From disillusionment to (real) democracy?

Agnès Callamard
5 March 2014

The year 2014 has begun with new and renewed social, and political unrest.  Political violence has continued in Ukraine and Thailand, even as new, violent disturbances erupt in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After nearly 20 years of decline in political violence worldwide, there is now strong evidence that political instability worldwide is on the rise.  According to Freedom House’s latest report, freedom itself has declined for eight years straight, with respect for political rights and civil liberties deteriorating in 54 countries in 2013, as compared with 40 that showed gains.  Maplecroft’s Political Risk Atlas, 2014 details a trend of escalating political violence in which 10% of countries are shown to have a substantial increase in political risk; the Oppressive Regimes Index categorizes more than 50% of countries as being at ‘extreme’ or ‘high risk’. 

The world is restive.  But what does this mean for human rights and more specifically for the human rights project? Much has been written about the associated human rights abuses linked to the spreading protests, including restrictions on free assembly, arbitrary arrests and the excessive use of force. These are important concerns, but they are not the only human rights stories emerging from the protests.   

A key factor in this contemporary story is that of deep disenchantment with what has been seen as a crucial citadel of human rights – elections. It is not so much that people are being prevented from voting or from participating in elections, or even that elections are being tampered with (although all of this, of course, is happening).  It is that elections themselves are losing their authority, particularly in countries where aspirations for democracy have brought vast numbers of people onto the streets to protest against dictatorship.

It is true that, worldwide, elections are increasingly peaceful and more competitive. These elections, however, are too often bringing to power individuals who quickly stoop to abuse of their authority behind the veil of their electoral legitimacy.  And while political rights indicators improved over the last 5 years, there were also “… notable declines for freedom of the press and expression, freedom of assembly and the rights of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), an independent judiciary, and equal protection under the law.”  Democratic elections not only fail to bring about democratic changes, they frequently, according to Human Rights Watch, bring in authoritarian, if not downright dictatorial, practices at the hands of leaders pursuing their vision of what the majority demands.

The second wave of protest, post-Arab spring, in Egypt or Tunisia shows little faith in elections, or with their results. I remember well a young Tunisian activist in a tent camp struck in front of Tunis’ parliament in September 2013, telling me that “… if Ennadha gets re-elected at the next elections, we will return to the street. We will never accept it.” A moment of bravado maybe, but a telling one nonetheless: in this post-Arab spring context, democratic elections are losing the significance and authority that the world’s political elite vest in them.  This has been strikingly illustrated in Egypt, just as it has in a very different context in Thailand where protesters have actually been demonstrating against ‘free and fair’ elections. This is perhaps not as freakish as it appears, as disenchantment with what democratic elections yield is shared in many countries, from Italy to Greece to Venezuela and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Disillusionment as regards elections is related to the weakening of another key institution: political parties. In countries around the world, protests have spiralled out of the control of political parties, which are perceived as failing to represent, channel, and act on demands for change. “Empty shells”, is how protestors described Tunisia’s main opposition parties to me time and time again. Commenting on the protests in Brazil in 2013, the sociologists Teixeira and Baiocchi concluded that the protesters were adopting a different meaning for politics, one that places a great importance on remaining autonomous from any political party. This urge for autonomy arises from disillusionment. Protesters in Ukraine riot against the government while booing the opposition leaders; in Bosnia, it is the entire political system that is attacked, with its multitude of ineffective and corrupt, ethnic based political parties.  

The protests warn us against a truncated human rights diagnosis that, by focusing exclusively or even primarily on the forms of the protests, and of the official reactions they trigger (peaceful vs. violent), may well end up masking and muffling where it should be exposing. They force human rights actors to ask what deeper messages might be emerging - about participation and representation, and about strengthening democracy.    

The current protests, therefore, highlight disillusionment with the institutions that had been entrusted to channel democratic aspirations and the realisation of rights, and which, until now, were prioritised as part of a linear understanding of human rights protection. On the other hand, in their disillusionment with elections and parties, the protesters do not repudiate the right to participate equally in public affairs. Rather, their actions suggest that these institutions are in urgent need of repair if the growing global crisis of public participation and representation is to be addressed.

The current protests are over values, over a vision for the country, the Polity, and as importantly, the Self. They are generational as much as they are political and cultural. More than 40 per cent of the world’s population is under the age of 25: This is the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen, and this matters enormously to the future of human rights.  

The protests call upon the human rights establishment – at national and international levels - to re-engage the interpretative capacity of human rights, which challenges our certitude and fixed interpretations, and which anchors human rights norms in people’s experiences, including experiences of oppression, and not only in institutions. They remind us that human rights are neither linear nor circular. They zigzag and crisscross. They are messy.

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