Once again, in the global struggle over democracy, the sovereignty card is being played in defense of election fraud.
Outsiders must not meddle with “internal matters” such as elections, warn supporters of autocrats in Belarus and Ivory Coast – two distant points on the globe that are joined in their recent defiance of honoring free and fair democratic elections.
But meddle, outsiders did – and still must.
World attitudes about trespassing on other nations’ sovereignty coalesced after the cold war, prompted by the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and before that, the spread of democracy in Latin America and Asia during the ’80s.
A kind of global consensus formed that a severe humanitarian or human rights crisis could justify diplomatic, economic, and even military intervention – especially if it threatened to destabilize an entire region. The tragedy of nonintervention in the 1994 Rwanda genocide reinforced that view.
Terrorism acted as another catalyst, with George W. Bush on a democracy tear, attempting to spread freedoms in the Middle East that would dry up the appeal of Islamist jihad. That fervor has been tempered under President Obama – as seen in his weak response to Egypt’s recent sham elections.
But the democratic “color revolutions” of the early 2000s – in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere – united autocrats around the sovereignty defense. These leaders, from Iran to Venezuela, feared the advice, funds, and pressure from foreign supporters of budding democracy movements that could shake things up at home.
Thus it is that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – the supposed modernizer of Russia – can defend the clearly fraudulent election on Dec. 19 of Alexander Lukashenko. The Belarusan president, known as Europe’s last dictator, is disdained by Russian leaders. But not for his strong grip on power.
Despite the arrest and beating of opposition demonstrators and their leaders in the Belarusan capital of Minsk, Mr. Medvedev has declared the elections to be the “internal affair” of Belarus.
And yet, for a country that itself has sought closer ties to the West, and is in a “partnership” with the European Union, what happens in Belarus is hardly of disinterest in other capitals.
Belarus was offered an EU aid package of $3.6 billion if Mr. Lukashenko delivered free and fair elections. He didn’t, and the offer should be rescinded – if it hasn’t been already.
The circumstances – and consequences – are even more serious in Ivory Coast in Western Africa. That country, the world’s largest producer of cocoa, suffered a civil war in 2002-03, and the presidential run-off elections last month were part of an arduous negotiated process.
Incumbent Laurent Gbagbo lost to longtime rival Alassane Ouattara, who is now being protected by United Nations peacekeepers. Mr. Gbagbo refuses to concede, despite widespread recognition of his loss, including by his fellow African leaders. Gbagbo has unleashed security forces and violence, amid fears that this once bright spot will dim under another civil war.
The world is responding – interfering – with unusual and commendable unity. The UN Security Council on Monday agreed to extend its 10,000-strong forces in Ivory Coast for another six months. The members of the seven-member West African currency union are considering giving control of Ivory Coast finances to the real winner, Mr. Ouattara.
The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and African Development bank have frozen lending. The United States announced Dec. 21 travel bans on Gbagbo, members of his family, and his illegitimate government; the EU announced travel bans and an asset freeze on Gbagbo.
The stakes in Ivory Coast are considerable: for the war-scarred people who live there; for the region, which is now starting to absorb fleeing refugees; and for upcoming African elections elsewhere.
The only sovereignty that Gbagbo has to fall back on is the power over his own actions. He should exercise that self-control in a constructive way and step down. If not, other countries must continue to up the pressure, quite justifiably.