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     Volume 4 Issue 44 | April 29, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Democracy and Double Standards

Farah Ghuznavi

In recent years, we have heard a great deal of lofty rhetoric around the blossoming of democracy in different countries around the world, and the "march of freedom" among those populations. The fall of communism, and the growing frustration of many developing country populations with the corrupt, and often brutal, dictatorships which rule them, has contributed to the growth of fledgeling democracies in much of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. At the dawn of the 21st century, many would agree that democracy, while far from perfect, seems to be the best system of governance currently available to us, not least because of the theoretical accountability provided to the people of a country under this system.

Recent experience of western-style democracy has, however, called into question how effectively many of the basic theoretical tenets of democracy are translated into practice, even in the so-called "bastions" of democracy such as the US and Western Europe. For example, a common (and justified) criticism of many Third World governments relates to the frequency of vote-rigging in elections, a superlative (ongoing) example of which Robert Mugabe has recently provided in Zimbabwe. And yet, while undoubtedly on a very different scale, a judge recently delivered a scathing indictment of the postal voting system in the UK, where he found 6 local councillors guilty of electoral fraud that - in his words - would "shame a banana republic"! Fraudulent postal voting was believed to be widespread, with stories including a postman who was allegedly offered £500 for a sack of ballot papers and threatened with death if he refused, a post-box containing voting slips which was set alight, and one carrier bag full of votes that materialised at the last moment and was allowed to be included in the election count (even though the ballot papers were all folded in the same way, and were all marked in favour of the same party's candidates hmmm, somewhat suspicious…)

In the last few weeks, British political parties have also been criticised for fear-mongering and dishonesty in their election tactics. This includes accusations of using "rent a crowd" tactics for various policy launches. It appears that some individuals were approached to be "endorsers" of one party, and to attend their public relations events. A family of five were filmed at several such events, although they are not party supporters. They had agreed to be "endorsers" after their local MP (who had helped them to shift to better council housing) invited them to do so. The extent of stage management involved was indicated by the fact that the family were given breakfast and taken by taxi to the venue of the media event, where they blended into the carefully stage-managed crowd who clapped and cheered when the politicians showed up. It seems that the aim of recruiting such "endorsers" is to prevent protesters from creating any problems, or journalists asking too many awkward questions, because the "endorsers" effectively create a safe cordon around the politicians. The result is described by the Independent newspaper as "probably the most carefully stage-managed election campaign Britain has witnessed". So much for politicians mixing freely and "spontaneously" with the public!

And while at least the British press (if not the politicians) continue to be vibrant and fairly fearless in their search for the truth that is certainly not the case in all democracies. Observers were shocked to see, at the recent Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, that while much was made of patriotic (and uncritical) reporting from Iraq, not once through the course of the entire evening was mention even made of the piece of reporting from CBS News that rocked the world i.e. the human rights abuses by American soldiers at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison!

The existence of massive double standards in democratic nations, which preach democracy to those "less enlightened", is also evident in the self-styled "only democracy in the Middle East": Israel. While the Palestinians are rightly expected to abide by the so-called roadmap, and prevent any further factional violence or attacks against Israel, it is striking that Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, has defied international and Palestinian objections to go ahead with a bitterly controversial plan to expand the largest Jewish settlement on the West Bank by 3500 homes.

Thus, we are expected to applaud Mr Sharon for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, while at the same time he is totally violating the letter and spirit of the roadmap by continuing the building of these illegal settlements. And to add insult to injury, according to a recent report, Israel is are planning to dump upto 10,000 tonnes a month of its refuse in a quarry in the occupied West Bank nearby Nablus, in an attempt to cut costs and increase the profits of the Israeli companies involved - regardless of the health hazards and possibility of water contamination that is implied in this dumping! Progressive voices within Israel, continuing their uphill struggle, have rightly dubbed this "a double crime", stating that "Israel is preventing the Palestinians from making use of the quarry and its resources and in exchange we are giving them Sharon's garbage"!

The situation is not much better closer to home, where there have recently been widespread protests in China and South Korea against Japan's authorisation of revisionist history textbooks which appeared to be distorting the history of its murky colonial past. Many Chinese feel that these textbooks whitewash Japan's 15 year occupation of China (which included the rape of Nanjing), while in South Korea the elderly women who were forced in their youth to be among the estimated 200,000 sex slaves (so-called "comfort women") for the occupying Japanese soldiers, continue to demand justice.

The most contentious of the new Japanese history texts removes all references to the "comfort women" (a particularly obnoxious term, since their own lives could hardly have been particularly comfortable or pleasant!), and suggests that Korea and China invited or benefited from the Japanese occupation. Unsurprisingly, there has been a furious response to this in both countries, given that Japan's occupation of much of East Asia until 1945 remains a sensitive issue. One would expect a modern democracy to take responsibility for the historical wrongs it may have committed, but Tokyo's initial response, far from being apologetic, has been to issue a series of bland statements calling upon Korea and China to prevent differences in "historical interpretation" from damaging ties! Although active support among ordinary Japanese for these revisionist textbooks thankfully appears to be limited, it explains much of Japan's ambivalence to human rights approaches, which (it has been claimed) are inapplicable to Asian countries. After all, such approaches would inevitably involve unequivocally facing up to the past!

In short, the high-flown rhetoric of some leading democracies - whether in the East or in the West - and their claims to the moral high ground on issues such as the Iraq conflict, would be a lot more believable if they were seen to truly practice what they preach. In the meantime, one is inevitably reminded of the comment of US President Woodrow Wilson in a speech in 1915, who rather presciently said "No nation is fit to sit in judgement upon any other nation"…

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