Documents on Democracy

Issue Date October 2003
Volume 14
Issue 4
Page Numbers 183-86
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United Nations

The most prominent victim of the August 19 terrorist bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Iraq. This highly respected international civil servant from Brazil, who had a long and distinguished career serving in a variety of UN posts, was at the time of his death on leave from his regular position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Below are excerpts from the Third Annual BP World Civilization Lecture, which he delivered in London on 11 November 2002, shortly after his appointment as High Commissioner:

I have made it clear that helping to foster the rule of law will be the overarching theme of my work as High Commissioner. The rule of law is the lynchpin of human rights protection; without it, respect for our dignity and for the equality and security of all human beings is meaningless. Human rights work, in other words, is not just about morals or politics, but about responsibilities, legal obligations and accountability. Through the framework of the rule of law, human rights provide individuals with recourse when decisions are made which may adversely affect them. They also provide a means by which to attempt to ensure that those adverse decisions or actions are not taken in the first place.

Rights aim to empower individuals by allowing us all to use them as leverage for action. They legitimize our voices, placing emphasis on the participation of individuals in decision making. They seek to avoid discrimination through their equal application to us all.

Effective human development can only be achieved where people are free to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. The free will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of their lives, is something that to me is axiomatic. It is, in short, inherently “civilizing.” Democratic governance is based on the extension of civil and political rights: in particular the right to participate in political life. It is [End Page 183] basic form of organisation or political order whose underlying principle is a recognition of the equal dignity and worth of every human being. Democracy provides the most appropriate framework for the realization of human rights. By allowing a voice in political decisions, it is instrumental in enabling us to realize other rights.

I do not suggest that democracy is the solution to all problems. It is vital to recognize and address democracy’s shortcomings: Democratic rule does not automatically correlate with respect for human rights, nor does its presence necessarily lead to economic and social development. The vast majority of democratic countries still limit important civil and political rights, and many often neglect economic and social rights, partly because this neglect is less obvious and does not hurt the electoral outcomes for those in power.


On May 25, Néstor Kirchner was sworn in as Argentina’s new president. For more information on the presidential election, see Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo’s article on pp. 152-66 of this issue. Kirchner’s inaugural speech is excerpted below.

The women and men of our fatherland, exercising their popular sovereignty, chose to progress decisively towards the new. Turning a new page of history has not been the work of one or several leaders. It has been, above all, a conscious and collective decision by Argentine citizens. The people have shown a strong preference for the future and change. The level of participation in the elections showed that, thinking differently and respecting diversity, the vast and total majority of Argentines want the same things. . . .

The central part of our plan is to rebuild national capitalism, which will generate alternatives that will allow us to restore upward social mobility. It is not a matter of shutting out the world, it is not a matter of reactionary nationalism, but of intelligence, observation, and commitment to the nation. . . . This is why it is necessary to promote active policies that will foster the country’s development and economic growth, the creation of new jobs, and a better and fairer distribution of our revenues. You must understand that the state will play a leading role. . . . The state must act as the great repairer of social inequalities, permanently seeking involvement and creating opportunities by increasing access to education, health, and housing. . . . We are willing to face with society all of the reforms that are necessary, and for this we will also use the tools that the constitution and laws provide to build and express the people’s will. We will rely on the constitution to build a new legitimacy for our laws, which will go beyond the arrogance of the strongest. . . .

Among the state’s fundamental and irreplaceable roles is its monopoly [End Page 184] on the use of force and the fight against any form of impunity, to achieve citizens’ security and justice in a democratic society, in which human rights are respected. . . . The priority in foreign policy will be the construction of a Latin America that is politically stable, prosperous, united, having as its foundations the ideals of democracy and social justice. . . . A serious, extensive and mature relationship with the United States of America and the states comprising the European Union is what should be expected of us, as well as the strengthening of ties with other developed nations and the great developing nations in the Far East, and a participation in the quest for the achievement of peace and consensus within organizations such as the United Nations. . . .

The struggle against international terrorism, which has left such deep and horrible marks in the Argentine people’s minds, will find us ready and alert, to vanquish it from among the scourges that afflict mankind. . . .

I come to propose a dream. I want a united Argentina. I want a normal Argentina. I want us to be a serious country, but in addition I want a more just country. I hope that through this path a new and glorious nation, our own, will rise in the world.


Zainah Anwar is executive director of Sisters in Islam, a Kuala Lumpur-based organization that advocates a more liberal interpretation of Islam and wider roles for women in Muslim societies. On May 17, she delivered the Hesham Reda Memorial Lecture at the annual conference of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C. Excerpts follow:

I speak from the standpoint of an activist, of someone who works on the ground, challenging political Islam, traditional Islam in the way it is interpreted and codified, which very often discriminates against women and infringes the fundamental liberties of Malaysian citizens as upheld by the Federal Constitution. I speak also from the perspective of a feminist and a believer, and of someone who is determined not to be forced to live in exile because she cannot lead the life she chooses and the Islam she believes in her own country. . . . What are the implications for democratic governance, for multiracial Malaysia, if only a small group of people, the ulama, as traditionally believed, have the right to interpret the Koran, and codify the text in a manner that very often isolates the text from the sociohistorical context of its revelation, isolates classical juristic opinion—especially on women’s issues—from the socio-historical context of the lives and society of the founding jurists of Islam, and further isolates our textual heritage from the context of contemporary society, the world that we live in      today. . . .

What is the role of religion in politics? Is Islam compatible with democracy? . . . How do we deal with the conflict between constitutional provisions of fundamental liberties and equality with religious laws and policies that [End Page 185] violate these provisions? . . . How do we deal with the new universal morality of democracy, of human rights, of women’s rights, and where is the place of Islam in this dominant ethical paradigm of the modern world? . . .

The challenge and the reality we are facing today is the seeming unwillingness or inability of the ulama that dominate the religious authority and of many Islamist activists of today to see Islamic laws from a historical perspective as rules that were socially constructed to deal with the socio- economic and political context of the times. Given a different world, a different time, a different context, these laws have to change to ensure that Islam’s eternal principle of justice is served. . . .

The public space to debate on Islam and Islamic issues has to open up. Unfortunately in many Muslim societies today, this public space does not exist, not just to talk about Islam but to talk on other issues that are deemed sensitive by the power elites, such as democracy, human rights, politics, freedom, fundamental liberties. . . . Many Muslim countries are led by autocratic rulers and monarchs where freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association do not exist or are very restricted. Our traditional upbringing, our culture, and our political system do not encourage us to engage freely in debate on issues. Of course then, when political Islam emerges as an alternative to challenge that autocratic state, it is an Islam led by those whose mindset and cultural framework are just as closed and limited. . . .

In the end, those who demand the establishment of an Islamic state and imposition of Islamic law as conceptualized traditionally must ask themselves: Why should Malaysians want an Islamic state which asserts different rights for Muslim men, Muslim women and non-Muslims and minorities, rather than equal rights for all? Why would those whose equal status and rights are recognized by a democratic system support the creation of such a discriminatory Islamic state? If an Islamic state means an authoritarian, theocratic political system committed to enforcing gender-biased doctrinal and legal rulings, and silencing or even eliminating those who challenge its authority and its interpretation of Islam, then why would those whose fundamental liberties are protected by a democratic state support such an Islamic state?

Just as the failure of modern Muslim states today is seen as the failure of Western secular institutions and laws, the failure of a government that rules in the name of Islam and claims its legitimacy from God can only be seen, in the end, as the failure of Islam. And yet, Islam’s eternal commitments to justice, equality, freedom, and dignity are universal principles that remain valid for all times. For me, it is these ethical principles that should form the framework within which we seek to reconstruct society. To successfully do this, however, Muslims need the intellectual vigor, moral courage, and political will to open the doors of ijtihad (rational interpretation) and publicly engage in defining and redefining our understanding and our knowledge of Islam in our search for answers to deal with the challenges of our ever- changing times and circumstances. This is not heretical, but an imperative if religion is to remain relevant to our lives today.