Democracy and Freedom, Unravelled

by Erik Koht

Those "buzz" words, democracy and freedom, seem inextricably intertwined — like love and marriage "you can't have one without the other". I can't imagine freedom without democracy, as long as one is talking about freedom for the many and not just the few. But, the other way around, democracy without freedom — could that work? Democracy is not a vague word, it's a clear, well defined concept — rule by the people — even though rule by democratic principles may find different expressions around the world. We have many democracies, but we don't have a single world-wide "democracy" formula. We do understand it to mean majority rule, though we are less clear when it comes to determining what constitutes a majority. Democracy is applied at local and national levels — but our world as a whole is still ruled as it always was, by the gun and by the laws of the powerful. Democratic nations must contend with an essentially undemocratic world stage on one hand, and face the grievances of permanent domestic minorities on the other. If it is true to say that we can't have freedom without democracy, then the world as a whole does not enjoy freedom. Also, democracy does not extend freedom to every individual member of a democratic society. By definition, that is not what democracy is about.

Though freedom is the air we breathe, it is like that gas, hard to grasp but still accepted unthinkingly. Only those that lack it know its true worth. We are asked to accept the word "freedom" which, singled out, may have special historical meaning to the people of the United States. Firstly, the word is closely associated with the founding fathers and the American Revolution. Secondly, it is key in the enduring struggle of the former slave population for equal rights. The trauma will persist in the population even should "freedom" be attained. US authorities and other sources exploit the "f"-word extensively to promote a great range of social, economic and political causes. We Europeans feel closer to the rallying cry of the French revolution: "Liberty, equality, brotherhood". Tentatively, we have learned to replace that word "brotherhood" with "solidarity". Our persistent traumas are those caused by poverty, hunger and war. Our national borders are literally drawn in the blood of generations. To us, liberty is not enough, we need a wider framework, extended to include compassion and equal worth. Achieving this among all the nations of the world in the absence of binding international obligations is totally unrealistic. For now, Europe is enough for Europe. Powerful nations, and those that dream of grandeur, are more likely to prefer a system based on expedience. Though the world depends on multilateral agreements, these are fleeting things, like kites held aloft by a passing breeze.


When it comes to the struggle for democracy and the international fight against corruption, breaches of human rights and wanton acts of violence, the world's attention is drawn hither and yon by no other logic than that created by the needs of some powerful player on the world stage or by some especially disruptive civil war. In this connection the buzz words turn into tools of propaganda, displayed for the occasion to motivate and provide legitimacy. Un-democratic and semi-democratic regimes fall into certain categories by how they are censured: Oppressive and criminal regimes that are deemed compliant when it comes to trade deals, the use of air space and bases, and that provide assistance when it comes to the "War on Terror", generally escape consistent condemnation. Maintaining a medieval infrastructure and ditto distribution of power are assets when tyrants want to be left alone with their slaves, serfs and secret police. We call those nations "inaccessible" or "closed societies" and let it go at that, they pose no threat. Let the oil rich states of Africa and the Middle East and the Central Asian republics serve to illustrate this point. The undemocratic nation that maintains some degree of law and order, have an acceptable infrastructure and in addition flaunt a decent industrial base is more at risk of being put under pressure. Cases in point: Cuba, Syria, Iran, Myanmar and North Korea. If you are as big as China, well, you can even document and publish your atrocities without fear of reprisal. Finally, there are nations, having attained democratic status according to world opinion, where civil liberties are set aside on a regular basis. Claims of being under threat provides the excuse for that regime as well as the community of democratic nations at large to refrain from addressing glaring breaches. Thus India is often called "the world's largest democracy" though all is far from well.

474389_1The European Union works specifically to promote democracy in Europe, making it a requirement for anyone seeking membership — in fact, without universal democracy the union wouldn't work. The British Commonwealth also requires its members be ruled democratically, but is somewhat more lenient, having only existing members to contend with. Some international organisations work continuously to promote human rights, others handle the subject on a case by case basis. The UN, preceded by the League of Nations, is a force for good and has specified many of the criteria for human rights, set forth in conventions and charters. The UN is not empowered to take action against breaches without the support of the permanent members of the Security Council. This is a bit of a paradox since several of these members have refrained from signing and ratifying human rights conventions, much less adhere to them. Still, the UN does valuable work by monitoring the situation in individual countries. But we must keep in mind that the Security Council members are able to interfere with this kind of information, even to the point of preventing it from being published. Some great organisations specifically avoid promoting democratic rule, the ones I have in mind are the International Red Cross, the International Olympic Committee, the Word Trade Organisation and various religious councils and movements. These organisations limit the use of their influence to promoting conditions needed to fulfill their particular tasks.

Continued ➽ Part 2/5