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Threats to Democracy

Notes For An Address By Hon. David Kilgour, M.P. Edmonton Southeast
Secretary Of State (Latin America And Africa)
Towards A Community Of Democracies Conference,
Warsaw, Poland, June 26, 2000

In 1947, Winston Churchill said: "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect... Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Churchill’s words were prophetic. Democracy is a difficult and necessarily arduous process. It is about citizens and states organizing through an institutional core in a common effort for societal betterment and justice. We democrats know that our system is not easy; nor has it been perfected. But it is in this very difficulty and imperfection that the strengths of democracy are present. It is in our struggle to maintain the democratic systems some have enjoyed for hundreds of years; it is in our fight to consolidate flourishing new democracies. Indeed in gatherings such as this one the richness and strengths of the democratic process are evident..

Threats to Democracy

If there is one overriding truth about democracy, it is that it is precious but vulnerable. The twentieth century shows that the enemies of democracy are as numerous as they are threatening. Over the course of my 21 years as a parliamentarian and through travels as Canada’s Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, I have witnessed many threats to democracy. While many are obvious, the most dangerous are subtle. It is not empty stomachs, impunity or corruption alone that necessarily jeopardize democracy; it is their accumulated effects. The greatest threat to democracy does not always come from the barrel of a gun, but from the collected effects of poverty, apathy, and economic insecurity.

Another obstacle to democracy is that the value of its name often exceeds the principles of its practice. The past century demonstrated that the banner of democracy was used to sustain just about any system. Democracy does not include oppression, corruption, division, segregation, terror and murder. A genuinely democratic nation thrives on diversity and difference, through which it builds on its collective wisdom and strengths. We must now forge a new trail in the twenty-first century where the merits of democracy are not in its name alone, but in its non-negotiable, irrefutable truths.

Freedom and Responsibility

The waves of democracy that swept through the past twenty years has been an extraordinary achievement. For new and old democracies alike, the great opportunity presented was the empowerment of civil society. Democracy subordinates states to people; they own their government, not vice versa. Democracy implies freedom of speech, association, assembly - essentially the freedom for individuals to express who they are and what they believe.

No one put it better than Abraham Lincoln; it is government "of, by and for the people."

Ultimately, democracy can only be as good as people choose to make it. Referring to the need for public responsibility, President Václav Havel of the Czech Republic wrote: "A genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in political and economic systems cannot happen without a significant shift in human consciousness, and that it cannot be accomplished through a simple organizational trick... Man must extricate himself from this terrible involvement in both the obvious and the hidden mechanisms of totality, from consumption to repression, from advertising to manipulation through television. He must discover again, within himself, a deeper sense of responsibility toward the world, which means responsibility toward something higher than himself."

In my view, democrats place the democratic process above themselves. We must be disciplined in our devotion to the democratic process through engagement and participation. Voters must be responsible to make enlightened choices. In the end, anything less presents a major threat to democracy.


In order to be a responsible and disciplined democrat, one must first be knowledgeable and informed. For this reason, it is obvious that the persistent problem of worldwide illiteracy is a perpetual threat to democracy. How can one vote when one cannot read an electoral ballot? How can one make civic choices if one cannot read a newspaper?

Literacy is still unacceptably low. According to the UN, the world literacy rate is only 78%. In the world’s least developed countries it is only 50%; 38% for women. How can democracy flourish when only half a population can read?

Ultimately, literacy does not just mean reading the word, but reading the world. It means understanding concepts and responsibilities. It involves understanding others and diversity. When the world’s citizens are given the opportunity to read the written word, they are also empowered to share ideas and live fulfilled lives.

Rule of Law

Fundamental to a healthy democracy is a strong judiciary. Alexander Hamilton noted that there could be no liberty if the power of the judiciary is not separated from the legislative and executive branches of government. In some cases, the tyranny of legislatures was considered to be the most formidable impediment to the proper development and functioning of constitutional democracy. In Canada we feel that an independent judiciary, with real power to review acts passed by legislators, is a safeguard against potential harms that may be caused to the rights of individuals.

The rule of law and independent judiciaries, consistent with international human rights standards, are not present in all democracies. Judges are dismissed in some jurisdictions if they do not pass judgments that are acceptable to the government, and more obsequious replacements are found. There may be threats of violence against judges in order to persuade them to act in accordance to the will of a dictator. Under these conditions, there can be no impartiality as judges must choose between their own personal safety and the rights of an individual or a group of individuals. This is an extreme example; but more subtle means are deployed by regimes that seek to project an image of a constitutional democracy, and yet rule as a dictatorship of the legislature or executive.

Striking an appropriate balance between majority rule and protection of individual and minorities’ rights is one of democracy’s most enduring challenges. John Locke expressed the notion of inalienable rights in a society: those rights which are so fundamental to the well being and happiness of an individual that a state has very limited rights to infringe upon them. In more modern times these inalienable rights have taken the title of fundamental rights or human rights in the perspective of international law. One needs only to look at a newspaper to find instances where individual and group rights are being infringed.

Democracy’s reliance on a vigorous judiciary makes it possible for minorities and marginalized groups within a state to live peacefully as full members of society. Such groups are no less entitled to live a happy and fulfilling life than those of us who had been lucky enough to be born into freedom. All nations give their judges and lawyers the authority to ensure justice for all, even in the face of mob anger and prejudice.

Experience as Secretary of State

I have witnessed the challenges of and opportunities for democracy in the Western Hemisphere and Africa. For Canada, much of our recent experience has been in the context of two institutions: the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and the Organization of American States (OAS), and I want to briefly refer to how each of these has worked. I will also comment briefly on the role of La Francophonie in this area. Each of these is designed to take into account differing histories and traditions. CMAG as such is not completely transferable to Latin America or La Francophonie, although some aspects could be relevant. The same could be said of the kind of initiatives that we have taken in recent years in the OAS. Beyond regional mechanisms, I want ti underline that the United Nations is one of the main places that Canada uses for raising human rights and related issues such as democracy, in particular at the Commission on Human Rights and the Third Committee of the General Assembly. There, Canada has supported a number of democracy-related resolutions.


Democracy has recently swept through Africa. At the close of the last century, 32 out of 54 heads of state had been chosen on the continent in elections against rivals backed by opposition parties. This can be compared to 1975 when only three heads of state were chosen that way. Over the last decade there has been the founding of more political parties in Africa than at any time since decolonization, and democracy has taken root in countries like Botswana, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa. Democratic elections were particularly successful in Senegal last year with a very gracious hand over of power by former President Diouf. More and more African governments are turning away from the military option, and made a significant commitment in this regard at the OAU (Organization for African Unity) summit in Algiers. It was here that African governments collectively resolved to oppose any government which comes to power by military means.

Nigeria has been a sterling example of a country striving to consolidate democracy after years of military rule and mismanagement. President Obasanjo has gone to great lengths to nurture a fledgling democracy. Many applauded his tenacity as well as the activism of the Nigerian parliament. The emergence of democracy in Nigeria, as in other African countries, has raised expectations among the public, who want to see ‘democracy dividends.’ These benefits have not always been obvious in nations which are going through difficult economic situations. The perceived failure of democratically elected governments to deliver a better standard of living and greater human security is probably one of the greatest threats to democracy in Africa.

The clear lesson from Africa is that economic renewal and democratization must go hand in hand. There are African leaders who believe that economic development must precede democracy. For instance, Botswana and Mauritius have experienced the highest long-term growth rates, while also enjoying the longest period of democratic rule. More recently, positive growth has returned to Benin, Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa, where the resurgence of democracy has been the strongest. Those having the most difficulties during the 1990s are not cases of failed democratization but failed governance.

The greatest hope for democracy in Africa is the resurgence of civil society, which has been at the forefront of the struggles to dislodge authoritarian regimes and install democratic ones. The NGO sector in many countries has grown with groups dedicated to the promotion of democracy and good governance. It is in states where civil society and an independent media are weak that we find the greatest challenges to genuine electoral competition and accountability. Such threats to democracy abound not only in Africa but around the world, it is the response to these threats that will determine the extent to which we are free to determine our own destinies.


As the primary instrument in its region for early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) puts a great deal of emphasis on enhancing democracy from "Vancouver to Vladivostok." The organization does this not only through the regular monitoring of democratic processes among its participating states, the results of which are reported to the Permanent Council, but also through most of the 20 active OSCE field missions, many of whom have democratization as a principle component of their mandate. Finally, the OSCE also has a specialized agency devoted to democratization pursuits, called the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The OSCE’s ODIHR is a Warsaw-based office active in monitoring elections and developing national electoral and human rights institutions, providing technical assistance to national legal institutions, and promoting the development of NGOs and civil society. Canada has been a strong, long-time supporter of this facet of the OSCE's work, and has been well pleased by the contribution its efforts have made in enhancing European peace and security.


Much of Canada’s efforts to support democracy in Africa has been through the Commonwealth which is a multilateral organization that grew out of a shared background and a number of common values such as equality, democracy and the rule of law. These values and traditions are reflected in the Harare Declaration of 1991, in which member governments pledged their commitment to the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth, namely democracy (including democratic processes and institutions, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government) and human rights. These are referred to as the Harare principles. In order to be a member in good standing of the Commonwealth, a country must now have a civilian, democratically elected government.

In 1995, Commonwealth Heads of Government accepted a major initiative by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to put the Harare principles into practical action by giving the Commonwealth an expanded mandate on democracy, including mechanisms for responding to problems when they arise in member countries. The result was the Millbrook Action Programme, authorizing increased Commonwealth action to promote democracy, development and consensus building.

One section of Millbrook establishes the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, (CMAG), the body established to investigate "serious or persistent violations of the [Harare] principles." The Group, convened by the Secretary-General and comprised of the Foreign Ministers of eight countries, is tasked with recommending measures for collective action aimed at the speedy restoration of democracy and constitutional rule. The composition, terms of reference and operation of the Group are reviewed by the Heads of Government every two years.

Since its creation in1995, CMAG has held numerous meetings at the ministerial level, and has sent ministerial missions to The Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Pakistan and most recently to Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

One of the strong points of CMAG is that it is composed of a small group of Ministers. The fact that they are Foreign Ministers, rather than officials, means that they can take decisive action, while the small size of the group encourages a faster decision-making process.

CMAG uses a variety of carrots and sticks ranging from constructive dialogue to sanctions in order to encourage military regimes to return to the barracks and restore democracy as quickly as possible. The key to its effectiveness has been its flexibility.

While CMAG’s current mandate has mainly focussed on violations of democracy brought on by military overthrows of democratic governments, there is on-going debate within the Commonwealth as to whether this mandate should be broadened to include other violations such as human rights ones.

The Americas and the OAS

The Americas too have seen an extraordinary democratic revolution, a far cry from twenty years ago when there were only four democratic governments in South America.

The promotion of democracy was a fundamental consideration when Canada joined the OAS ten years ago and has been the abiding consideration in our relations with OAS member states. The OAS was the first international organization to expressly promote democracy. Canada has focused on developing the capacity of the organization to promote and serve democratic development. We have also strived to consolidate and strengthen the institutions that support political and human rights.

Canada worked for the establishment of the Unit for the Promotion of Democracy (UPD). We are cooperating with hemispheric partners in the Ad Hoc Working Group established last November and in the OAS Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs to find ways to strengthen the human rights system and to ensure that its principal organs - the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Human Rights Court - function efficiently.

Since its adoption at the 1991 OAS General Assembly, Resolution 1080 has been the principal inter-American mechanism for providing a collective response to a grave democratic crisis in a member state. In essence, the resolution provides for a collective response to a crisis situation, such as a coup, but does not contemplate action in the face of other democratic irregularities. The mandate of the Ad Hoc meeting (or special session of the General Assembly) is to look into the events collectively and adopt appropriate decisions. Resolution 1080 has been invoked four times: Haiti (1991), Peru (1992), Guatemala (1993) and Paraguay (1996).

The Protocol of Washington, which amended the OAS Charter in 1992, allowed for the de facto suspension from the OAS of a country whose democratically-elected government has been overthrown by force.

Recently at the 30th General Assembly in Windsor, Ontario, OAS Foreign Ministers agreed to send a high-level mission led by Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy and OAS Secretary General César Gaviria to Peru to examine means to strengthen the country’s democratic structures following irregularities in the second round of presidential elections. This important mission is taking place this week.

In Windsor, member states also adopted a resolution establishing a Special Fund for Strengthening Democracy to be used to respond to requests from member states requiring assistance when faced with threats to the democratic process. Windsor also saw foreign ministers agree to "take ownership" of democracy and governance issues in the Summit of the Americas process.

La Francophonie

Canada has worked with La Francophonie to support democracy. The organization has developed mechanisms to foster and strengthen democracy and has undertaken several informal political initiatives to support democracy in some countries at risk. At the Moncton Summit, the final declaration and the action plan both identified support to democracy and human rights as core goals.

In practical terms, the work of La Francophonie has focused on electoral observation missions, technical assistance in areas related to institutional development and "good offices" missions mounted by the Secretary General to assist in political crises. More recently, as a result of discussions at Moncton, Foreign Ministers have agreed to hold a high-level symposium on democracy and human rights in Mali in November 2000.

With respect to "crises of democracy", the practice has developed of the Secretary General lending his personal efforts (or efforts of his representatives) to resolve difficult situations. These missions can have a variety of purposes, but they occasionally have included issues of democratic governance. Some recent examples include missions to the Central African Republic, to Togo and various contacts with the authorities of Côte d’Ivoire. The missions have tended to be diplomatic, private and facilitative in nature. Canada thinks that this is a very good beginning and we are confident that the organization will continue to play a meaningful role in the promotion of democracy in francophone nations.

Canada, Multilateralism and Democracy

What has Canada learned from its experiences in the Commonwealth, the OAS and La Francophonie? I think that we first have concluded that there is no single model for how to address threats to democracy. In the contexts of the Commonwealth and the Americas, CMAG and the OAS have respectively worked well. For Canada, engaging global partners in democracy through multilateral institutions has been our preferred approach.

The second conclusion is that each threat to democracy must be addressed in its own context. In many cases, the best approach is one of what we might call accompaniment. That is, we need to be supportive of local initiatives and ideas on how to strengthen democracy and send a message that external actors are there to support, and not necessarily to force change. Wherever possible, we should let local actors take the lead in resolving their own challenges. In other cases, however, particularly when there are violations of fundamental principles, we must be prepared to take stronger measures. This again argues against universal models, but instead supports the idea of taking a country-level approach to democracy strengthening.

Third, our experience has shown that while in a few cases, threats to democracy can be resolved in short order, most of the time, we must travel a long road and have patience. As external supporters, we need to be ready to listen, enter into dialogue, and provide technical advice and assistance where needed, and be willing to do so over an extended period.

Finally, we must always be careful that in our efforts to be creative and supportive, we do not compromise basic principles or offer bad advice, and keep our actions in-line with the promotion and protection of human rights consistent with international human rights law. Otherwise, we will not have democracy and we will have betrayed the people we are trying to help.

While the threats to democracy may seem great, we must never let them overwhelm us. As I stated earlier, the strength of democracy is in the struggle. It is a struggle to build the conditions in which democracy can grow and it is a continual struggle to maintain it where it is strong. With a full appreciation and understanding of what threatens democracy, let us continue the critical endeavour of strengthening it.

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