Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Essential Human Rights

I have often pointed out that democracy does not by itself lead to a respect for human rights and the development of institutions that lead to peace and stability. American democracy permitted domestic terrorism against blacks for well over a century; democracy in the Palestinian territories has increased the power of Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and gives every indication that it wants conflict rather than coexistence.

So the question arises, what are the crucial rights (besides the right to cast a ballot every few years) that do lead to peaceful and cohesive societies? Obviously it is hard to present anything comprehensive here, but I would like to suggest three areas which I believe hold the key:

1. The protection of minority rights

As pointed out by many thinkers over the centuries, democracies can easily degenerate into “tyrannies of the majority” if there aren’t provisions that explicitly protect minority rights. This is abundantly clear in Iraq, where the majority Shiites are trying to wrest virtually all power and leave the Sunnis with next to none. Almost all societies have minority populations that have at one time or another been exploited, disenfranchised or abused, and this is often the source of on-going conflicts that destabilize society and may lead to larger regional conflicts.

2. Freedom of speech

We take this for granted in the West, but without the freedom to openly criticize the government and its policies, as well as one another within society, it is very easy for propaganda and misinformation to reign supreme. Freedom of speech is a prerequisite for a vibrant and robust civil society, which is the foundation of any modern democracy.

3. Freedom from arbitrary detention

This freedom is the natural extension of freedom of speech, in that the latter only has meaning if one can express views without fear of being rounded up and jailed by the government. The primary tool of fear by non-free states is their ability to detain people at will, often without charge, an ability which instills fear, distrust and uncertainty in the population.

Just as future administrations would be wise to rethink the “war on terror” and provide a more precise definition of what it is we are fighting, they might also want to move beyond the simple language of “promoting democracy” abroad and consider exactly what it is that leads to peace within and between societies, apart from holding elections.

I submit that these are three areas on which to focus attention: the protection of minority rights, freedom of speech and its hand-in-glove collateral, freedom from arbitrary detention.

Jason Scorse

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