Paving the way to democracy by upholding human rights

UNITED STATES efforts to promote global democracy represent the triumph of wishful thinking over political reality. Democracy, seldom defined beyond the call for early elections, is trumpeted as the universal panacea for entrenched social and economic ills in fragile new nations and feudal old ones. American liberals and conservatives alike urge neophyte governments to adopt a complex political system attained only imperfectly in a limited number of cohesive societies. The belief that instantaneous national deliverance will follow from an imported facsimile of Western-style democracy is a misperception that serves neither the cause of international comity nor the plight of desperate, long-indentured peoples.

South Korea, the Philippines, and Haiti all have long historical ties to the US, though their social and economic development levels vary. Their recent experiences graphically illustrate the inherent difficulties in making an orderly transition from dictatorial rule to representative government. Recurrent mass unruliness, armed violence, and factional strife in each have rendered initial hopes for sustained democratic evolution uncertain, precarious, or improbable.

The results point up a harsh, largely unacknowledged international political fact: Democracy is seldom the immediate sequel to prolonged dictatorship.

The euphoric popular response that followed the overthrow of unpopular dictatorships in Haiti and the Philippines was misconstrued by impressionable US policymakers as a conscious public readiness to embrace a national democratic credo. More often the public reaction was a spontaneous mass celebration over the departure of hated symbols of persecution, and the inchoate expression of frustrated aspirations for a more tolerable material existence.

Democracy does not arise pristine and full blown from the ashes of tyranny. It cannot be implanted by internal edict or foreign fiat. Nor is it advanced when the president of the US eulogizes strife-ridden countries with scant traditions of democratic liberties, such as Afghanistan, El Salvador, or Guatemala, as shining exemplars of ``a global democratic revolution.''

Democracy cannot be promoted from abroad until it first sinks authentic roots at home. It is created essentially by the labors and sacrifices of those who live and die within their own lands. It evolves indigenously over time through a political symbiosis of enlightened leadership and responsible citizenry. Societies that have never known democracy should not be expected to adopt instantaneously its complex precepts and practices after an abusive dictator has been removed.

The international road to democracy will likely be slow and tortuous. Yet one national precondition for its attainment can be within earlier reach: the protection of elementary human rights. The control and dismantling of oppressive police and security forces, while never simple in transitional periods, need not await the finished carapace of legislative structures.

Purposeful leaders, such as Ra'ul Alfons'in in Argentina, can take energetic measures to curb the flagrant excesses of prior regimes and remedy the wretched conditions they inherit. In repudiating past abuses through a new respect for human rights principles, they display a willingness to embark on the painstaking journey to a more just society. Such efforts would indicate visible commitment to more humane governance in countries long traumatized by historical oppression. Such efforts warrant the tangible evidence of US economic and political support accorded too often in the past to unregenerate authoritarian rulers, such as the Philippines' Ferdinand Marcos and Haiti's Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Vigorous, impartial, and evenhanded endorsement of international human rights can be a potent US weapon for encouraging beneficent change abroad. Beyond serving as a catalyst for an ultimate democratic evolution, such a policy has an inherent validity as an end in itself. A decade ago, Andrei Sakharov, still ostracized in the Soviet Union, emphasized the transcendent significance of this objective.

``The global character of human rights is particularly important,'' Mr. Sakharov then wrote. Its ``ideology is probably the only one that can be combined with such diverse ideologies as communism, social democracy, religion, technocracy, and those that are national and indigenous. It can serve as a foothold for those who do not wish to be aligned with the theoretical intricacies of dogmas, and who have tired of the abundance of ideologies, none of which has brought mankind simple human happiness. The defense of human rights is a clear path toward the unification of peoples in our turbulent world, and a path toward the relief of suffering.''

David Heaps is board chairman of Human Rights Internet, an international human rights documentation service associated with the Harvard Law School. He has worked in developing countries as a Ford Foundation representative and consultant to international organizations.

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