We are gaining ground on the evil of authoritarianism

If we take into account that the Universal Declaration dates from 1948, and that subsequent legislative instruments are relatively new, then we can see that the rate of progress is very rapid. Español Português

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-16 at 2.52.03 AM.jpeg
Francesc Badia i Dalmases Emilio Álvarez Icaza
30 May 2016

Newsstand in Brasilia, Brasil. 18 April 2016. AP Foto / Felipe Dana

Francesc Badia: Thank you for agreeing to meet with Democracia Abierta. My first question is really a reflection on the world-wide retreat of democracy that we are witnessing, with its concomitant impact on human rights. While we see significant progress in terms of formal acknowledgement of human rights, violations are increasing at the same time. So we have a contradiction: growing recognition of human rights, paralleled by backtracking in practice. How do you view this contradiction?

Emilio Álvarez:  Overall I am more optimistic than pessimistic. Broadly-speaking, I think we are gaining ground on the evil of authoritarianism. I believe that recognition of human dignity is evolving in a positive way. Of course, I don’t ignore the big problems and challenges, but if we take account, for example, of the fact that the universal declaration dates from 1948, and that subsequent legislative instruments are still relatively new, then we can see that the rate of progress is very rapid. In the days when I taught human rights, I used to ask my students how many years they thought remained to humanity. Some would say two thousand years, others four thousand, six thousand, ten thousand and so on. Let’s assume ten thousand. How long ago was slavery legally abolished? The answer is not until 1985. That’s just about 50 years ago. The truth is that humanity can be pretty torpid. As you can see, the issue of human rights is very new and, despite the legal abolition, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people still living under conditions of virtual slavery in the form of ill-treatment, exploitation, trafficking, the enslavement of children, women….and so on, and nowadays there’s the issue of slave labour.

But I think we have entered a new paradigm. It seems to me that the events of the 90s - the collapse of the Soviet Union, the return of democracy to Latin America after the period of dictatorship, the many changes that took place in Africa and Asia - opened up new perspectives and raised expectations. Subsequently, however, some of those who achieved power proved not to be any more democratic. We learned that the left was also capable of being dictatorial; we discovered that there were regions where, despite a degree of progress, corruption or repression and authoritarianism had taken root - notably in Russia, China, North Africa and Latin America.

I’m not sure I would agree with the idea of regression as such. I see it rather as a deceleration of the democratising process. I think we now have more and better resources such as social networks. Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have even thought of Democracia Abierta - a fantastic medium! I think Open Democracy as a whole is a good example of these tools and I also think there are new agendas such as the current discussion that is taking place about discrimination and the process of inclusion: the whole theme of same-sex relationships, and respect for different races.

What am I getting at in this discussion? It seems to me that, in spite of considerable difficulties, we are making progress. I am aware that some developments are disturbing to defenders of human rights; and some ideologies manifest clear authoritarian tendencies. I am also very worried about what is happening in Europe. I was in Brussels in December and to me it felt like El Salvador in the 80s. I emerged from the aircraft to find the airport full of soldiers, I took the train and it was full of soldiers, I arrived in downtown Brussels and there were tanks and military vehicles in the streets. I’d been a couple of times before to a fair held in conjunction with a EU - Civil Society meeting. It reminded me of my early visits to Guatemala and El Salvador. It seems to me that Europe is is changing subconsciously. In other words, I’m fully aware of the challenges and the risks facing human rights defenders, but what I’m suggesting is that we shouldn’t lose sight of the great progress we are making.

F: Yes. The curtailment of liberties that we are witnessing in Europe in reaction to terrorism is a complex phenomenon and one that I believe has resulted in an overreaction by politicians who are misusing the situation to justify repressive policies.

E: At a different level, this is what happened in Latin America in response to the insecurity created by drug trafficking. Europe must take care not to make the same mistake, because in Latin America the consequence, over 10 or fifteen years, was not more security but less, plus a weakening of human rights.

F: In this context, perhaps the turning point was 9/11 in New York. This led to an over-reaction, unleashing an asymmetric war, which in turn gave rise to electronic surveillance and thereby indirectly impinged on rights of privacy. The danger, above all, is that these instruments of control and surveillance might fall into the hands of repressive, authoritarian regimes. In short, we find ourselves in a very vulnerable situation. How do you see the phenomenon of surveillance and electronic monitoring?

E: Unfortunately, the technological revolution is proceeding more rapidly than State regulation. In no way do I support social regulation and control. I am in favour of free and open electronic spaces. But in circumstances where an absence of legislation opens the door to abuses, we are experiencing a process of massive data collection and storage, etc. During a meeting of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, it emerged that the US government is recording the modest quantity of 900 million mobile ’phone numbers throughout the world. Not content with recording the whole of their own population, they record three times that number, and develop software to suit. Then we find out that the US is not alone in the practice because Mexico and Brazil do the same, and the relevant software ends up in the hands of their governments too. We have the case of the Italian company that governments hire to snoop on their citizens. These governments are supposed to be democratic. It seems to me that we have to refine and direct the reporting and management of State investigations because the powerful digital tools now available are being employed as a means of control. Just as openDemocracy and many other media are social media for and of the citizenry, governments are using the technological revolution to exercise control.

Control is the favourite word of governments, while the favourite word of citizens is freedom and thus we have a state of permanent tension. We must try to speed up the process of fighting for democracy and freedom in this new technological world. In my view we are insufficiently agile and sagacious in this respect. Moreover, in the arena of public debate, the theme of liberty has become rather peripheral as a result of terrorist attacks which have had the perverse effect of instilling fear. Fear is always both a powerful and a dangerous factor - a lesson taught by history, and nowhere more so - in all its crudity - than in the region called Europe. We need only look at 20th century European history to see the effects of fear and war. I find it hard not to react a little ironically when I hear talk of Europe being a bastion of civilisation. And when I reflect on the number of wars and how they ended, I say:”well, if this is what we call civilised…” So I think we need to be alert and vigilant.

F: Yes. It was in reaction to all these European ghosts that the European Union came into being.

E: As an aspiration.

F: It’s a project, a complex political experiment; but it has also made significant progress.

E: It makes sense to acknowledge the progress that has occurred. And the lesson of progress in the field of human rights is no different. Following every great conflict there comes a civilising response. The response to the French Revolution, to tyranny, was the “Declaration of the Rights of Man.”  The response to the Crimean War and to using the industrial revolution in war, was the international humanitarian initiative that founded the Red Cross. Then came the League of Nations, and then the response to Hitler’s gas ovens, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After World War II came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the civilising response of the European Union.

This is why it is important to seek a framework for combating fear, and why governments should take responsibility for, and above all not betray, this aspirational inheritance. I understand the meaning of the threat, but we must not construct narratives of hatred against the Muslim community. In London I went to see the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He invited me to accompany him to a meeting at a mosque in his constituency.  Someone had placed a bomb in the mosque, but it had failed to explode. It was very inspiring because there was a general reaction from non-Muslims - Jews, Catholics, agnostics all gathered to deliver the message that “violence is not the answer”. And it was inspiring because the non-Muslims were saying “this mosque has been here for many years, it is part of our community”.  Two things drew my attention: first, that some react to violence with more violence; and second that violence is not the answer. I honestly believe, Francesc, which we need to show more courage in absorbing the meaning of this message.

F: Yes. I agree that liberty involves risks and that we must accept them.

E: We must accept them.

F: We must confront them, because if fear deters us, our freedoms will erode. What we are witnessing in France, with the law of exception, makes no sense.

E: Moreover, the irony is that the standard bearer of liberty, equality and fraternity is devouring itself. Why?  Because many fail to acknowledge the diverse nature of their country - France. They fear the French Muslims, and come to see all French Muslims as terrorists. I am drawing a crude caricature; I have no wish to be offensive. I am simply trying illustrate the fact that it’s wrong to assume that first or second generation Muslims can’t be French.  By the same token, it’s wrong to assume that young French women who wear the burka are less French than any other young Parisian woman who strolls along the Champs-Elysées and spends the summer sunbathing on the Côte d’Azur. The issue of diversity has to be inscribed in the democratic code.

F: With your permission, can we return to the subject of Latin America which also has its problems? One theme is of special concern to Democracia Abierta, and to many activists and independent media. On the one hand, there is the problem of freedom of expression when so many journalists are being murdered: 14 in Mexico, 10 in Honduras, 8 in Brazil and so on in 2015.  Political and environmental campaigners have also been murdered. One has an impression of impunity regarding these acts, in the sense that police investigations get lost in a maze of denials of responsibility. And then we have the terrible case of Ayotzinapa.  How is the Inter-American Commission addressing this issue?

E: I see three worrying phenomena with respect to freedom of expression. First, murder - the most violent and brutal form of censorship - has become an extremely serious phenomenon in places like Mexico, Brazil and Central America. And, as you rightly point out, all too often the perpetrators operate with impunity and the guilty are never identified. The result is intimidation, because when a journalist is murdered the others take note, and both editorial content and newspapers as a whole are affected. And then we see attacks, not just these ultimate ones on journalists, but also threats to reporters and to the media in general. It’s very serious, and sadly the response has been well below what we have a right to expect.

 The second source of concern are those countries like Ecuador, where legal means are employed to restrict free speech. Now they are trying to manipulate editorial content by demanding a ‘right of reply’. I have never before seen this in any country. Citing the ‘right of reply’ they send the newspaper the correction, the page, the content, the photo and the placement. Newspapers that refuse to cooperate are fined. This strikes me as totally over the top, an abuse of the idea of free speech. In countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, also Mexico there are regulations or adverse policies such as denial of government advertising, and there are situations where no outlet exists for alternative voices, and where local radio stations are silenced or squeezed out. Then there is Argentina’s media law of which so much has been made, and which seems to provide all the right guarantees, the only problem being that no new licences are granted.

A very worrying phenomenon is media concentration. It’s a very serious issue in the region. Electronic communications are almost all oligopolies, monopolies or duopolies. Media conglomerates that operate in the entire communications spectrum - television, radio, mobile telephony, cable etc. - build hegemonic platforms of thought that crush both those who acquiesce and those who don’t. They quash governments, independent journalists, and diversity of opinion. I see this as a great threat in the region. In Mexico we have Televisa, in Brazil - Globo, in Argentina - La Nación, in Perú - Grupo el Comercio which owns 80% of the newspapers. In Central America one person is buying up all the radio stations and one wonders how he could have so much money,  where it could be coming from, and how it being accounted for.

In summary, it seems to me that these three phenomena represent a serious assault on freedom of expression in the region. The Commission has an office for freedom of expression; and we are right now working on a report on media concentration. We are also working on the theme of liberty in the internet age, as well as on the development of national measures for the protection of journalists. The moral dimension here is that the message sent out by Latin-American justice systems is that crime pays. Each time a microphone is silenced, a camera switched off, or a pen broken, democracy itself suffers; and what we have seen in the region is that so-called progressive governments, whether recognised or merely assumed as such, have not necessarily been the most democratic. If we acknowledge that the media have effective powers over the dissemination of facts, it seems to me that they have exercised a level of control in some of their campaigns that trespasses on the basic tenets of democracy itself and of freedom of expression.

F: Finally, here in Colombia, there has been real progress in the peace negotiations which are now reaching an advanced stage of maturity. There may, perhaps, be an issue of timing, of how to carry public opinion most notably with respect to the victims and Transitional Justice. Then there is the question of what happens after the agreement has been signed, of how to handle endemic structural violence.  Also, the need to ratify the agreement may possibly be delaying the agreement itself until the time is right to move forward. But leaving aside these problems, I wanted to ask you, based on your knowledge of the process and the conduct of the negotiations - and assuming, of course, that a historic agreement is finally achieved - whether you think that it may come to be seen as a benchmark. Could the process followed in Colombia serve as a global template for reaching agreements even in civil society? Or will it be considered simply as a sub-species, a sort of case study of a particular circumstance that has nothing to offer other post-conflict processes of transition?

E: Perhaps it will be appropriate to construct a narrative to show that it’s one thing for a conflict to end, and quite another to build peace. Peace agreements have a narrative, but peace is not the absence of conflict. Peace in Colombia has to be valid within the country itself and not simply round a table in Havana.  It means disbanding the paramilitaries, preventing the murder of journalists and indigenous leaders, halting the process of human displacement. Colombia - let me say it this way - will still have to establish territorial peace. So it’s important to distinguish between the end of conflict and the construction of peace.

Leaving this aside, the exercise that Colombia has gone through already seems to me to be of global significance. No country in the world has made an effort like that of Colombia to develop a register of victims. Colombia has already registered almost 8 million. I know of no similar occurrence of this magnitude. People may criticise, but it’s important to point out, acknowledge and underline this fact. Moreover, in circumstances of open conflict, for the State to pursue a public policy aimed at recognition of the victims seems to me of extraordinary importance, because it places victims at the centre. I know of no similar effort anywhere in the world. That in itself offers a big lesson, and the social dialogue that lies behind it also seems to me extraordinarily important.

The Commission has stated that the end of the conflict will also bring to an end the principal focus and generator of violence and violation of human rights in the region.  And it has also stated that the process must go hand in hand with the protection and defence of rights and, in particular, of human rights. I think this interpretation conveys an aspiration: the Commission affirmed that “we support” the dialogue and the peace process. Let’s simply hope for an agreement, and hope also that what emerges is accompanied by undertakings from the international community. I believe that international organisations, those of us who represent the international community, have every intention of supporting Colombia in this process because it is the oldest conflict in the continent. But there is also the possibility of replicating the Colombian experience in regions such as Africa, Asia end even Eastern Europe where conflicts are currently taking place.

 Incredible as it may seem, and in contrast with other regions, the Colombian conflict is the only one in the Americas. Unfortunately, we have other manifestations of violence which make the region one of the most insecure in the world. But we don’t have armed conflicts, which might suggest an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with Africa, for example, aimed at comparing what is happening here with what is happening there. Thus the methodology and significance of the process may offer a beacon of hope for conflicts taking place in other latitudes. I have a profound admiration for the Colombian people because after emerging from a conflict of this magnitude, from a period of bombings, from a period when they had to pass through metal detectors before entering a cinema, from a period of being shut in as it were, they have created through song, and dance and joyfulness, a sense of hope. It seems to me admirable. Here, in Bogotá, there appears to be no war; but if you travel into the interior, things acquire a different dimension. There you discover one of many Colombias, though my admiration for the fortitude and optimism of the people remains. This is why the peace process could be replicated where replication is possible, just as the process in South Africa nourished the truth and reconciliation commissions in Latin America.

F: On this positive note our interview comes to an end - with grateful thanks.


DemocraciaAbierta attended the International Civil Society Week 2016 in Bogotá (24-28 April), thanks to a Media Fellowship from CIVICUS. This piece belongs to a series of interviews to prominent civil society leaders who participated in the event.

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData