Too Many Friends in Undemocratic Places?

As the U.S. State Department was unveiling its third annual report on "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy" this week, four of the country’s best-known legislators came together to introduce a bipartisan bill to boost the promotion of democracy throughout the world – and signal a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy.

The ADVANCE Democracy bill was introduced in the Senate by John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut. In the House of Representatives, the bill was introduced by Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia, and Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California.

The bill seeks to strengthen the U.S. ability to promote democracy in a number of ways. It would establish a new office of Democracy Movements and Transitions at the State Department and regional democracy hubs at several embassies abroad. A new undersecretary of state would oversee democracy-building efforts.

The bill, officially titled the "Advance Democratic Values, Address Non-Democratic Countries and Enhance Democracy Act of 2005," would also create a democracy promotion advisory board to provide outside expertise to the government and authorizes 250 million dollars in increased funding for democracy promotion over two years, among other measures.

If enacted, the proposed legislation would signal a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy by making progress toward democratization a central goal. The U.S. realpolitik has traditionally allowed the country to ally itself with authoritarian, autocratic and dictatorial governments.

As made clear in the new State Department report, many current "friends" of the U.S. do not meet the criteria set out in the bill.

The legislation instructs the State Department to define as "undemocratic" any country where:

The rulers have come to power outside the rule of law;

Citizens are barred from participating in the political life in the country, and national legislative bodies are not chosen by free, fair, open, and periodic elections, by universal and equal suffrage, and by secret ballot;

There is only one political party;

Citizens do not have a right to fully exercise freedom of thought, conscience, belief, peaceful assembly and association, speech, opinion, and expression; and

There is no free media and independent judiciary.

"The promotion of democracy and freedom is simply inseparable from the long-term security of the United States," McCain said. "When the security of New York or Washington or California depends in part of the degree on freedom in Riyadh or Baghdad or Cairo, then we must promote democracy, the rule of law and social modernization."

Meanwhile, the State Department report, introduced at a Washington press conference by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, excoriated governments throughout the world for gross violations of democratic principles and practices.

Details were provided by Michael G. Kozak, U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour.

Asked whether almost daily revelations of additional U.S. human rights abuses against prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere damaged the credibility of the U.S. and of the report, Kozak responded, "We know, and the world knows, that no country, including the U.S., is perfect."

"The difference between us and most of the rest of the world is that when abuses are uncovered, people see what we do about them. They see American soldiers being court-martialed."

But critics took a different view. Amnesty International U.S.A warned that, "as long as the White House continues to flout international law and blatantly disregard the Geneva Conventions, many of its policies to promote democracy and human rights will be greeted with deep skepticism."

The group said the State Department’s "worthy efforts are undercut by the administration’s overall approach, making its report tantamount to a business ethics manual published by Enron."

"The initiatives described in this year’s report were laudable, but they continue to be overshadowed by the (George W.) Bush administration’s failure to hold high-ranking officials accountable for detainee abuse," Amnesty’s Devon Haynie told IPS.

"A credible public diplomacy effort to close the U.S. credibility gap on human rights requires that the White House support the establishment of an independent investigation into U.S. detention and interrogation practices."

Asked by journalists how the U.S. assigns priorities to its many concerns, Kozak repeatedly said, "It’s not a case of either/or. You have to try to move ahead on all fronts at the same time."

But Kozak, who is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate, acknowledged that the mission of "spreading democracy" was "full of compromises" and required great patience and skillful and sometimes tough diplomacy.

The central themes of the democratization program include women’s rights, domestic violence, press, religious and political party freedom, transparency in governance, independent judiciaries, official accountability, an end to political detention and torture, and freedom of speech and assembly.

To achieve these goals, the State Department helps train journalists, parliamentarians and judges, works with non-governmental organizations to improve their political advocacy, communications and organizational skills, and consults with government ministries to democratize laws and build institutional capacity.

The U.S. actively uses both "carrots and sticks," Kozak said.

While the job is never easy, he added, it is far more difficult in countries with which the U.S. does not have full diplomatic relations. He singled out North Korea, Iran and Cuba.

In these countries, the mission requires "particularly creative approaches," he said.

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Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.