Promoting Democracy and Human Rights: Lessons of the 1990s

Since 1975 the number of nations under some form of democratic government has quadrupled. Today more than 2.3 billion people, 39 percent of the world’s population, are living in countries rated “Free” by Freedom House, which monitors human rights worldwide. Another 1.5 billion people live in societies designated as “Partly Free,” with limited democratic rule and human rights protection

Beyond these broad statistics, some of which can be attributed to the end of the Cold War, the past 25 years have seen a striking number of first-ever political phenomena: the consolidation of democracy in Western Europe with the transitions in Greece, Portugal, and Spain; the demise of the Soviet Union; the end of apartheid in South Africa; and the emergence of the first Chinese democracy in Taiwan and the first Korean democracy in the South.

Progress has been made on human rights as well. At the 1993 United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, governments voted to reaffirm the universality of human rights (albeit with initial resistance from China and several other non-Western countries). Transnational nongovernmental human rights networks have emerged, many from the 1975 Helsinki Accords, and some intergovernmental regional groups such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have added human rights to their agendas. Moreover, democracy and human rights are becoming interchangeable in international parlance. This year the UN Human Rights Commission passed a resolution declaring democracy itself to be a fundamental human right.

America’s foreign policy apparatus reflects the worldwide advances in democracy and human rights. During the 1990s, promoting democracy became a core objective in U.S. foreign assistance. Before 1989, foreign aid for democratic development seldom topped $100 million a year. By 1993, that figure had climbed to $900 million. Change extended even to the bureaucracy. High-ranking positions to oversee democracy promotion now exist in the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development; an unsuccessful effort was made to create one in the Department of Defense.


As the 1990s drew to a close, however, the heady progress had ebbed. The surges toward greater openness often met with political reversals and backsliding. Nations such as Pakistan, which occupied the “Partly Free” middle ground on the political spectrum, switched back and forth between democratic and authoritarian rule several times. Peruvian President Fujimori has resolutely held onto rule through undemocratic means for several years. In China, although personal freedoms have expanded, the Communist party continues to reject, and repress, any challenge to its political supremacy. Most significant for Americans, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire, Russia is only a half-democracy at best. Although the Russian system continues to pursue elections and other formal democratic processes, the ruling elite is not fully committed to protecting human rights, and the unseen hands of oligarchs in public policy undermine the development of transparent, accountable government. A new generation of reformers is coming to power in the Middle East, but few countries there have made a formal commitment to democracy. In Africa, the growth of democracy has been hindered not only by continued poverty but also by violent internal conflicts, such as that in East Africa, that decimate populations and invite gross human rights abuse. Other episodes of large-scale abuse have erupted elsewhere, the most dramatic being the campaign for “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia.

Throughout the decade, non-Western governments charged that democracy and human rights are lopsided concepts, skewed toward a Western preference for political and civil rights and ignoring the basic economic rights of impoverished nations. This philosophical divide is also evident in attitudes toward humanitarian intervention. Some non-Western nations believe that the international community, under U.S. leadership, is more willing to intervene to halt gross violations of human rights than to address other catastrophes, such as famines. As the new century begins, broad suspicions persist that promoting democracy and human rights is merely the manifestation of Western evangelism and even of imperialism.

Issues for a New Administration

Though promoting democracy and protecting human rights are established objectives in U.S. foreign policy, the past decade has shown that they can seldom be the exclusive goal. Trade-offs with other policy concerns, particularly vital security interests or major trade relations, will continue to affect the ability of policymakers to encourage other governments to become more open or democratic. The Clinton administration’s linking, and subsequent delinking, of human rights and trade with China in 1993-94 is a prime example of this dilemma. So is U.S. restraint in its approach to Chechnya. Moreover, much of the easy success of democratization in the early years after the Cold War is past. A new president must confront the harder cases, which thus far have proved resistant to a global democratic contagion.

Promoting democracy and protecting human rights in the next decade will require a lower profile and a more pragmatic, though no less vigorous, approach. U.S. foreign aid for democracy, which has fallen off sharply since the early 1990s, should be reinvigorated. The trend toward greater use of sanctions and other tools of conditionality should be curtailed. Too often sanctions prove ineffective in influencing the delicate internal process of political change.

Three major challenges face a new administration: expanding the definition of human rights to bring non-Western nations into the tent, reconciling accountability for human rights abuses with national stability and sovereignty, and encouraging greater openness in nondemocratic societies.

Broadening the Spectrum of Human Rights

The overwhelming majority of the world’s governments has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights promulgated by the United Nations in 1949, but the interpretation of the term “universal” varies widely between Western and non-Western nations. In truth, the scope of the Declaration is so broad that no nation is likely to give equal emphasis to every area of rights. But there is also some truth to the allegations of the leaders of some developing countries that the West focuses primarily on political and civil rights. The United States, for example, has ratified the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights but not the mirror Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, though it signed both in 1977. To make its human rights policies more effective, Washington must make conscious efforts to bridge this gap.

Congress’s longstanding resistance to ratifying the Economic Rights Covenant is unlikely to be reversed by a new administration of either party, even if it favored such a shift itself. Ratifying an international treaty carries the full effect of law in the United States, and no administration will agree to guarantee its citizens the economic benefits enumerated in the Economic Covenant (such as the right to housing or to a minimum income) without subjecting these issues to the domestic political process. Indeed, many of the issues that define the American domestic policy agenda, including welfare and Social Security reform, are economic rights issues.

But a new administration can take two steps to signal concern for a wider spectrum of rights in U.S. foreign policy. First, the United States should help develop regional networks for human rights. Not surprisingly, the regions weakest in human rights protection-the Middle East, Asia, and Africa-also lack regional frameworks for discussing rights (although the Organization of African Unity is considering adding human rights to its agenda). U.S. support for creating regional regimes will help dispel the perception that human rights are a Western export. Washington, however, must let regional actors take the lead. Any network on human rights in the Middle East is likely to be led by nongovernmental organizations, which have spearheaded human rights advocacy in their countries. And any Asian human rights body (likely to emerge first in Southeast rather than Northeast Asia) may well emphasize economic over political rights in the early years. The task for the United States is to help build regional platforms for discussing rights, not to urge specific agendas on them.

Second, in its dealings with individual countries, the United States should anchor human rights in a broader spectrum of global issues. For example, over the past decade Washington has tried with scant success to foster a dialogue on human rights with Beijing because the U.S. agenda is dominated by political dissidents and other concerns tagged by the Chinese as particularly “American.” A new administration need not abandon these issues, but it should present them in a broader context, adding topics that also affect citizen-state relations in China, including environmental protection, the control of viruses, care of the aging, and women’s rights.

Balancing Accountability with State Sovereignty

Episodes of gross human rights abuse during the 1990s spurred wider recognition both of the need to bring abusers to justice and of international responsibility to promote (or even provide) accountability. Such accountability can halt widespread crimes, as well as prevent future campaigns of abuse. The War Crimes Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, both sanctioned by the UN Security Council, were the hallmarks of the new attention to international justice. Both followed the architecture of the Nuremberg Trials for Germany after World War II. Top officials under indictment were tried by international jurists, who could be assumed to be more objective, while mid- and lower-level abusers were usually handled by the country’s own judicial system.

In future accountability exercises, however, the world community will not be so prominent. The Nuremberg principles apply best to countries vanquished by war (with the victors serving as jurists) or to “failed states” under international receivership. More commonly, state sovereignty plays a larger role. In preparing for trials for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and for elements of Indonesia’s military who committed human rights abuses in East Timor, the Cambodian and Indonesian governments are demanding a reversal of the Nuremberg principles. Although neither government has ruled out international participation in the trials, each is adamant that its national justice system must lead, particularly in handling high-ranking officials accused of abuse. Their arguments that accountability must be pursued in tandem with social and political stability are not without merit. A new U.S. president must aim not only for the most effective and fair trials, but also for measures to help institutionalize accountability in a country’s formal system and its more informal political culture. Internationally dominated exercises may be more immediately “fair,” but they may, ironically, hinder a nation’s ability to address (and prevent) future human rights abuses.

Greater Openness in Nondemocratic Societies

The statistic usually missing in litanies of the successes of the late 20th-century wave of democracy is that 2.1 billion people, 36 percent of the world’s population, still live under governments that remain authoritarian or even totalitarian. Encouraging these nations to move toward greater political openness and stronger protection of human rights is the single most difficult, and most important, task that a new president will face in this area.

A new administration should not automatically assume that any of these states is a candidate for an immediate transition to democracy. Regimes in these nations have proved resistant to theories of democratic dominoes. Many, such as China, are post-revolutionary societies, with second-generation ruling groups that now wield collective rather than one-man rule. These regimes are trying to hold on to power by stimulating economic development and raising the living standards of the general population. Traditional monarchies, particularly in the Gulf States of the Middle East, have a similar strategy.

An emphasis on economic progress also offers the United States new opportunities to promote freedoms. Economic growth and market reform often produce a growing and more assertive private sector, through which the United States can promote an evolutionary path toward greater openness. This instrumental approach may not bring democracy quickly, but it is likely to be more effective than an ideological insistence on democracy and may, in the end, prove a quicker path to a more democratic government and society. An effective U.S. policy would be to encourage more breathing space between the executive and other branches, as well as between state and society. Policies should not be premised on the assumption that it is possible to overturn the existing political dynamic and to create assertive new democratic structures overnight.

Terms such as “engagement,” “containment,” “carrots,” and “sticks” have been used so often in U.S. policy discourse in the past decade, particularly in the China trade debate, as to become almost meaningless. But a new administration is likely to find that quiet support for incremental gains will shape the domestic political behavior of nondemocratic governments far more effectively than sanctions will. Sanctions, even targeted or “smart” ones, cannot easily penetrate or influence relations within the regime, where political pluralism often begins and where decisions about further openness are made.

At first a new president may find few ways to support constructive political change in nondemocratic countries. Past (or current) antagonisms and legislative restrictions on official aid will force him to call on American nongovernmental organizations in implementing policy. Several such groups have long worked to assist these countries and have developed extensive networks of contacts enabling them to detect and reinforce positive political trends. Many groups, however, lack the funds to expand their programs with these countries. The new administration should work with Congress to make more public funds available. Although dramatic democratic change in these nondemocratic countries may be years away, immediate opportunities exist in many to support gradual movement toward openness. Here, at least, Mao was right: even the longest journey begins with a single step.