12 Oct 2005

It is Time to Fight Back

The argument from OpenDemocracy is that human rights and democracy are under threat. A threat that has originated from terrorism and from the responses of numerous governments to terrorism. OpenDemocracy maintains that fundamentalisms of all kinds are closing in on justice, reason and imagination.

They say it is time to fight back.

An extract from the OpenDemocracy article is included below:

Democracy and openDemocracy
Democracies must hold on to their moral advantage in the face of terror. Most people in the world, given the opportunity, prefer to live under a government of their choosing, buttressed by the rule of law, run by men and women whom they trust and who conduct themselves transparently, honestly and with integrity. This choice is presently denied to many people and, even where it theoretically exists, the results are not always as good as they might be. It remains true, nevertheless, that people of most cultures and political persuasions tend to prefer democracy to tyranny.

Those who pursue another agenda must therefore discredit democracy in order to win recruits. The challenge for democracies is to demonstrate that they are indeed morally based forms of government, true to their principles. This will not impress diehard fanatics or true believers in another cause, but they are lost in any case. It will hold the attention of the overwhelming majority of ordinary citizens and that is what counts. Failure to keep to our democratic principles enables extremists to persuade their recruits that democracies are hypocritical, disguising a lack of principle beneath empty rhetoric.

Leaders who undermine the central attributes of their own democracies – especially its foundation, the rule of law and equal access to justice – and who conspire to permit the use of torture, extraordinary rendition, arbitrary detention, detention without trial and extra-judicial murder, are themselves acting as recruiting-sergeants for terrorist organisations.

Fundamentalism, and what it teaches

The suicide and other terror attacks that began a generation ago in Lebanon and Sri Lanka and continued in Palestine have now spread across the middle east, from Israel and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. They are linked to the direct threat of fundamentalism – a political programme of authoritarian rule in religious form, which has, in some contexts, been able to garner significant popular support. Fundamentalism, a wider current of thought and action than the terrorism which is one of its adjuncts, does threaten the state, the government and the way of life of societies in the region.

The challenge of fundamentalism makes it all the more important to distinguish the open politics of democracy and human rights from a narrow definition of voting and a majority rule which may lead to majority tyranny.

The institutional and legal principles of democracy are universal:

- the rule of law and equal access to justice
- guarantees of human and civil rights that are upheld and independently monitored
- free and fair elections involving a genuine competition of ideas, permitting consensual, non-violent changes of government
- freedom of speech, press and media
- healthy, autonomous civil society institutions and networks, independent of the state
- accountability of authority and transparency of decisions
- entrenched property and economic rights
- social justice and basic security
- an ethos of dialogue, questioning, trust, and moral awareness
- widespread, free access to the information needed to discuss, scrutinize, make choices about and uphold all these components of a democratic society

Behind these are the core values of democracy:

- the political equality of all citizens
- open deliberation before decision-making so that all can voice their interests and concerns
- a high degree of citizen participation in the processes of democracy, that respects and encourages the different views of others
- a pluralism of institutions and the independence of critical voices that maintain the long-term health and openness of democratic societies.

The form these aspirations take may change: to be universal is not to be beyond history. To thrive, democracy requires a community that experiences itself as such – still most commonly the nation-state; and each nation-state will find its own democratic voice and personality. The way each society embraces the democratic virtues of disagreement and tolerance will differ, but all must be rooted in reason, humanity and imagination, and all demand dialogue and ideas to come alive.

Democracy is a form of anti-fundamentalism; its wisdom and openness resist monolithic certitudes. In times of rapid and hurtful change, growing inequality and the erosion of national authority by global powers, the appeal of fundamentalist doctrines demands a steady refusal not to reply in kind. When sanctions and force have to be used, their application should be limited and their character must be one of policing not conquest. A human security approach is needed to respond to the grim realities of genocide and tyrannical repression. Violence must be a last resort, used only within a clear legal and accountable framework.

Anthony Barnett and Isabel Hilton of OpenDemocracy


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