Democracy, Human Rights and the Emerging Global Order

The Brookings Institution’s Managing Global Order project convened a two-day workshop to discuss emerging trends in international support for democracy and human rights and the increasingly complex drivers shaping foreign policies. Bringing together policy makers and experts from emerging and established democratic powers at Greentree, the workshop identified areas of convergence and divergence in foreign policy priorities, methods, and discourse, and extrapolated implications for the evolving global order.

On the first day, participants explored the concepts of democracy and human rights and their promotion within the context of competing national interests. On the second day, the focus shifted to international cooperation on issues of democracy and human rights, especially as seen through the lens of the Arab uprisings and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), and the politics that guide the foreign policies of democracies.  The discussions, which were held on the basis of the Chatham House rule of non-attribution to specific speakers, are summarized here.

The conversation was predicated on a working definition of democracy as a liberal, representative political system as articulated in various international instruments like the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies, UN General Assembly Resolution 56/96 of 2001, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter. While recognizing that it takes different forms in different contexts, democracy in this sense reflects such core principles as the separation of powers with checks and balances, civil and political rights, freedom of the press, universal suffrage in free and fair elections, and civilian control of the military. Although participants disagreed to what extent social and economic rights should be emphasized in the expression of democracy, they agreed that all human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing and deserve protection.

Global Governance

In an era when the gap between the demand for and the supply of global governance is growing, it is increasingly urgent that established and emerging democracies find common ground  on norms and delivery of global public goods,  especially on democracy and human rights issues. There is cause for optimism: Rising democracies like India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, and Turkey are embracing democracy and human rights at home and to varying degrees promoting them in their neighborhoods.  But they are not yet stepping up to address the gap on these and other issues in global governance internationally.

Simultaneously, the rules-based system under which international relations take place is in flux, providing an opportunity to reshape and redirect the global order. Emerging powers emphasize the importance of democratization both domestically, where they are grappling with their own internal processes of reform, and multilaterally, where they question whether actions of established powers are commensurate with their principles, argue for universal application of rules and norms, and insist on a greater voice at the decision-making table. They have the opportunity to shape the future of global governance as leaders and are proving themselves important players in global affairs, but this shift has been more marked at the level of regions and neighborhoods. The results of multipolarity in the global sphere have been more ambiguous and it remains to be seen whether the liberal world order persists or a new framework emerges with rising powers at the helm of a more elastic set of norms. While it appears certain that human rights will remain a durable legacy of the era of Western hegemony, the cause of enlarging democracy stands on less solid footing.

The Democracy Advantage and its Place in Defining National Interests

In the modern era, peace generally reigns amongst democracies. Democracies also perform better than non-democracies at economic development, and democracy, economic development, and regional integration work hand-in-hand to promote peace and stability. Non-democracies are more likely to be failed states spawning internal or external conflict. It would be expected, therefore, that democracies would identify the spread of democracy as in their national interests and would partner on certain issues, such as support for democratic transitions, human rights and rule of law. A state’s designation as a democracy or non-democracy, however, is not necessarily a good predictor of foreign policy alignment. While there is strong convergence on the fundamental principles of human rights, emerging and established democracies favor very different methodologies for addressing threats to such core values, resulting in divergence of policy, politicization and stalemate, as in the case of Syria.

There was consensus that democracy cannot be imposed by external actors, but rather must be pursued organically by a population. It is a path, not a destination. Similarly, countries formulate and express democracy differently based on their unique histories; there is no single model of democracy. Aspiring democratic countries seeking advice from other democracies are increasingly turning to states that have undertaken their own transitions more recently, and they, in turn, are responding positively if and when asked to assist. In fact, the “twinning” model of pairing newer democracies with transitioning states is being prototyped by the Community of Democracies through its project pairing Poland with Moldova, and Slovakia with Tunisia. The G8 has arranged similar pairings through the Deauville Partnership with Arab Countries in Transition, which links leaders in aspiring democracies with G8 partners to build institutional capacity, promote knowledge sharing, and strengthen accountability and good-governance practices. In addition, rising democracies like Indonesia and South Africa have been key players in establishing and utilizing multilateral fora like the Bali Democracy Forum and the African Peer Review mechanism to share experiences and best practices in this domain. 

Although participants agreed that democracy must be demand driven, disagreement emerged regarding the universality of democracy promotion. Some felt strongly that countries on the path of democracy have a responsibility to assist those who seek the same path. Others noted the negative connotations associated with democracy promotion and its perceived application as a post-hoc, faux justification for military intervention aimed at regime change, as with U.S. involvement in Iraq. Some also pointed to its selective application, especially when energy security interests take precedence over influencing, punishing, or removing repressive regimes, as with U.S. passivity in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Some in the global South interpret democracy promotion as a U.S. agenda rather than a universal aspiration and wish to construct a unique brand of support for democracy in contrast to the U.S. and E.U. model. Rising democracies seek their own identity (also referred to as strategic autonomy) in an effort to avoid being seen as tools of more established powers. In one respect, this attitude has prompted emerging powers to act timidly with regards to democracy promotion, hiding behind the fig leaves of sovereignty and non-intervention when asked by the international community to act outside their neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, such powers have actively promoted democracy in their regions through both bilateral and multilateral mechanisms. Indonesia, for example, was a key player in leveraging ASEAN to encourage Myanmar to undertake political change and in drafting the first ever ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights. However, emerging powers have been as complacent as established powers in indirectly suppressing democracy when other national interests take precedence, as with India’s less than decisive response to the political crisis in the Maldives, or Brazil’s uncritical support for Cuba. In response to the Arab Spring, rising democracies are for the first time being expected to grapple with the notion of democracy promotion beyond their own regions, an expectation many find difficult to fulfill. The prevalence of extremist ideologies and xenophobia, the increased threat of the tyranny of the majority, and the free and fair election of leaders the international community may dislike all posed significant red flags for emerging (and established) democracies and reinforced their reticence regarding democracy promotion. Other national interests like trade relations, energy dependence, migration and diaspora population concerns present roadblocks to greater international engagement on this issue.

The emergence of other domestic political and economic actors with their own interests and values plays an important role in shaping national interests, especially in emerging democratic powers. Some disagreement concerned which actors had the most influence over the definition of national interests. In Brazil, for example, the private sector may be notably more influential than other domestic players, which complicates a truly national definition of priorities. Parliament plays an uneven and unpredictable role in formulating foreign policy, although legislators in emerging powers have begun taking greater interest. For example, Brazilian congressmen and senators recently joined a coalition with NGOs to hold the foreign minister accountable on human rights issues. While recognizing the important role legislators can play in inserting human rights into foreign policy, some acknowledged that their contribution could also be a mixed blessing due to nationalist, religious or ethnic political motivations.

Much conversation also involved the balancing of interests that sometimes conflict with human rights, such as national security and the economy. Some argued that human rights and democracy support must be managed in a way that does not jeopardize other national interests or relations with key trading partners like China. In this respect, constant calibration between interests and values is vital. Rising democracies will continue to define their own pace of democratization at home and support for democracy and human rights abroad, leading many observers to predict a continued period of inertia and inaction in responding to or preventing democratic breakdowns or mass human rights violations. The international community is thus tasked to advance a mutually respectful collaborative approach that appeals to both emerging and established powers and that achieves results. To successfully reach such a compromise, it must identify approaches the global South feels comfortable employing and develop strategies to bring those tools to bear in new and challenging contexts.

The Arab Uprisings and the Responsibility to Protect

Although the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is embraced as within democratic principles, its primary purpose is not democracy promotion. R2P’s mission is atrocity prevention, though it is difficult to operationalize the concept. The application of R2P in Libya through military intervention authorized by the UN Security Council and the subsequent failure to exercise it in Syria as of yet has revealed many challenges inherent in current understandings of R2P. It also provided an important venue for conversation between established and emerging powers about humanitarian intervention. It is clear that a fundamental shift has taken place regarding humanitarian intervention and that more and more states embrace the broad values expressed by R2P. For example, most of the 118 states that mentioned Syria at the UN General Assembly in 2012 expressed concern about the population, up from less than a third who invoked Kosovo and East Timor in 1999. In addition, the IBSA Dialogue Forum sent a delegation to Syria, as did Turkey, a new rallying of emerging powers to address threats to human rights both inside and outside their own neighborhoods. This level of attention and the unprecedented advocacy of a policy of intervention by rising powers can be attributed at least in part to the improved quality of democracy in the rising democracies.

With the support of emerging powers like South Africa, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized the use of force in Libya, but elicited rancor from some parties when it resulted in the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi. Suspicions were voiced that Resolution 1973 had acted as cover for regime change, and because it was couched in the language of R2P, states began questioning the concept. In response to this breakdown in consensus, Brazil proposed the Responsibility While Protecting (RWP) principle, which emphasized the sequencing of measures to ensure all options were exhausted before using force, and called for greater accountability and reporting to the Security Council. Participants disagreed as to whether RWP served as a useful basis for conversation between the North and South, or if it represented a counterproductive Brazilian political move that merely inflamed rhetoric. Some of the good will engendered by RWP has begun to disintegrate as the situation in Syria continues to fester with no coordinated international response.

Admittedly, Libya and Syria are very different countries, especially in terms of the roles they play in the strategic interests of key actors. Nevertheless, the application of R2P in Libya but not in Syria highlights the phenomenon of selectivity, a topic of debate throughout the workshop. Participants agreed that crisis situations should be examined on a case-by-case basis, but at the same time many reinforced the global responsibility to support all states that are unable to adequately prevent mass atrocities. Some suggested that selectivity is the principled application of R2P but called for transparency in decision making to better understand a state’s motivations for supporting or denouncing intervention as an option. Others argued that universalizing the concept to make responsibility an obligation at all times in all cases is a fundamental challenge that the international community should pursue. At the very least, discourse must recognize that all states engage in some form of selectivity in order to advance the conversation.

It was pointed out that international responses to the Arab uprisings have been uneven not only in atrocity prevention but also democracy support. Emerging powers hesitate to lend support to the application of R2P in Syria lest it be used as a mask for regime change, as some perceive to have been in the case in Libya. However, established and emerging powers alike have not exercised leadership in universally supporting calls for democracy in countries of the Middle East because of overarching security concerns like energy and relations with Israel. And although emerging and established powers share an interest in energy security, they still differ on methodologies; a country may have leverage in a situation short of intervening militarily which might result in strategies that are most cost effective in money and lives. For example, South Africa resisted intervening militarily in Zimbabwe in response to democracy and human rights crises, despite international calls to do so, but was able, in their view, to improve elections there through alternative means. Likewise, it refused to intervene militarily in Sudan, instead employing a triangulation strategy that led to secession. Similarly, Turkey initially prioritized dialogue and consultation with the Assad regime, relying on the relationship it had cultivated with Syria over the last ten years to exhaust all potential peaceful solutions. IBSA also sent a high-level diplomatic mission to Syria to try to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict and thereby ward off military intervention.

The Arab uprisings have fundamentally challenged the Western idea of the separation of church and state, and Arab democracy demands a redefinition of secularism that allows religious values, but not rules and regulations, to take root in society. Discussants will continue to have to confront this new reality as the conversation continues regarding democratization in the Arab world.

Current understandings of preventive diplomacy tools like R2P – especially how they relate to and affect emerging democracies – must be improved. The discussion prompted by the Brazilian proposal of RWP highlights the need for further conversation or clarification about R2P as a tool. There is still fear that R2P provides a blank check to pursue national interests rather than prevent atrocities. Therefore, a refocusing on R2P’s purpose and intentions is needed, and may reduce objections to its proper application. In addition, a multilateral coalition must be built and maintained to address mass atrocities such as in Syria. This requires ongoing messaging with all partners and the public to maintain support and communicate expectations and mission objectives.

Tools for International Cooperation on Democracy and Human Rights

Recent events show a clear incapacity of international mechanisms to effectively address major threats to democracy and human rights. While established democracies are quicker to pursue coercive tactics and emerging democracies strongly prefer dialogue and reconciliation, a variety of tools are available and being tested on the world stage. Indonesia seeks to make democracy and human rights foundational concerns at existing institutions like ASEAN, its new Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and the G20. Indonesia’s leadership in the adoption of the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights and the establishment of the Bali Democracy Forum underscore this commitment. The Community of Democracies creates issue-based working groups to involve government and civil society and maximizes technology through the LEND network, connecting key leaders in transitioning countries with those in transitioned countries.

Another key tool touted by many participants is reliance on regional bodies as antenna in noting potential problems and as early movers in response to crises. The AU and SADC both have provisions to suspend any country that experiences an unconstitutional interruption, ECOWAS recently suspended Mali’s membership in response to a coup, and UNASUR recently exercised a similar provision against Paraguay. These and other multilateral mechanisms are critical because they reflect regional ownership without the presence of Northern powers and because such a coalition is less likely than a single nation to create further problems or receive pushback from local actors.

Participants discussed in depth the merits of democracy-inclusive forums and democracy-exclusive forums for discussion of important transnational issues. For example, the Community of Democracies reformed its invitation and governing council selection process in 2010 to ensure leadership consists of staunchly committed democracies while expanding participation at ministerial meetings to include countries at incipient stages of democracy. The Bali Democracy Forum, however, invites a broader base of participants, including China and Vietnam, in an effort to establish a conversation with more parties. While it was agreed that both style of forums are necessary and beneficial, participants lacked consensus as to when democracies should and should not include others in policy conversations.

Most participants with a global South view asserted that for any country to retain credibility in international cooperation on human rights and democracy, a strong human rights record at home is a vital requisite. Otherwise, the rules-based system that governs behavior is weakened by the perception that great powers write the rules but are not necessarily committed to following them. In this respect, emerging powers emphasize the importance of addressing human rights challenges domestically. For example, Brazil recently established a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses under the military dictatorship and passed a freedom of information law to increase transparency. It has also engaged in international efforts to combat violence against women and encourage open government initiatives, key concerns within Brazil and essential to advancing its own democracy. No consensus was reached on the means by which accountability can be increased on the global level, although the need was clearly articulated. Emerging democratic powers are increasingly held to account by vibrant civil society organizations and media that feature voices from victims of violations and question government’s actions abroad. Decision makers have noted this democratization of foreign policy and it continues to shape their processes and actions.

Words of caution tend to outweigh prescriptive solutions in discussing tools for international cooperation. According to some participants, limiting discussions on transnational issues to an exclusive club of democracies is a false dichotomy that discourse must move past. Engaging with imperfect democracies (like Venezuela and Bolivia) is crucial to encourage their continued development on the path of democracy. The regional dimension of democracy and human rights support should also be strengthened so that neighbors hold each other accountable for advancing democratic practices. Trade and regional economic integration can also be considered as a potentially effective tool for promoting values. States should also leverage their private sectors, which engage in new and different ways with civil society when investigating potential investment opportunities abroad, to take advantage of new avenues for dialogue. In addition, they should encourage business leaders to prioritize their obligations to protect human rights and sustainable development. Finally, the international community must better coordinate its efforts to avoid overwhelming target populations, as has occurred with countries rushing to Tunisia’s aid in its transition. It must also ensure that such aid is voluntary and in no way coercive.

The Politics of Foreign Policy in Democracies: The Human Rights Dimension

In the last session, participants articulated the tactics that facilitate action at the global level and the factors preventing further progress, with suggestions for improvement. Agreements at the UN Human Rights Council and other similar international fora are often reached by isolating extremists and working effectively with the middle. Diplomats are also successful when they can effectively navigate their governments in capital to alter a country’s position on an issue. Therefore, personalities of the diplomats at the UN, the Human Rights Council, and other relevant bodies can play important roles in shaping the course of negotiations. Similarly, personal priorities of government leaders can influence how much importance is placed on human rights. U.S. Secretary of State Clinton has prioritized women’s human rights and LGBT human rights, but Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, is a technocrat who prioritizes economic growth and social protections. The foreign policies of the countries reflect these priorities.

Many factors, including the realpolitik interests of emerging powers, resource constraints, political dynamics, personalities and what is politically and procedurally possible at international bodies all combine to explain why more action is not taken on human rights issues at the global level. For example, to highlight the importance of human rights in foreign policy, one European expert shared that the human rights section of the foreign ministry receives the highest number of parliamentary questions on foreign policy, while about half of the daily statements from the ministry spokesperson pertain to human rights. However, budget constraints and the current state of the economy prevent more robust action at this time. Another participant from an established democracy shared that internal bureaucratic politics limited the policy options available to diplomats which slowed action at the Human Rights Council and limited that country’s opportunities to lead.  Conversely, domestic politics forced India to change its vote at the Human Rights Council regarding a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to address human rights abuses. India had long resisted such resolutions, but thanks to overt pressure from a coalition partner, it became more active. This represents an unusual but important example of domestic politics prompting rather than impeding action on human rights at the international level.

Emerging democracies face major challenges in addressing their own human rights deficits at home. They largely lack a domestic constituency for a more human rights-oriented foreign policy, meaning the few NGOs advocating for these issues have a small pool of support on which to draw. As a result, economic growth and private interests are usually prioritized over accountability. In Brazil, much of civil society has not been actively engaged on these issues, and in Indonesia, the discussion has traditionally been dominated by think tanks. This has begun to shift and influence on foreign policy has begun to diversify, but in many of the emerging powers this change is still in the nascent phases. In some cases, emerging democracies still struggle to maintain a high-quality representative system. The process of decentralization in Indonesia has led to a growing oligarchy which threatens the protection of minority rights – especially religious minorities but also women. Turkey has experienced serious backsliding regarding freedom of the press while continuing to wrestle with its own minority rights challenges. Overall, civil society engagement on foreign policy in emerging democracies has been limited but is improving. Attention should be paid to framing the discussion on a case-by-case basis to bring these issues into the public consciousness in the relevant countries.

Despite these challenges, most participants agreed that civil society and NGOs have an enormous role to play in shaping foreign policy regarding human rights. When governments refuse to act on important issues, civil society can apply pressure to prompt action. For example, when South Africa hesitated to broach LGBT rights at the Human Rights Council, South African civil society held the government accountable by bringing public attention to the prioritization of human rights codified in the 1994 constitution. This shamed South Africa into leading on this issue. However, many participants asserted that civil society and NGOs must be more creative in approaching governments. While the foreign ministry is often the lead on foreign policy regarding human rights, many other ministries have equity in these crosscutting issues and shape (or block) the debate. Civil society and NGOs should approach other ministries – ministries concerned with the economy, education, and security, for example – to apply pressure and enact change. In addition, they can call upon leaders in the executive branch with a personal interest in democracy and human rights matters to apply pressure. For example, in Brazil, NGOs approached an attorney general who had previously worked in the human rights field to question the foreign ministry about an upcoming vote on North Korea. By invoking Article IV of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, which codifies a commitment to human rights, the attorney general and NGOs were able to elicit a change in Brazil’s vote.

While these recommendations may help civil society and NGOs bolster their impact, they must be prepared for pushback from governments. While governments in the global North revert to funding constraints and domestic pressure as motivations for their action or inaction, governments in the global South might rely on arguments that South-South cooperation should be emphasized over naming and shaming tactics and that the system operates under a double standard. Civil society and NGOs should accept and support South-South cooperation, but not complacency. They must demand leadership from their governments to ensure the safeguarding of the global democracy and human rights order.

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