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A UN Strengthened by and Strengthening Democracy

A UN Strengthened by and Strengthening Democracy

Mark P. Lagon, Deputy Assistant Secretary, International Organization Affairs
Remarks to the New America Foundation
Washington, DC
September 25, 2006

Good afternoon. I am pleased to be here with you today. I would like to thank the New America Foundation for hosting this occasion, and I look forward to a broader discussion at the conclusion of my remarks.

Today we are facing the question of what the future role of the United Nations is as an institution in its ability to serve its important intended purposes. The UN General Assembly, for instance, blocked condemnation of the repressive Government of Sudan last autumn by a no-action motion. It also repeatedly blocked and delayed steps to create more independent oversight organs and give basic flexibility to the Secretary General to do his or her administrative job. Is it right that non-democratic nations and dictatorships have the standing and ability to dispositively influence questions of human rights in the UN? How should we understand the role of democracy and indeed of the democracies to make the UN more effective? How well does the UN assist the broadening and deepening on democracy within its membership? These are among the issues that I would like to examine today, and to discuss with you.

What is Democracy?

While I intend to show the UN deserves credit for increasing its efforts to promote democracy during the soon-to-end tenure of Kofi Annan, the word ''democracy'' does not appear in the UN Charter, it is not one of the explicit stated purposes of the United Nations, and it is not even a precondition for UN membership. To join the UN, nations only need to be ''peace-loving states which accept the obligations in the present Charter and . . . are able and willing to carry out these obligations."

What is a democracy? How do nations define themselves as a democracy -- can it be based on title alone? If that were simply the case, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea should be a shining example of freedom and of a political system that would be the envy of other nations. But as we know, this is not the case. Democracy goes beyond using a single word in the name of a nation. And it goes beyond elections in form -- to truly participatory, competitive, fair elections, as well as, more broadly, civil liberties and civil society dynamism in order to truly merit the label.

Over the past 50 years, many countries have described themselves as "democracies." Many of them have not encouraged competing political parties and have not stressed individual rights and other elements typical of classic Western democracy. Numerous so-called democracies have existed as one-party states in the past, allowing their citizens to vote for a government-selected slate of candidates that faced no opposition. Even countries like Mexico were, for many years, effectively single-party states while billed as "democracies."

The collapse of one-party Communist rule in Eastern Europe led to political winds of change that brought the fall of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America, the end of one-party states in sub-Saharan Africa, and an increase in the number of true multiparty democracies. But in many of these cases, the party that controlled the government looked for ways to continue control of the country. Rules were changed, and although dictatorships no longer existed, the new systems established new models of political control.

The brief history of Cameroon's transition during that time to a multi-party state is representative of many cases. In 1991, the government responded to citizen demands for the formation of new political parties by retaining control for the licensing of new political parties. When the fledgling parties attempted to organize, the government used its power to disrupt meetings, block marches, and arrest opposition party leaders. While claiming to be democratic, the country's actions demonstrated anything but democratic practices. Similar events occurred elsewhere.

A study cited in the Human Development Report issued by the United Nations Development Program in 2002 found that even though more countries were holding multiparty elections, the citizens in more than half the world's nations reported that their rights and freedoms were limited.

Given this global picture, it should be no wonder to anyone that lack of real democracy is reflected in some of the Member States' behavior regarding the issues that come before the UN.

Even though the G-77 often calls the UN General Assembly democratic in comparison to the Security Council, the universality of the UNGA and some other bodies must not be mistaken for "democracy" per se, since states are treated equally irrespective of whether their regime-type in fact represents the consent and the will of the governed. Universality does allow for dialogue and for weaker, poorer nations to blow off steam about real or perceived grievances when they have limited influence in raw power politics and in international financial institutions with their weighted voting. Thus, an amoral construct suggesting that governments that do not represent the consent of the governed are equally legitimate to those which do indeed has its uses. However, in some cases equal status for unfree governments with freer ones is not only morally troubling but imprudent. Unfree states on the new Human Rights Council standing hypocritically in judgment of others does not best serve the aim of advancing what the UN Charter calls "fundamental freedoms." In this particular respect, the Council is not a quantum leap improvement over the discredited body it was fashioned to replace, the Commission on Human Rights.

Human Rights Council

Let's talk a bit about the Council, currently in its second regular session in Geneva. I'm going out there later this week. The reform of the human rights machinery at the UN was called for by Secretary General Kofi Annan in his 2005 report "In Larger Freedom," which states that the Commission created "a credibility deficit …which casts a shadow on the reputation of the United Nations system as a whole" and called on Member States to replace the discredited Commission.

The resolution creating the Council was crafted over the course of several months in New York. The U.S. called for improving the body's membership through two essential means: requiring election of members by two-thirds of UN Member States present and voting, and barring the candidacies of countries subject to UN Security Council sanctions, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, for human rights abuses or acts of terrorism.

Our aim should be obvious. We needed to make sure that the CHR's successor was populated by firefighters, not arsonists. Unfortunately, the negotiated text did not include the criteria we had sought, so we ultimately called for a vote and voted "no" on the resolution establishing the Council. The Secretary General had set the goal of creating a body definitively better than the Commission. In the end, a historic opportunity was squandered, with the acquiescence of some of those who were willing to settle for "good enough." These included decent, democratic allies who took a "bird in the hand" as it were because they wanted to make sure they got a new organ more than they wanted to make sure it was clearly better than the old organ. The Human Rights Council was created in a vote of 170 in favor, 4 opposed -- the U.S., Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands -- and three abstentions, by Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela.

The record of the Human Rights Council is mixed with regard to our first goal of improving the membership. Some notorious, serious human rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe did not run, and Iran and Venezuela did not win; but Cuba has carried over its seat. A change that should be followed closely is that the allocation of seats, by region, changed in the Council as compared to the Commission. There has been a reduction in Western European and Other Group and Latin American seats. Meanwhile, the allocation of African and Asian group members has increased. It remains to be seen how rigorously states from regions with such mixed records on human rights and misplaced group solidarity in the UN will condemn violations of fundamental human rights in their home regions and elsewhere.

That more states from regions with mixed human rights records are allotted seats on the Council has proven to be significant in the actions taken by the Council since its inauguration in June. In the new Human Rights Council, only 16 members are needed to call Special Sessions – designed to allow the new body to address diverse serious cases through the year. Those 16 votes were easily mustered this summer as the Council called successfully for two special sessions on Israel in the first eight weeks of the Council's existence.

The first sessions were a particularly disheartening, early indication of the Council's focus, and we will strive to reverse this trend. Although we lament the imbalanced focus on Israel during the early days of the Council, I want to emphasize that we will strive to protect the worthwhile mechanism of special sessions for appropriate situations in the future. We must preserve the Council's ability to draw the world's attention to the most morally troubling situations on a variety of continents. As a highly active non-member of the Council, we are urging democratic friends to seek Special Sessions and resolutions in regular sessions on those situations. If they can't or won't, the Council will not prove a whit better than the Commission.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Some regimes refuse help. The international community should hold a mirror up to them. The UN needs to retain its capacity to address acutely bloodthirsty and closed regimes with frank resolutions and dedicated rapporteurs empowered to provide honest and insightful assessments to the egregious conditions in these countries. We can all hope that the new Human Rights Council will preserve that capacity.

Responsibility to Protect

Sovereign equality of UN Members States not only involves equal status, but sovereign control. There is a presumption in favor of non-interference in the UN. However, the UN deserves credit for evolving standards for when sovereignty must not take precedence. Most notably, when a government commits genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes, its sovereignty loses legitimacy. This is where the Security Council is essential -- to sanction humanitarian intervention to reverse such situations. One of the great contributions of the UN 60th Anniversary World Summit Outcome Document is the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (RTP). RTP has two parts: (1) states must protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, and atrocities, and (2) the UNSC may choose to take action to fill the protection vacuum. Seen as a political norm rather than a mechanistic legal trigger, the second dimension is a significant step forward in the UN's preparing itself to better address future cases of the man-made bloodletting seen in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans, and Sudan. It still will require political will, as slow UN Security Council action on Darfur demonstrates, but RTP will encourage that will.

The sole or indeed primary focus of UN work to advance freedom is not condemnatory or interventionist. The UN should offer help to nations seeking help to reinforce rights and foster freedom. An important tool to assist nations in building their institutions is the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Technical assistance by the OHCHR can provide much-needed assistance to governments that seek help.

The General Assembly approved the recommendations made in the 2005 World Summit outcome document calling for the doubling of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' regular budget resources over the next five years. The U.S. backed this idea fully, despite our pronounced preference for voluntary rather than assessed funding as more responsive to beneficiaries and donors. We did so because of its importance. This additional money would be best spent on outfitting OHCHR's field missions around the world to offer technical assistance to governments that seek it, rather than on a think tank based in comfortable Geneva.

Increasing UN Efforts on Democracy

As noted by Edward Newman and Roland Rich in The UN Role in Promoting Democracy ,

"Many members of the United Nations are not multiparty democracies in their domestic political structures, and many more could not be said to be liberal democracies. The United Nations is silent on other features of domestic political organization. It is agnostic as between republics and constitutional monarchies. It does not choose between presidential or parliamentary systems. It is ambivalent on the issue of bicameral as opposed to unicameral parliaments. Yet it propagates electoral democracy as the basic governance template for all nations to follow and the members appear to accept this view, or at least the UN's espousal of this view."

Voices from both sides of the American political spectrum should agree that whatever his failures, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has overseen an era in which the UN has begun to promote democracy without being hung up about the sovereign equality of states. The Secretariat's Electoral Assistance Division does credible work to monitor elections and to train people to conduct them. UN officials lent logistical and strategic support to over twenty elections in the last year alone, including Afghanistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Burundi. In Iraq, the UN assisted the formation of the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) that supported the January 2005 elections. In Iraq, the UN is also reaching out to groups, such as the Sunni Arabs, that did not take part in the elections, but are willing to engage in dialogue and peaceful negotiations to reach their goals. When the newly-elected National Assembly drafted the fledgling democracy's first constitution, UN advisors were guiding this process.

The UN Development Program (UNDP) moved under the leadership of Mark Malloch Brown to embrace democracy promotion, considering political liberalization not just a product of economic development but an enabler of it. The UN Arab Human Development Reports authored by Arab scholars admitted and highlighted deficits of political freedom, knowledge, and women rights in the Arab world. And the new UN Democracy Fund, called for by President Bush in 2004, has helped to fill a void in the UN's work by fostering vital civil societies through grants primarily to NGOs.

UNESCO advances democracy in its promotion of a free press, its effort to take hate out of textbooks, and education enabling informed participation. It can do even more, notably in the area of civic education.

A major roadblock on the path to democracy is the tradition of fraud and corruption that is found in many developing nations. Nothing can destroy the integrity and image of a nation as viewed by the rest of the world and undercut the morale of its people than when a corrupt government is in power. UNDP has substantial good governance and anti-corruption programs to advance economic development. In 2003, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Convention against Corruption, which the United States just ratified. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime also coordinates efforts to prevent and control corruption by offering guidance, technical assistance and evaluation services to countries. In Nigeria and Kenya, the UN is currently helping the governments to recover assets looted by corrupt officials.

The UN is now involved in peacekeeping missions around the world. But the UN has seen that simply working to prevent new outbreaks of fighting without follow-up is not enough. Upon completion of Peacekeeping missions, the UN remains engaged to ensure that the peace is buttressed by stable political institutions and the rule of law. Currently, a new integrated mission in East Timor is developing and strengthening the country's judicial, human rights and police capacities. We hope that the new Peacebuilding Commission will further democracy as an enabler of peace in transitioning post-conflict societies.

Annan and Malloch Brown recognize that democracy is a key enabler to help to promote two of the primary goals of the UN: peace and economic prosperity, and that must be a focus of the UN's work. It is to the credit of the UN that it increasingly rejects an absolute non-interference in sovereign affairs in favor of not just interventions in extraordinarily calamitous situations, but also efforts to nudge along democracy. Within our country, liberals and conservatives agree that the U.S. should work to accelerate this trend, because sometimes things can be accomplished more easily and with more authority under a UN umbrella than bilaterally.

The Democracy Fund

President Bush advocated for the creation of the UN Democracy Fund at the UN General Assembly in 2004 when he said, "Because I believe the advance of liberty is the path to both a safer and better world, today I propose establishing a Democracy Fund within the United Nations. This is a great calling for this great organization." The fund was established by the Secretary General 0n, yes, July 4th of 2005 and it is an initiative that demonstrates what the UN can do when properly mobilized.

The UN Democracy Fund provides the international community with a new tool for the promotion of democracy and the strengthening of the rule of law within the UN system. The primary purpose of this fund is to promote democracy throughout the world by providing assistance for projects that strengthen democratic institutions and governance in new or consolidating democracies. Twenty-three nations have pledged or contributed about $50 million in voluntary funds thus far, with the U.S. providing $ 17.9 million.

The UN Democracy Fund is a voluntary fund the Bush Administration proposed should be housed in the UN Fund for International Partnerships (UNFIP), given its record for partnerships with civil society and private organizations. UNFIP was established in 1998 to coordinate, channel and monitor contributions from the UN Foundation. UNFIP works to build other partnerships between the UN and a variety of organizations, including the business community, foundations, and international and bilateral donors. The Democracy Fund has its own Executive Head who reports to an Advisory Board of Member States on substantive matters. In order to ensure transparency and accountability, a dedicated support office monitors, evaluates, and audits the program.

The 17-member Advisory Board of nations, NGOs and democracy experts, of which the U.S. is a member, selected more than 125 projects in August for funding from more than 1,300 proposals these grants, totaling about $35 million in funding, will be disbursed this fall, with more submitted from more than 100 countries. On August 29, Secretary General Annan announced that than 60 percent going directly to pro-democracy civil society organizations.

Among the 125 approved projects, particular attention was given to NGOs in emerging democracies. The direct support of the UN to NGOs is an innovation. Four examples stand out. In the Congo, which this year held its first democratic election in over forty years, the non-governmental organization Femmes Africa Solidarité will train women and men from parliament, the executive, civil society, media, and the private sector on a range of issues including human rights, democratic governance, rule of law, and leadership. In Tajikistan, the NGO, Khoma, will provide training for lawyers and journalists in the fundamentals of a free press, focusing on how civil society can use the press to demand government accountability. In Iraq, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) will help expand the new, independent National Iraqi News Agency to provide a media forum for the discussion and dissemination of a broad range of views and democratic values. And in Chile, the NGO, Gender Equality Social Watch, will strengthen civil society and support democracy by monitoring President Bachelet's government, focusing on her commitments to gender equality and women's rights.

As a success of UN reform heralded by the Secretary General, the Fund truly represents the possibility for new thinking on the use of technical assistance to build democratic institutions. It is lean, agile, and flexible as a voluntarily-funded institution mot mired in the politics of a General Assembly populated many actors hostile to the cause.

Democracy Caucus

So how can democracies help not only the UN to better promote democracy all the more, but help the UN to better live up to its founding vision and ostensible purposes? In 2000, foreign ministers of a majority of Member States met in Warsaw to found the Community of Democracies, which now forms the basis of the Democracy Caucus in the UN. The Caucus, based on the more than 120 participant nations on the Community of Democracies, can help forge common positions on democracy-related resolutions and activities.

The United States has encouraged the development of the UN Democracy Caucus within the UN, where members form caucuses around many different issues, including regional interests, economic similarities, religious affiliation, and other shared positions or objectives. The U.S. believes that stronger coordination among democratic countries that share similar values and institutions will help to strengthen the UN's work in promoting democracy and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Democracy Caucus is not a substitute for the long-established regional bloc system, in which countries organize themselves into five regional groups: Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and others. Rather, the Democracy Caucus is a complementary effort, which would allow like-minded democratic states within or across regions to discuss and coordinate positions on resolutions, launch initiatives, and support UN efforts that promote democratic values.

On September 20, at the 2006 UN General Assembly, Mali hosted a Community of Democracies Ministerial as chair of the group. The theme of the meeting addressed the global state of democracy. Deputy Secretary General Malloch Brown spoke about the success of the UN Democracy Fund, and its link to democracy promotion.

The Democracy Caucus has potential because nations with rule of law at home have a special capacity and responsibility to promote meaningful international law and a world order serving human dignity. The effort of democracies working together at the UN should be aimed at goals beyond democracy promotion, namely a UN living up to its potential.

I would like to repeat these words of President Bush from last year's UN World Summit:

"The UN must be strong and efficient, free of corruption, and accountable to the people it serves. The UN must stand for integrity -- and live by the high standards it sets for others. If member countries want the UN to be respected and effective, they should begin by making sure it is worthy of respect."

Democracy and democracies can help, in fact, to renew the United Nations. By not letting the useful presence of universal membership cripple the United Nations, the world's democracies can work to have the UN achieve the vision its founders anticipated -- to advance peace, economic development, and human rights.

The universality (and I repeat, it is not "democracy") of one-nation, one-vote -- irrespective of regime-type, population size or contribution of funds to the UN -- in UN budgetary and programmatic decisions leaves sacred cows in place and important work undone. Grandstanding dictatorships block the UN's universal and elective bodies from forming consensus to stem bloodshed and censure repression. Democracies rich and less rich together have so much to offer to renew and strengthen the United Nations in its future agenda.

I look forward to your thoughts and questions on this and on other issues I have covered.

Released on September 26, 2006


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