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From Totalitarianism to Multiparty Democracy

By Hon. David Kilgour
12 March 2010

It is an honour as a Canadian to join legislators from many countries in this building for the first ever parliamentary forum of the Community of Democracies, especially on the twentieth anniversary of the restoration of Lithuania's independence.

Canada has many nationals of origin in one-time Communist- and Nazi-occupied countries. My parents had living with us in the late '40s and '50s a number of refugees from captive European nations. At an impressionable age, I listened with horror to their accounts of totalitarian crimes

It was difficult as a child to grasp that any political ideology could treat human beings with such cruelty. Many years later, while I was a monitor for the 2004 election in Ukraine, an old man brought back these memories when he seized me by the shoulders in a rural polling station and related with deep anguish how as a young child he had watched his parents die of starvation during the Stalin-created famine of 1932/33.

For many years, an annual dinner was held on Canada's Parliament Hill, attended by MPs and senators from all political parties and members of Canada's Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian communities. Many of them returned to our Parliament in the '90/'91 period to call for freedom, the rule of law and democracy in all Baltic nations. Canada was one of the first nations to recognize Lithuania's restored independence.

Communism in Lithuania and the rest of central/eastern Europe between 1940 and 1991 included murder, torture and imprisonment among tyrannized peoples; continuous economic failure; the persecution of faith communities; forcing hard-working farmers into collectives; twisting the noble concept of human equality into a shield for special privileges for party nomenklatura; removing all rights of workers and unions; destroying any concept of the rule of law and independence of judges; turning art and culture into sterile propaganda and forcing many artists and writers into exile.

Richard Krickus' book Showdown outlines how Lithuanians set in motion the forces that broke up the Soviet Empire after 'Bloody Sunday' on Jan. 13, 1991. First, twenty years ago yesterday, Seimas representatives voted 134-0 for restoring national independence after the first free and fair election in Soviet-controlled Lithuania. The Russian soldiers, who fired upon defenseless civilians that Sunday in Vilnius, murdering 14 and wounding many others, were no doubt unaware that they were simultaneously driving a stake into the heart of the Soviet Union.

Community of Democracies

Independent Lithuania has ensured that your nightmare will never return, in part by joining both the European Union and NATO. Recently, this country became a vigorous chair of the Community of Democracies (CD), which will hold its sixth meeting in Vilnius next year. As a board member of the NGO, Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD), I'm proud that we serve as secretariat for the network of 25 civil society organizations serving as partners to the governments of the CD. The involvement of political parties and parliaments is needed to ensure that elected men and women play a major role in the international democracy movement. Lithuania has taken the first important step; the foundation of this parliamentary forum is essential and we already have much to discuss at the next meeting.

The waves of multi-party democracy sweeping through much of the world during the past thirty years are extraordinary achievements, resulting in the empowerment of many civil societies, including Lithuania's NGO Citizens' Alliance. Democracy subordinates states to citizens; they own their government, not vice versa. We democrats place the governance process above ourselves. We must be disciplined through engagement and participation.

Some governments have undermined their own principles to pursue security or other interests at the expense of democratic progress in other countries. Abusive and totalitarian regimes are tolerated, even praised. How many times have those fighting for the rule of law and freedom been abandoned by democratic governments because it would cost something to help?

Awkward truths

Democracy support can get in the way of trade, investments and the perceived demands of security. What price are we willing to pay for self-government and for those who strive for it despite high personal cost? We admire Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Gao Zhisheng today languishing in a prison in China and many others, who gave up everything for the democratic ideals we claim as our own. We ourselves rarely pay a price as nations. Democracy is often held hostage to economic and other interests.

The democracy banner flew over literally any governance model in the second half of the twentieth century, no matter how much the realities mocked citizen ownership of their government. Democracies stand against oppression, corruption, segregation, terror and murder. They thrive on diversity, differences and respect for all persons.

There are democracies today in all regions of the world. People want respect for all and the best guarantor of this is constitutional democracy. The universal desire for representative government, guaranteed human rights, and the rule of law continues to have momentum. This is now supported by the U N Development Programme (UNDP), which serves in 166 countries. In 2009 alone, it dedicated $1.4 billion to democratic governance programs, including 112 to promote transparency in governments.

Focusing on the empowerment of civil society is essential, but not enough. Political actors must be engaged. The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), for example, does this by combining support to party development on a strictly non-partisan basis with a role as facilitator of inter-party dialogue. NIMD is receiving international recognition for its capacity to convene political parties and commit politicians to a dialogue - even in difficult circumstances - such as its recent initiatives in post-conflict Burundi and Uganda.


We democrats everywhere can be neither complacent nor over confident. There are still many tyrannies or quasi-dictatorships in the world doing much harm to human beings and the natural environment. Consider, as one well-known example, the roles the party-state in China is playing in Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe and in undermining democratic governance wherever it can. At home, it persecutes spiritual communities, including Buddhism, Falun Gong (, Christians and Muslims.

Let us resolve here today to seek to apply the lessons of January 13, 1991 to all our governments, civil societies and citizens. We owe humanity the continued spread of multiparty democracy, pluralism and human rights. Human dignity is ultimately indivisible across our shrunken world. The dear old man in Ukraine I mentioned earlier deserves to die peacefully in his bed one day convinced that no tyrant will ever deliberately starve human beings anywhere again. Lithuania's leadership of the Community of Democracies and the addition of this parliamentary dimension will strengthen our capacity to address these vital issues of our time.

Thank you.

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