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Iraq Elections: A Good Day For Democracy?

Iraq Elections: A Good Day For Democracy?

Andy Rowell, 2 February 2005

We have just had election weekend in Iraq. The weekend when, if all goes to Bush and Blair’s plan, a fledgling democracy will take hold in Iraq. Millions voted for the first time. It is a time of hope for Iraq and the wider world. Or that is what we are told.

On his surprise visit to Baghdad last December Mr Blair said bringing democracy to Iraq would "not only be good for the Middle East, but good for the world". Blair argued that there was a clear choice "between democracy and terror". During his inaugural speech last week Bush too argued he would "support democracy to bring an end to tyranny."

But it is not that simple. No one in their right mind would argue that the election will be free or fair, the usual democratic benchmarks for elections. It will be seen by many a phoney result, imposed by an occupying force whose invasion of Iraq has actually increased terrorism. Moreover anyone in the Middle East who witnessed the US atrocities at Abu Ghraib or the recent pictures from the ongoing trial of British officers who are accused of abusing Iraqis in Basra will question the underlying morality of Bush and Blair’s own democracies.

Nor are these just a few rogue officers following orders or an isolated blip on the unblemished record of the two finest democracies. The US has, when it has suited its national interest most, supported most of the world’s despots – Suharto (labelled by the Clinton Administration as "our kind of guy"), Mobuto, Marcos, Noriega and of course Saddam Hussein.

In his book Rogue States, Noam Chomsky, argues that the US has routinely flouted the International Declaration of Human Rights. While other nation states are treated with force if they are perceived to break international law, America stands by its commitment to use "unilateral" use of military power to defend what it sees as key interests, especially energy.

Chomsky backs up his case by spelling out how the US has acted irresponsibly on numerous foreign policy initiatives. When Iraq illegally invaded Kuwait, the US only meant to teach Saddam a lesson, not actually dispose the dictator. The US went ahead with military action, despite repeated calls from the democratic opposition that "without a political plan to remove Saddam’s regime, military strikes will be counterproductive". In fact, Chomsky argues, the US didn’t want democratic change at all. Saddam offered "stability".

A decade later and the neo-conservatives that now controlled Washington saw it differently, so Saddam had to go. Are the actions at Abu Ghraib jail or the detention of prisoners at Guatanamo Bay the actions of a rogue state or the world’s finest democracy? Human Rights Watch argues that the US actions at Abu Ghraib were "unlawful conduct" that has "undermined Washington’s much-needed credibility as a proponent of human rights and a leader of the campaign against terrorism". According to Human Rights Watch "the Bush administration speaks often of its devotion to ‘freedom’, its opposition to ‘tyranny’ and ‘terrorism’, but rarely its commitment to human rights. It is one thing to pronounce oneself on the side of the ‘free’, quite another to be bound by the full array of human rights standards that are the foundation of freedom."

The abuse of human rights by America is not just against those it sees as its enemies, it is also against its own people. In May 2003 the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report entitled "Freedom Under Fire." It outlined a catalogue of examples of where the authorities had cracked down on free speech and dissent across America since September 11 2001. "How are we going to convince other countries about the importance offer speech and civil liberties if we show so little faith in our own," argued Anthony Romero, ACLU’s Executive Director.

Then a year ago, in January 2004, the ACLU and lawyers acting for 13 men detained in the US filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The petitioners alleged that the "US detained petitioners as suspected terrorists even when there was no evidence – let along credible evidence – that they have engaged in criminal activity". Moreover the US "imprisoned petitioners under a ‘hold until cleared’ policy that effectively imposed a presumption of guilt". These unjust policies were "directed almost entirely against Muslim men of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent."

No matter how respectable you are you are not immune from the US’s repressive policies. Last month, Tariq Ramadan, the leading Muslim academic, who was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s top influential thinkers, resigned his professorship at an American university after the authorities had refused to give him a visa. His visa had been revoked using the Patriot Act last July; another draconian law brought in the aftermath of September 11. "As yet, not a single piece of evidence has been produced to substantiate the claims made against me, which I believe is a classic case of infringement of academic freedom" said Professor Ramadan.

Is Britain any better? When the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office published its Annual report on human rights in November 2004 it crowed: "In 2003-4 the FCO spent over £12 million on projects promoting human rights, good governance and democracy across the globe, more than ever before". That was the official good news.

The unofficial bad news was given in the Guardian. Under the headline "" the paper reported how "Buyers of British arms and Britain’s close allies in the ‘war on terror’ are named as being among the worst abusers of human rights. States identified included Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Russia and the US are also mentioned".

The UK FCO report also tried to bolster its own credentials on the way it had balanced the contradictory needs of responding to the "war on terror" and not quashing the human rights of its citizens or suspects in the process. The report argued "the UK has made its position on this issue very clear on the international stage. In both the UN General Assembly in November 2003 and the Commission on Human Rights in April 2004, the UK co-sponsored a resolution proposed by Mexico which reaffirmed that states must ensure that measures to combat terrorism comply with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law".

However the UK’s government’s stance on "terror" detainees was thrown into chaos last month by an influential legal ruling. The Government’s law, Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 was rushed in after the September 11 terrorist attacks in America. Under the law foreign nationals had been imprisoned in the UK without trial. Critics called it internment, the government a reasonable price to pay to protect the UK from terrorism.

The law allowed the government to detain sixteen foreign nationals without trial, but it was challenged by nine foreigners, who had been detained without charge for three years. The Law Lords, Britain’s highest legal body, ruled 8-1 in favour that indefinite imprisonment was wrong and saw it as a contravention of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Law Lords argued that human rights had been "disregarded" and called the legislation "draconian" and "anathema" to the rule of law. The decision of the law lords, the highest court in the UK, threw "the government's security policies 'into chaos', provoking a constitutional crisis".

One of the Law Lords, Lord Hoffmann commented that "The real threat to the life of nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these".

Liberty, one of the UK's leading human rights and civil liberties organisations, called the decision "one of the most important decisions in British Constitutional history". Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "Britain’s highest court chose democratic values over the politics of fear … It must now act honourably and charge or release all those currently held without delay." But the government decided not to release the detained men and is looking now to deporting them back to their host countries of Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, where they could be tortured.

If democracy means that prisoners can be degraded and humiliated or detained indefinitely without trial, and dissent and freedom of speech quashed, how does it differ from tyranny? If it means that basic human rights are ignored, then the word democracy itself means nothing. Can you even call it a democracy when politicians are elected on the basis of a rigged election, where people are afraid to leave their houses to vote? Because if that is what you call a democracy, it is not much different to the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein.


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