The Return of Authoritarianism with Joan Hoey, Svitlana Zalishchuk, Irwin Cotler, Yang Jianli, Christopher Walker

Full Transcript

​​Moderator: Well, thank you very much Hillel for that introduction!

I take a moment right at the outset to commend Hillel, Leon Saltiel and all of these staff at UN watch for the great work they do, and this conference is a testament to that.

As Hillel mentioned, the title of this conference, of this panel is: “The Return of Authoritarianism”.  We are going to do this as a conversation. So, there won’t be any prepared remarks. We’ll have a chance to talk with all the panellists a bit about these issues, and we really have great panellists here. It’s a diverse, terrific group, so very pleased to have this opportunity. 

I will just do very short introductions of each of them and then we’ll get into the discussion. So, let me start with Svitlana Zalishchuk to my immediate right. Svitlana was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament in October 2014. She’s a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Head of the Subcommittee on European and Euro-Atlantic relations. Svitlana is also a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Before that she worked for five years as Executive Director of Centre UA, a Kyiv-based non-governmental organisation. I think it’s important to note that, Svitlana was an active participant in the EuroMaidan in 2013 and has made the move from activism into the government. I’m delighted to have Svitlana here.

To my immediate left, Hillel mentioned Irwin Cotler and I can’t read his whole biography, because it would take up most of the panel time. So, I am just going to give a short summary of that. Mr. Cotler is a Law professor, Constitutional and Comparative Law scholar, International Human Rights Lawyer, Counsel to prisoners of conscience, NGO head, public intellectual, community leader and peace activist. He has been a member of parliament in Canada, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He’s been variously described in these roles and responsibilities, as being at the forefront of the struggle for justice, peace and human rights. 

Take the opportunity now, to introduce Yang Jianli, who’s a scholar and democracy activist, internationally recognized for his efforts to promote democracy in China. He’s been involved in the Chinese Democracy Movement since the 1980s. He participated in the 1989 in Tiananmen protests and co-authored the Constitution of a federal democratic China. He holds PhDs in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley and in political economy from Harvard University. Dr. Yang in 2002 returned to China to support the labour movement and was imprisoned for five years. Following his release and subsequent return to the United States, Dr. Yang founded Initiatives for China, which is really a terrific organisation that promotes China’s peaceful transition to democracy.

And to my far right, is Joan Hoey, who is a regional editor in the Europe Team at the Economist Intelligence Unit, the business information arm of The Economist Group. She’s the senior analyst for Greece, Romania and Serbia. She specialises in the politics and economies of Greece, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, political development and political risk, country risk, geopolitics, democracy, state building and post-communist transition. Joan is also the editor of the EIU’s flagship annual democracy index and we’ll be talking with her about that, today.

So, the context of this discussion is a time at which I think it’s fair to say that democracy and human rights are really in dire straits. The democracy scholar Larry Diamond, now has labelled the condition for democracy globally as a democracy recession. I think the developments of the most recent period suggest that, it may even be perhaps a bit worse. And I might, just as a way to provide some context, give three ideas as to what we might look for, in how illiberal authoritarian regimes are exerting influence.

The first thing I would stress is that in the most recent past, the most influential authoritarian regimes have really devoted effort to attacking democratic norms. And how have they been doing this? They focused their attention on the leading institutions, which have really formed the glue for supporting and defending international norms. This includes the United Nations, where you have a whole host of influential countries that use their resources and influence to suppress human rights and democracy standards. If we think about, even internet governance, today. Saudi Arabia and Iran don’t agree on much, but Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Russia and such countries all agree on the idea of internet sovereignty, and the idea that governments should be paramount in how the rules are shaped for governance of the internet. Even smaller countries are able to exert influence in critical rules-making bodies. So, if we look at the Council of Europe, I would commend everyone to a journal of democracy article titled: “The End of Shame”, written by Gerald Knaus, which in very elaborate detail describes how Azerbaijan has used its influence to reshape the norms and attack the norms that are supported by the Council of Europe. It’s devastating reading and I really would encourage everyone to take a look at this. Beyond that, if we look at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the democracy office, the ODIHR, has been the target of the leading non-democratic governments, in the OSCE, membership states. And the Organisation of American States, their human rights components have also been a target. 

The other thing I would mention as part of this context, is how leading authoritarian regimes seek to influence the development of aspiring democracies and young democracies. So, if we look in the European context, the Baltic states, which are young, quite successful democracies, face enormous pressures from Russia, much of which is targeted at shaking those countries’ integrity. If we look at the countries in the European partnership: Moldova, Georgia and of course Ukraine, they’ve also been at the forefront of the efforts by Russia to try to alter their democratic course. If we shift to China and we look at Taiwan and Hong Kong, you can see how much focus is brought to bear on the democratic aspirations of those entities to secede from China. And so, I think it’s important for us to recognize that there’s enormous pressure on countries that would like to move into a more democratic and human rights friendly space. 

Finally, very briefly, these authoritarian regimes take the realm of ideas extremely seriously, and so, it’s not a surprise that they invest enormous resources into how we think about democracy. China invests extraordinary resources into its international media, CCTV, with investments in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere. Russia’s RT, which has gotten quite a bit of attention, is just one piece of a state-backed media effort that includes Sputnik and a variety of other instruments. It’s very true, in Iran with Press TV and other such instruments, Telesur serves a similar function and it’s worth noting that the editorial lines taken by Press TV, Telesur, RT. If you have the time to glance at these, you’ll see some very common threads that run through the sort of editorial depictions of democracy and human rights in all of this authoritarian backed media. I think this is important because the ideas of democracy and how we think about it, will shape the degree to which we’re willing to support it; and I think the non-democratic regimes understand this very well and this is why they devote so much attention to this.

 So, what I’d like to do, is just as a little bit of fodder for the discussion is to have a discussion now with the panellists and I’ll start with Svitlana.

I mentioned the pressures that are exerted, certainly in the immediate neighbourhood of Russia on countries that have democratic aspirations and I wonder if you could just say a few words about how we should think about the context of Russia’s approach towards Ukraine, and how should we understand what’s happened in the most recent years?

Svitlana Zalishchuk: Thank you and good morning, everyone! There is a book written by a British journalist and I’m sure many of you have read it and it’s called: “Nothing is true and everything is possible”, Peter Pomerantsev wrote it. And I would like to steal that title to frame the whole paradigm that we entered politically, I mean we, liberal democracies, the west, the countries that are aspiring for a more democratic future. Nothing is true and everything is possible, is about the increasing of the military force in the world, is about the weaponizing of the migration crisis that Europe is facing at the moment, it’s about the illusion making that is being installed by the manipulation, by the creation of the information space using all kind of means including new communications; I am talking of course about Russia, it’s about many other things that are there and that we have to answer. In fact, I’d say that post-soviet gravitation, that is embodied into the imperialistic ambition of Putin to create this Eurasian space in the Eastern Europe is still the strongest force in the region. It is an open question of how many other borders, boundaries of the smaller countries will be violated and will be deorbited by Kremlin. And it’s a question which is up to West to answer, and I think that it depends much on the approach that have to be reconsidered to perceive Ukraine, Georgia, many other countries you name it, as the backyard, as the sphere of the legitimate interest of Russia. Well, in fact I have to say that two years ago Ukraine probably was part of this big puzzle and we were also an authoritarian country, we had president Yanukovych who managed to use even the weapon against the peaceful protestants, just in front of the European heart. I mean Kyiv-capital, peaceful city and in heart of the 21st century and many people, beautiful people were dying for their freedoms, for their rights. I think that we have been infected too much with this virus of freedom yet during the Orange Revolution, two years ago. And I also think that as a generation of Ukrainians, a new generation, our indoctrination of this post-soviet legacy, actually was an incurable disease, so that’s why we broke the vicious circle and we managed to make our conscious choice, and this choice: our European future, our euro-Atlantic future. But of course, I mean Putin didn’t like it because once again the whole paradigm of perception of the foreign policy in this region, as the legitimate sphere of legitimate interest was not part of the big plan that was there. I just came from the Munich Security Conference and the Munich Security Conference proved to be like a thermometer for the temperature in the security sphere, in the world. Many global leaders, many world leaders, many European leaders were referring to this state of the security, to the state of the democracy, and I probably quote Estonian president Mr. Ilves, he said that: “the world seems in its worst shape since the Cold War” and it’s not a coincidence what we’re talking about, the return of authoritarianism, together with the increasing of the security challenges in the world. Because there is this strong linkage between authoritarian countries, authoritarian leaders and what they do in our regions. But one important point I’d like to make here that this kind of conference and these kinds of forums they have to exist not only for us, not only as sessions to share with our problems, but to consider what can we do. Because actually with Ukrainian experience when our borders have been violated, when our Crimea was annexed and it’s like half of the territory of Estonia for example, when our Donbas in the east of the country, Lugansk and Donetsk region they are being occupied with the separatists backed by Russia, backed by Putin and it’s also once again, it’s with the population of two million people I mean, it’s some small European countries probably have the whole population of their countries. So, with this kind of things, we have to reconsider to what extent the traditional guardians of the world values and world principles are capable to prove that they can do something about it. I’m talking about United Nations, and I’m talking about Council of Europe and I’m talking about OSCE. At the moment, we find ourselves pretty much alone, fighting this superpower, and I think that we have to look for the answers here, of what can we do.

Moderator: Thank you very much Svitlana! You’ve mentioned very eloquently the new challenges that have emerged from this authoritarian resurgence. And I’d like to turn now to Irwin Cotler to get his take, if we perhaps widen the lens out a bit further, on what the implications are for the international order and for how we live by virtue of this growing authoritarian resurgence.

Irwin Cotler: You know, it’s somewhat of a paradox, almost in psychological terms when I heard some of the moving testimonies of our human rights heroes that we’ll hear later today, in our session yesterday, and you have the portraits of political prisoners there. One might think as in the time of Sakharov and Havel and the like that we in fact have been witnessing what your co-authors said 20 years ago “a resurgent democracy”. However, what in fact we have been witnessing has been in a book that you have co-edited with them now, “a resurgent authoritarianism”.  I just want to discuss maybe two or three case studies of it, to show the sense in which this authoritarianism is resurgent, at the same time as democracy is more than just in retreat, it sometimes is even being silenced. The first is, if you take a look at the negotiations over the last two years between the P5+1 and Iran with respect to a Nuclear Agreement. What we ignored was the manner in which the negotiating process and then the agreement not only overshadowed, but sanitised the other four-fold Iranian threats. And when I say the other four-fold Iranian threats very quickly in one-liners this audience needs no elaboration:  Iran as the leading state sponsor of international terrorism, Iran’s hegemonic belligerency whether it be in Lebanon, in Iraq or in Yemen and particularly in Syria. Iran’s state-sanctioned incitement, hate and genocide, and I’m reminded of a recent supreme court judgment in Canada which said that: “it’s the very incitement that constitutes the crime”, whether or not any mass atrocities follow, yet, we have not held Iran to account or used any of the juridical remedies in that regard. But the most important thing in this four-fold threat apart from the nuclear, the most important thing has been the massive domestic repression in Khamenei’s Iran. And I use that term, “Khamenei’s Iran” to distinguish it from the people and publics in Iran, who are the targets of this mass domestic repression. And I still remember, in 2009 when you had the Green Revolution as it was called in Iran, and people took to the streets and they had placards like: Obama, Obama where are you, and where is the west? And in fact, the west was silent as authoritarianism began its resurgent advance, that’s one.

The second case study and this one is as painful as one can appreciate. Some five years ago, in Syria they began by young people what they called “a peace and dignity protest” with all of branches marking the streets. They were disappeared, those who came to support them were gunned down and then Assad’s Syria began a scorched earth policy, using barrel bomb etc, etc, things that you know about.  Five years later, we are witnessing the greatest humanitarian catastrophe, since the end of the Second World War, where we have astonishingly enough as recently reported some 470 000 dead, more than 12.5 million displaced people in Syria, close to five million refugees, and I don’t like to use the word “statistics” because, behind each statistic is a human being. But what we have to appreciate is that at the end of that first year, there were quite unquote only seven thousand that were dead, there were less than 50 000 that were displaced, I can go on. The point is that those of us who argued then, that what we were witnessing in Syria were war crimes and crimes against humanity. And under the responsibility to protect doctrine whose 10th anniversary we’re now commemorating, where you have a situation where there are war crimes and crimes against humanity in any country, and the government of that country is unable or unwilling to do anything about it, or worse as in the case of Syria, is the author of that criminality, then there’s a responsibility on behalf of the international community to intervene and protect the innocent targets, the innocent victims. But those of us who argued in favour of a responsibility to protect of a no-fly zone that could have stopped the barrel bombing of humanitarian protection zones that could have given safety, we’re told: “if you intervene, this will lead to civil war, this will lead to sectarian warfare, this will lead to jihadists coming in”, everything we were told would happen if we intervened, happened because we didn’t intervene. And therefore, the terrible cost of inaction and recently one finds Russia together with Iran and the like operating with impunity.

And finally, in the third case study, is the whole nature of this resurgent authoritarianism has been carried out in a sophisticated fashion as you put it in the battle for ideas, where all this assaults that I’ve mentioned have been masked under a language of state sovereignty, of civilizational diversity, of traditional values, of counter-terrorism. What we now have is not simply the silencing of dissent, we now have the criminalization of descent, what we have is a soft power which was supposed to have been the leverage of the democracies which is now being used and exercised in a much more sophisticated way by the resurgent authoritarianism. So, I think the time has come for the democracies of the world to begin to promote and protect civil societies, to stand together with those political prisoners who are putting not only their livelihood but, indeed, their lives on the line, to take seriously our international juridical doctrines like: the responsibility to protect; to begin to take our place in the international arenas whether it be the UN Human Rights Council or the UN General Assembly and to stand up for universal values and not let this be compromised in the name of civilizational diversity, or compromise in the name of cultural relativism and all the other aphorisms that are being used in this battle of ideas, where the resurgent authoritarianism are pre-empting the democracies and the resurgence of democracies of 10 years ago find themselves in retreat. But as Hillel mentioned in his opening remarks it is still possible and I believe necessary for the democracies now, to assert themselves, anchored in universalism, anchored in what Renee Cassin and Eleanor Roosevelt called: “the tablets of humanity”, that are fine expressions in the universal declaration of human rights. To do battle, in the battle of ideas and not retreat from them and ultimately the democracies will prevail.

Moderator: Thank you so much for that, Irwin! I’d like to move to another case study if I could, which is critical by virtue of its size and ambitions, and that’s China. One of the features of the recent years if we use the Beijing Olympics as a barometer on the timeline, is how authoritarianism has deepened in China since that time, and there was some hope at least in advance of the Olympics that it might have the effect of opening and helping to create some space within China. If anything, in the most recent period, we’ve seen some of the most extraordinary repression since the old days in China. So, could you put into context what is happening now, in China and what its implications are in a wider sense? 

Yang Jianli: Thank you for this question! I want to go a little bit further into history. Actually, in the late 80s and the early 90s with the clubs of Soviet Union and Eastern Europe Communist countries, democracy came to be seen as an uncontested norm of international order, with the element of contestation removed democratisation itself become a policy of development. It’s no longer competition of values, no longer competition of ideas, that time we didn’t realise that. So, economic performance became a very important factor. Unfortunately, in the past 20 years, especially past 10 years, the economic performance of democracies around the world has been dismal, to say the best. At the same time, the rise of China, became a world phenomenon. In China, not only used fast economic growth shows up its legitimacy, but also provide the world dictators a model of development. So, you know, in that context democracy itself has lost its global allure and momentum, to a certain degree. But now, at the same time, the increasing global economic interdependence, leads a lot of countries previously outspoken against the violation of human rights to be more reluctant, to be critical of the dictators for their violating human rights. And you know, 9/11 is also a turning point that not only the democracies led by US diverted their effort into. I mean to work on democratization in the countries like China to enter a terror war. And China uses that as opportunity to develop and also as an excuse to crack down on the Uyghurs’ protest in the Xinjiang region in China. So, with all this happens I want to say, you know, we clearly see in the past 10 years even longer there is a lack of commitment and consistent policy on the parts of US and other democracies. Now, look at China! You know, many years ago many people believed that economic growth and trade will bring everything in China: we’ll bring democracy, we’ll bring human rights, everything in China. But it has been 30 years with fast economic growth, but China still remains at the bottom of democracy index, I mean by Freedom House or whoever does it. And why? What happened? So, to me China is a later comer in economic modernization you know, economic development. So, the process has been largely  controlled by the authorities, so that the government has been able to co-opt the middle class, so-called middle class, and elite into the government, so that the middle class, elite, will not become the social segment demanding for more freedom and actually we become a part of the political status quo. But, that way to rule China become increasingly costly because you have to exchange corruption for loyalty. So, the ruling became costly with economic downturn in China which has been, you know, economic growth, fast economic growth has been the major source of China’s legitimacy. But now, that is in question. With economic downturn that will only bear the sufferings of our young people, not only that. The middle class produced by the fast-incoming growth in the past 30 years will gradually leave the government. So, that will become a real challenge to the current regime and with the succession of power. So, I think the crisis will come together, so it’s very interesting to see what is going to happen around the succession of power in two years. 

Moderator: Yang Jianli you raised I think what’s a very important point and it gets to this issue of our assumptions. I think if we look back 20 years ago and Irwin also alluded to this, most all observers thought that countries like: China, Russia and others even if the path wouldn’t be so clear and so smooth, that inevitably with economic growth you would have political liberalisation, might take time, but that was the assumption. And I think what we’ve seen in the most recent period is that this assumption has really been challenged in places like Russia and China and elsewhere. And this whole idea that ipso facto, if you have economic growth, it will open the space for media liberalisation, political liberalisation, and I think this also raises some questions of the methods the democracies use to engage politically, illiberal regimes even today. There are other cases that are very relevant including countries like Cuba, just how we engage with them in order to get outcomes that are good both for the citizens of those countries, for their neighbours and for the wider world. So, I think this is a critical point. So, now I’d like to turn to Joan Hoey and ask for a kind of wider look at how the EIU’s democracy index has seen the global trends. Just to give a sense of what sorts of patterns and trends, certainly in the last year the title of the findings was: “Democracy in the age of anxiety”, so that gives a sense of where you’ve seen things, but if you could tell us a bit more it would be terrific.

Joan Hoey: Thank you very much! And I should tell you all that the democracy index is available free as a PDF on our website Yes, it’s called: “democracy in an age of anxiety”. It’s interesting that this report was published about a week before Freedom House published theirs. We didn’t know the title of the Freedom House report this year, but I think it was: “Anxious dictators wavering democracies”, so it’s quite interesting with no communication between our two organisations that we both hit upon this theme of democracy in an age of anxiety and unwavering democracies. Now our index covers most of the world, 167 countries and microstates. The report looks in detail at developments in all the regions of the world, so I would urge you to have a look at it. It’s looking at trends in Latin America where over the past year we saw this unprecedented upsurge of popular anger about corruption in places like Venezuela and Brazil and so on. We cover the whole world, but what I want to really focus on in my opening remarks is because I think we have more eloquent speakers to talk about what’s going on in these regions. I want to say that the problem is not just over there, you know, in Russia, in the CIS, in China, in Africa, in the Middle East it’s here, it’s in the heart of the leading democracies, and there’s less recognition of this phenomenon. There’s a crisis of democracy in the west, in the advanced western democracies, in Europe, in North America and also among what we in our democracy index called is: “the flawed democracies”, in Latin America and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. And I think the symptoms are clear for anybody who wants to see them. The crisis of democracy is manifest in the failing, the breakdown of the post-war political order the traditional party system that’s particularly evident in Europe. It’s evident in the accretion of power in non-elected bodies: technocrats, judges, the denigration of politics as a process, growing gap between elites and electorates, the rise of populist parties, declining public participation, declining trust in institutions, the erosion of civil liberties, attacks on free speech, a failure to uphold democratic universal values. Back in 2011 there was an Irish academic and political scientist the late Peter Mayer who wrote a book called: “Ruling the Void”, in which he talked about the hollowing out of democracy. He argued that we’re actually living in a post-popular, non-sovereign version of democracy. So, democracy is without the essential ingredient “the demos”, and this is what is meant by the breakdown of the party system, the post war political order. His argument was that as long as this persists, we’re incapable of defending and sustaining democracy in its current form. Basically, we have a second-rate downgraded version of democracy without its crucial popular component. Others have written about this too, Ivan Krastev a Bulgarian political scientist in his book “In Mistrust We Trust”, looking at the situation not just in his own country, in Bulgaria, but throughout Europe. What I’ve given really is largely a description of the problem and the symptoms of the crisis, and it really begs the question of: Why? You know, why is this happening and why is it happening now? I would argue very strongly it’s not just a post-crisis phenomenon, I mean these problems have not just declared themselves post 2008, after the global financial and economic crisis, undoubtedly that exacerbated many of the underlying problems, but it wasn’t the cause, at all of those problems. I think, you know, you made the point very strongly and I agree with it very much, that if we look there’s been a long-term secular decline of democracy in the west in the post war period, but it really accelerated in the 25 years after the end of the Cold War. Krestev, actually posed that question you know, why did the triumph of democracy in Eastern Europe after 1989, why did that lead to a crisis of democracy? a questioning of democracy in the west. And I think that point about the removal, well, the discrediting of all alternatives for a start of the Soviet Union, of the communist model has exposed some underlying weaknesses and problems in the west. And what we’re really talking about, when we talk about a crisis of democracy? We are talking about a crisis of ideas, a crisis of values, a crisis of beliefs. We live in an era which is characterised by a sense of displacement, a loss of certainties, of not knowing what countries stand for anymore, what elites stand for, what political parties stand for. What values bind us together as societies, you know, what are we prepared to fight for these days? Now, many people are really up against it, where fighting for a democracy, where it’s a question of life or death in places in the Middle East and elsewhere. Might think they would like to have the problems that we have in Europe, in the west, actually. That’s maybe an attractive proposition, but I would say that if democracy is failing here, in the west, in the leading democracies then we’ve really got a problem. You know, if nobody can stand up here and say what they stand for, that this democracy, that this system is superior you know, to what is being propagated by the likes of IS in the Middle East, to go against the kind of multiculturalist consensus, that all ideas and values are actually equally valid and should be respected. Nobody’s prepared to do that these days, or if you cannot do that then there really is a problem. So, we could talk maybe more about specifically what can be done to address these problems beyond just declaring that we need to talk about what values we believe in, because I think there are very concrete and specific things that democracies can do, but maybe we can come back to that. 

Moderator: So, I think Joan has quite properly cited the companion challenge that has emerged in the same period, with the return of authoritarianism. This has been the erosion of democratic standards in key regions of the world, where people thought democracy was on a strong trajectory, this includes the new EU member states among others. In the United States we have our own challenges that have emerged. One of the factors I would mention which I think we haven’t come to grips with is: how media has evolved over the last generation? I think you quite correctly noted that the financial crisis wasn’t the underlying cause of some of the challenges to democracy. News media and the democracies, what I would call meaningful news media, civically oriented news media, was already under enormous strains with newspapers cutting their journalistic staff, their editors drawing down, their foreign bureaus, the financial crisis exacerbated this in a profound way, in both mature democracies and young democracies alike. I think we can’t underestimate the impact that this structural piece of democracy has had in recent years. Maybe I’ll turn back to Svitlana just to perhaps, talk a little bit about some of the issues Joan has raised in the sense that Ukraine, I would argue among other things, is in the midst of a struggle over values. You have armed conflict in the country, you have a battle to change the governance system, but in many ways it’s a struggle over values of transparency versus opacity, corruption versus probity. Could you say a bit more about how the democracies even with their challenges could be more helpful to Ukraine, today?

Svitlana Zalishchuk: I’d like to start with the point that I thought in the beginning that it will be difficult to keep the audience not sleeping because it’s morning you know, and we are starting, but after the level of the anxiety, and challenges in crisis we have discussed, I think, people won’t sleep for a couple of next days probably. But you know, after all these interactions, you feel like actually our planet is not the most comfortable place to live in, but it’s the only one, right? I’d like to come back to what you have said. Well yes, indeed, we have to discuss the crisis of the democracies but in the end, we also have to acknowledge that being here in Geneva and walking by the lake, I think that most of the countries, many of the countries in the world, billions of people in the world would like to build the system of democracies that you have it here, that you have in UK and you have in these well-established democracies. So, what my point is that it’s not the crisis of democracy that is the challenge, but it is about the quality of the performance in the democratic countries of the governments, it’s about the good governance, it’s about the leaders that are not accountable enough, it’s about the institutions that are not strong enough, it’s about the media that are not probably controlled enough not to be financed by I don’t know “Gazprom” or I don’t know, some other institutions, state players like this. So, my point would be and this is my personal experience. We are a young country, we are only 25 years old and you know, our generation I see any kind of development, any kind of light in the tunnel, with the establishing democracy that have been achieved here, in the western world. This is what we have been fighting as activists, and journalists for decades before. And I think this, the idea that can ensure our rights and it is about the elections that have been not known the results of them before, like it happens in many countries of the activists that are sitting here, in the first row, and I’m sure you will hear it about. And also, it’s about political representation, it’s about strong opposition, it’s about freedom of speech, it’s about freedom of expression, it’s about freedom of assembly, these ideas, these principles have been developed and have been acknowledged as something valuable, but I think, it hasn’t been achieved yet. And I think our aim here is to make sure, that we will have the strength enough, and will have the confidence enough to move forward, to ensure that these kinds of freedoms and these kinds of rights are being enjoyed by most of the people in the world. 

Moderator: And I would just add, in the Ukraine case, if you want a case study for how the understanding of a country’s experience and how a narrative is being contested, one only needs to look at the case of Ukraine. And I think, for members of the audience or people who are watching who haven’t had a chance to look at the case of Ukraine, it’s so critical because Ukraine’s success in many ways if it moves from the old model of corruption, which is both occurring within the country and has implications for the countries on its borders, and the European Union; if it’s able to move from that sort of governance system to one that’s more open, accountable, it will invariably be a better neighbour, be better for Ukrainians, but it will be better for Europe. I think, to the extent we can focus more attention on this to help Ukraine, it’s really in everyone’s interests. Coming back to Irwin, I’d like to ask, what would you suggest fundamentally, you hinted at this in your remarks, on how we can reinvigorate democratic solidarity? If we turn back the clock to the late 1970s, just to use that point on the timeline, it was a pretty “grim time” for a variety of reasons. Really, we hadn’t seen the full blossoming of the third wave of democracy, things were rocky in Latin America, the dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan had not emerged fully from their grip, into the democratic space, the United States and Europe were in the doldrums in many ways, but we came out of it. There was a potential for self-correction and I think, here too what Joan has alluded to, it’s a real question for the democracies now, whether this element of self-correction will kick in which has always been the democracy’s strength and it’s one of the “Achilles Heels” of the authoritarians, which invariably come up against questions of succession and deepening repression. What would we need to look for, if we were to see a better outcome in the foreseeable term, in the democratic space?

Irwin Cotler: Well,  if I look at and take as maybe a case study our own parliament in Canada over the last 16 years, what we were witnessing really, has been its and not unlike what is happening elsewhere, it was a kind of a culture of political narcissism, I would call it a kind of preoccupation with domestic issues and a marginalising of foreign policy issues, a preoccupation with personalities and not about policies, a preoccupation with a kind of an increasingly emergent twitter universe and not  serious media inquiry, a politics of polarisation in the political culture rather than a politics of consensus, a sense that gimmickry and gadgetry matter much more than ideas and advocacy. And so, I began to feel very pessimistic about this culture of political narcissism, and then Kame, I have to say this at the risk of sounding self-serving as a liberal. The victory of the liberal party in October and it’s not the question of the party, it is some of the symbolic expressions that have emerged, that may presage a new politics, for example a cabinet formed based on the principle of gender parity, equal men and women in our cabinet, a cabinet formed that is reflective of an inclusive Canada with respect to minorities there, a commitment now, to do something about the plight of our aboriginal peoples including in particular the missing and murder aboriginal women, to return to an approach of integrity with respect to criminal justice. What I’m saying is, what spawned a lot of that, was increased levels of political participation, particularly by the young and a kind of sense that if we continued with the business as usual in the politics of our cultural political narcissism, then we not only will not be engaged in the international arena, we will not be engaged sufficiently, in the things that matter in the domestic arena. So, I have to say that what has been encouraging to me, has been the emergence amongst the young people, of a greater sense of political participation, and a sense that it’s for the young people at this point, to help determine the future, otherwise, the culture of political narcissism will continue to their detriment and to the detriment of politics as a whole. 

Moderator: And you hinted at this paradox, when the democracies feel insecure, they’re not performing well, they tend to turn inward and become more parochial, but in some ways and this is something that the former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, always stressed is that you can strengthen your domestic democratic sinews, by supporting and having moral solidarity with those who are struggling for democracy and human rights beyond your own borders. And I think this is also something I’d like Yang Jianli to comment on. China has growing influence, there’s enormous business integration and interests in all corners of the world, literally all corners of the world, including in the United States and in Europe. China is becoming a larger business partner in so many ways, trade. How should the democracies think about the future of China, in terms of their own interests for a peaceful, accountable system that would evolve over time? Because right now there seems to be a tendency to self-censor in many ways, we see this in a variety of spheres and to really operate in very cautious ways, when it comes to speaking out about issues of transparency, and accountability, and human rights. How should we think about this?

Yang Jianli: Thank you! So, let me begin with the censorship, self-censorship not only in China, here, in democracies. And there’s tremendous censorship you may not notice everywhere in the world, censorship to Chinese sensitivity. In US, you know, a lot of business people, doing business in China return to United States as a politician, even lobbyist for the Chinese government, and China penetrates into academic institutions. They can do whatever they want to do and speak anything they want to speak, and a lot of professors, because of some kind of fear, self-imposed the fear that they turn not to be critical about human rights records in China. That’s happening on every campus in US, and so, the democratic way of life in the western democracies is actually being damaged to a certain degree by the Chinese, so-called “rise of China” and export we call “China’s disease”. Now, at this point, I want to tell you, there is a myth, has been going on for two decades. That if you tend to, you know, stand firm or critical for the Chinese human rights record, because of economic power we will retaliate through trade and everything else, but that’s a myth. Look at how China became, you know, come to where it is today. So, China in the past 30 years rely on two resources, two sources of legitimacy: one is economic development, the other to a lesser degree, nationalism mobilisation. Okay, we rely more on economic development than any country you can think of. The economic daunting really hit them hard, so, they need the whole world for trade more than any other country needs China. We have to realise that. Another thing is, individual officials as I said in my earlier remarks, the Chinese government exchange corruption for loyalty. So, they have to be a lot allowed to corrupt, to be loyal to the regime. So, every individual official in China, engages in some kind of business conducting you know, especially to the provincial level and the lower. So, very few officials that actually care about what you say, about human rights record in China. No matter what you say, they continue to do business with you, because they benefit most. They don’t want to jeopardize their interest, by so-calling you know, the face of the country, the image of the country, so that’s the reality in China. I just want you to understand these two points. Then, I want to offer a few specific ideas, probably, I will speak too long, you cut me. I do have a few specific ideas to offer.

Number one, we have to strengthen our political and diplomatic solidarity with those on the front line, to struggle. Better, we do it collectively, you know, democracy come together to do it, to have clear strong solidarity with those persecuted, with the political prisoners. So, we need that. 

Number two, relying more on law than policy, I will explain what it means. You know, when we talk about human rights policy, everybody’s saying “we are for it”, but to be honest, human rights are very inconvenient for many presidents and prime ministers, very inconvenient! So, when you talk about policy, they can change or they have repeat one policy against another so: “our trade” or human rights policy will affect our trade with China. So, we will not be so forthcoming to be critical about human rights, whatever, and you know, there’s compartmentalization of policy field now. We need the integration of the policies; we have to link human rights to all other policies. But to that end, we need a law. Only policy, there is no consistency. We cannot rely on the president to come up with a consistent committed policy on human rights. So, we need to pass a law to clearly state that advancing human rights in China and other dictatorships is in the national interest of our democracy. And also requires every department of the government to do everything possible to advance human rights and make reports to the Congress and the parliaments. So, that’s something we are trying to do in US. 

Another thing, another idea I want to offer is, the entire global civil society should come together, to come up with the index which is built on the Freedom House index of freedom, which reads every country on its civil society. Now, we need a new index with every country’s effort, to help human rights improvement in dictatorships. So, we need the index to reach US, Canada and every other democracy in their effort to help those, who fight for human rights on the front lines, which is tricky, but I think we need that. And that index can expand it to a business community, as well, and we can have come up with the index on “World top 500” on their effort to help human rights. So, we can come up with that, so that’s, you know, specific ideas I’m offering, here.

Moderator: So, we have the index suggestion. Maybe the EIU will take it up. So maybe what I’ll do, we’re coming down to our concluding moments. I’ll give the speakers if they’d like an opportunity to share some concluding thoughts and react to any part of the discussion they’ve heard, and we can move towards a conclusion.

Joan Hoey: Thank you! Yeah, just to pick up on a few points that have been raised, I thought, that was a very interesting observation that was made, that this post-cold war period where problems of democracy have you know, manifested themselves, it’s also coincided with a period of much greater foreign engagement and an intervention on the part of democracies elsewhere in in the world. A lot of that obviously, organised around the whole concept of defending human rights. I mean, I take a slightly different view, I mean, I think. the most important thing that democracy should do, is led by example, we should heed the proverb: “Physician, heal thyself. Before attempting to correct others, we should make sure that we’re not guilty of some of the same faults. I think, there is something’s not questioned very much, and it might be controversial to do so, here. But I think there is an underlying problem with this idea of exporting democracy, or democracy promotion, because democracy is not ours to command around the world. I think, there’s a problem, it’s wrong in principle and it’s probably pretty bad in practice. We’ve seen, you know, the consequences of that now over the past few years. It’s wrong in principle because democracy cannot be introduced from the outside, you know democracy means nothing unless it is government by the people. It has to be fought for and won by the people as an internal process. You know, to think that you can bring democracy from outside in any other way is fundamentally anti-democratic, because it takes the destiny of the people on the receiving end out of their own hands and anything that is won in that way through outside imposition in many ways is not worth having is not going to be durable and to last. You know, it can only be a denial of autonomy of those people. So, and we’ve seen attempts to export democracy you know, particularly in the Middle East to prove to be useless or worse you know disastrous in in many cases and you know have been doomed to fail. You know, we need pro-democracy movements in those countries fighting and yes, we need to stand up and highlight human rights abuses to champion the cause of democrats, fighting around the world but lead by example. That’s I think, the most important thing that we can do and make sure that democracy is thriving where we are in the west, that it can be a beacon for those fighting for it around the world. And the final point, just on the political participation. I think, that’s the most important thing: democracy without public participation means nothing. So, what can we do to improve public participation? It’s about ideas, it’s about being honest seeking the truth in debates not suppressing difficult ideas views that, you find objectionable of others. Have the most open possible discussion about the priorities of our societies, what we should be fighting for, what we believe in promote representative democracy. You know, none of this technocracy and quangoisation and moves away from representative institutions and finally you know, really uphold democratic values of universalism free speech, equality, tolerance and so on.

Moderator: So, as Svitlana maybe you can respond to this idea of in the Ukrainian case of exporting democracy which is a loaded term I think what young and others have hinted is that there are people in so many of these deeply repressed countries that want support not imposed, but help to achieve a system that’s consistent with their values and that is accountable um how would you describe the Ukraine case in this whole idea, because you clearly have forces working against democracy in Ukraine, how can democracy both be best be supported by the European Union and others

Svitlana Zalishchuk: I would like to agree with that, indeed. Democracy cannot be exported but we also have to remember that, we live in a global world. We are linked to each other; we are all interconnected. The world is a global village basically and this is why we established United Nations and Council of Europe and all other international organizations. I would like to remember, remind us that, UN abbreviation means United Nations: nations that united for the peace to develop the infrastructure, which would ensure that all the countries in the world have this potential to develop further. And I’ve learned by myself; it’s my own experience what does it mean “democracy”, because three years ago I was a journalist: that’s what’s doing anti-corruption documentary on the biggest corruption cases against my president. I was an activist protesting against the censorship, that was a real challenge for the health and life and right for the profession for many of my colleagues in my country. I have been prosecuted by the former president because he opened the criminal case against my non-governmental organization, because I was too visible in my country with our civic activities. Now I have a chance to represent my country, I have a chance to fight for more freedoms not only in my country but in other countries, as well. I’d like also to mention, that actually if you look at the map you would see that Ukraine was one of the countries together with Georgia probably, who broke this vicious circle of the post-soviet gravitation, but there are many more other neighbouring countries and if Ukraine succeed, we can be the Model of the transformation for Belorussia, for Kazakhstan, for Azerbaijan, for Armenia and for many other republics. We are not presenting ourselves as the victim that is begging for help from the European Union and Europe and NATO. Not at all. What we are saying, that you have to consider us and the investors of the extension of the democratic space, security space, economic space, because let me remind you, Ukraine is a big country, we have 45 million people. We are the territory that equals to France for example and it’s potentially once again, it’s the extension of the prosperity of the community that you live in. And ultimately, I think, if Ukraine succeed, then Russia will be also at some point transformed into a democratic country and then, obviously I think, the level of those anxiety that we put on our indexes today, is going to be much less. Thank you 

Moderator: Thank you and if you’d like brief concluding comments… 

Irwin Cotler: There’s a study that was published last spring, which was startling in Canada in its subject matter. It was called “The dismantling of democracy”. This was not something in an east European state, it was in Canada and I think it was a kind of a wake-up call, because what the study showed is that, there had been an increasing pattern of disrespect for Parliament, for the Independence and Integrity of the judiciary, for the marginalizing of the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms of disrespect for civil stock. I can go on. So, the election began to be engaged also in a battle of ideas and I think, this was a sense in which people said: “Hey we want to bring back the foundational principles of constitutionalism and democracy and human rights and the rule of law that can find expression in Canada and on the international level”. I would hope, because that was not an issue in our election. I think, what is needed now not only in Canada and elsewhere but an engagement. And I want to close on this point, because it is an important moment of remembrance and reminder the 70th anniversary, as Hillel mentioned, of the birth of the UN Commission on Human Rights, the 10th Anniversary of the success of the United Nations Council on humans, but what we’ve been witnessing has not been a quality of all nations; large and small. The protection of that fundamental principle what we’ve been witnessing at the UN and particularly in the UN Human Rights Council, has been the singling out of states for differential and discriminatory treatment of the giving of human rights violators exculpatory immunity, of a kind of culture of impunity in the international arena to the major human rights violators. So, if we talked about dismantling of democracy in the domestic arena, which we engage with, we need to engage with this dismantling. If you will off the rule of law democracy and the like in the international arena and begin serious and substantive reform of our international institutions, so, that they adhere to the rule of law universalism human rights and equality. 

Moderator: A critical point Yang, if you want just very briefly a concluding comment… 

Yang Jianli: OK, very briefly. Four conditions need to be present for China to have a real change. Very briefly. One, is general robust dissatisfaction among people with the Government, which is existing. Chinese Government does not lack enemies. Number two, viable democratic opposition, that’s what we are building up, we are getting there. Third, is the cracks in the leadership that has a lot thing to do, whether we have a viable democratic opposition. And the number four, that’s the international support and the intention of national recognition of the movement of democratic revolution. In 1989, when Tiananmen square massacre took place, democracies came together, condemning the China’s atrocities against their own people but no recognition.  That’s the moment that China might change. So, there’s clearly lack of concrete effort to help China democratize. So, I don’t want democracy to miss another opportunity. So, international factor is in this dispensable. Thank you.

Moderator: Thank you very much for that and I see Hillel has joined us on the stage. So, this is time to conclude. I’d like to first of all, thank the audience for their attention, but most especially, thank all the speakers for their great comments and interventions in responding to such a rich assortment of issues. Thanks to you all.

Speakers and Participants

Irwin Cotler

International Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada

Joan Hoey

Editor, Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China



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War Crimes

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