Human Rights Watch 2008 Report: Despots Masquerading as Democrats

by Peggy McGuinness

Human rights reporting season is upon us, and HRW is first out of the blocks with their annual report. This year’s report highlights the disconnect between elections, democracy and human rights. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:

States claiming the mantle of democracy, including Kenya and Pakistan, should guarantee the human rights that are central to it, including the rights to free expression, assembly and association, as well as free and fair elections. But in 2007 too many governments, including Bahrain, Jordan, Nigeria, Russia and Thailand, acted as if simply holding a vote is enough to prove a nation “democratic,” and Washington, Brussels and European capitals played along, Human Rights Watch said. The Bush administration has spoken of its commitment to democracy abroad but often kept silent about the need for all governments to respect human rights.

“It’s now too easy for autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “That’s because too many Western governments insist on elections and leave it at that. They don’t press governments on the key human rights issues that make democracy function – a free press, peaceful assembly, and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power.”

So, if we know that elections do not equate with democratic governance, why do the U.S. and EU keep pushing for elections? Matt Yglesias captures one possible answer here: Because it is something we know — or at least think we know — how to do. (I am not sure I agree with Yglesias that we don’t know how to do “rule of law,” but it is fair to say that the rule of law is a lot harder to make happen than holding an election.) Ken Roth’s introductory essay suggests a more complicated interplay between elections, the strategic relationships Washington and Brussels have with certain rights-abusing regimes, and the need to be able to call a government “democratic” or “on the road to democracy” to sell these interest-based relationships at home. It’s an interesting and I think important frame that HRW puts around these regimes that, by holding “elections” — no matter how corrupted — cloak themselves in the rhetoric of democracy, while at the same time smashing to bits core human rights.

On a side note, unlike the official State Department report on human rights, HRW covers the United States as well:

US abuses against so-called “war on terror” detainees are a major concern; 275 detainees are still held at Guantanamo Bay without charge. Some of those remain after being cleared by the United States for release, because they cannot be sent home and no country will resettle them.

The United States continues to have the highest incarceration rate in the world, with black men incarcerated at more than six times the rate of white men.

One Response

  1. Someone should send this analysis to The Economist so they can cease their agonisingly triumphalist drivel about the victory of democracy in return to power of Thaksin’s proxies in Thailand. Forget about the subversion of the rule of law, endemic political corruption, and massive centralisation and control of the media. If you can form a polity composed entirely of big business interest and ignorant peasants bribed with cattle and cheap money during the election, then of course, Thai-rak-Thai is wonderful. Yay for democracy.

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