementation of OSCE election-related recommendations.

BURKINA FASO

The actions of President Blaise Compaore and his government continue to hinder the country's progress towards effective national democracy. Government officials enjoy impunity for acts of torture and extrajudicial execution, most notably in the case of journalist Norbert Zongo, who was killed in December 1998. Attempts by opposition groups and human rights activists to protest the lack of progress in the Zongo case have been thwarted by riot police. Municipal elections have been postponed several times. The government of Burkina Faso also faces serious allegations that it facilitated illegal arms shipments to Liberia and Sierra Leone and illicit diamond deals with Angolan rebels. President Compaore's party maintains an overwhelming majority in Parliament, and opposition activities in practice are limited. Before Burkina Faso is invited to continue participating in the Community of Democracies, it should at a minimum be expected to prosecute and punish those responsible for Norbert Zongo's murder. It should also strictly adhere to international arms embargoes and investigate past and present illegal arms transfers - democracies committed to the Community's standards should not be fueling abusive conflicts that violate those standards.

KENYA

Kenya has initiated several reforms during the last year, including the passage of a law to create a Constitution Review Commission. Nevertheless, numerous promises by President Daniel arap Moi have not yet resulted in any significant liberalization. The government continues to stifle peaceful political activity by opposition parties and civil society groups. Power remains concentrated in the executive branch, and officials guilty of corruption and human rights violations are not held accountable. Kenya's progress toward democracy and greater respect for human rights merits particular attention because national elections will be held in 2002. The Community of Democracies can help ensure that these elections adhere to international standards by making Kenya's participation in Seoul contingent upon concrete steps, including lifting bans on rallies by Muungano wa Mageuzi, a pro-democracy coalition, and allowing the new constitutional commission to operate independently.

HAITI

Despite recent signs that Haiti's political crisis may soon be resolved, its progress towards democracy remains uncertain. Local and parliamentary elections held in May 2000 were marred by abuses. The OAS Electoral Monitoring Mission labeled them "fundamentally flawed" and quit Haiti before a second round of balloting. Police forces have failed to protect citizens from politically motivated killings, assaults, threats and intimidation. The justice system remains dysfunctional, as highlighted by the failure to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of journalist Jean Dominique. Before Haiti is invited to Seoul, the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide should take concrete steps to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, including, at a minimum, the establishment of an independent and credible electoral commission and making clear progress toward identifying and punishing the killers of Jean Dominique.

KYRGYZSTAN

Once considered a potential model for democratization in Central Asia, the government of Kyrgyzstan has, in recent years, become increasingly authoritarian. The Akaev government has responded to criticism directed at it by harassing and jailing its critics, including independent journalists, human rights defenders, and political opposition figures. Leading opposition politicians Feliks Kulov and Topchubek Turgunaliev were arrested just prior to the presidential elections of October 2000 and remain in prison today. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that the presidential election "...failed to comply with OSCE commitments for democratic elections." These trends led the Community of Democracies to exclude Kyrgyzstan last year after initially including it among participating states. Barring significant progress on implementing OSCE election-related recommendations and the release of political prisoners like Feliks Kulov and Topchubek Turgunaliev, Kyrgyzstan should remain off the list of participating states for the 2002 meeting.

Of the other countries invited to participate last year, KUWAIT, QATAR and YEMEN have done little or nothing to meet the standards of the Warsaw Declaration. In Kuwait, strict Penal Code and Printing and Publications law provisions continue to hinder the work of journalists and writers. Women still do not have the right to vote. Qatar is an absolute monarchy in which freedom of assembly remains severely limited. Political demonstrations are prohibited, as are political parties and domestic human rights organizations. In Yemen, political activists are harassed and detained. The government continues to impose severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the press and local elections in February were marked by widespread irregularities. Absent fundamental democratic reforms that would increase the ability of opposition parties and activists to undertake their activities without retaliation or punishment - and in the case of Kuwait, grant women the right to participate in the political process -- these countries should not be invited to Seoul.

Needless to say, the situations in these and other countries will be fluid over the coming year and a half, and will merit continuing attention. We urge the convening states to consult closely with individuals and organizations independent of the government in these countries of concern to determine whether their participation will advance or hinder the cause of democracy and human rights. We look forward to discussing with you developments in each country as the date of the conference approaches.

Yours sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director

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