The Ethics of Human Rights (69): Democratic Transition Caught Between the Rights of Past and Future Generations

Here are some general observations inspired by the recent talk of a possible amnesty for Assad as a means to convince him to give up power in Syria.

Imagine a country in which roughly 20% of the population ruled the other 80% during several decades or even centuries. The members of the ruling class owned the land and controlled much of the economy, are of a different social class (perhaps even race) and made sure that the rest of the population lived in constant poverty, oppression and discrimination.

The combination of an internal uprising and external intervention produced a successful transition to a fully democratic form of government. A strong and independent judiciary is now in place, able to effectively enforce a constitution that includes a wide array of human rights.

How should this new democracy deal with the horrors of the past and the rights violations of the now defunct regime? There are two seemingly incompatible needs: victims of rights violations in the past now demand justice, but the society as a whole may be better off without justice, at least in the short run immediately after the democratic transition (and later it may be too late to bring the perpetrators to justice because they’re all dead). Justice can make it more difficult to integrate the old ruling class into the new state. Given that most of the members of that class were heavily implicated in the horrors of the past, justice can’t be a simple matter of punishing a few key perpetrators. And punishing large groups of people will alienate those people, with potentially fatal consequences for the stability of the new state. It may even be the case that one can identify a few key perpetrators, but that those are still quite important for stability even though they’re not very numerous. For example, it’s likely that the military was implicated in past injustices, but the military – especially the top brass – is very important for stability and the new state can’t risk alienating this group, even if it’s not very large. An internally divided society is not at peace with itself and risks upheaval.

However, failure to pursue justice will also divide society. Failure to do something about past injustices will result in impunity and will undermine the moral authority of the new state. Also, what would that imply for future respect for human rights? Why respect rights when past disrespect was without consequences? And if only new rights violations are prosecuted, then there will be a feeling of injustice because of double standards.

A solution to this dilemma can perhaps be found in the fact that there are degrees and different kinds of justice. Justice doesn’t have to be penal or focused on retribution or revenge. Better perhaps to emphasize truth, also a traditional element of justice. Truth, as in the so-called truth commissions, can foster repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Judicial prosecutions can still play a part, but their potential divisiveness can be softened by measures such as amnesty, pardon or limited punishments, on the condition that the defendants cooperate in truth commissions. It’s often the case that truth is more important to victims than retribution.

Of course, some major perpetrators may still have to be punished and perhaps even severely punished. Some types of responsibility are simply to heavy to warrant amnesty. It may be impossible for a society to exist given the presence of monsters continuing their lives as if nothing happened. It’s not necessary to “buy” the allegiance of every single individual in society, not even individuals who still have a broad base of support. In addition, we have to avoid coerced amnesty: perpetrators can blackmail the new state by threatening large-scale unrest or upheaval.

So we need to balance the needs of the past and the future. Both needs should be acknowledged and neither should be sacrificed for the other. Of course, that’s easy to say and very hard to do.

More on the rights of past and future generations here, here, here and here. More on transitional justice here. More on the prerequisites for a transition to democracy is here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (18): External Triggers

In the previous posts in this blog series, I only discussed internal reasons why a particular country moves towards or away from democracy. But of course, no country stands on its own, unaffected by what happens in the rest of the world. Democratization is hardly ever a purely domestic event or the sole result of internal democratic forces. There are and have been important external triggers, both helping and impeding the transition to democracy.

The fall of the Soviet Block in 1989 and the defeat of the Axis powers after WWII were global events that led to the overthrow of a whole series of authoritarian governments. On the other hand, the Cold War meant that authoritarian leaders everywhere in the world were buttressed or installed as a buffer against communism or capitalist imperialism (“he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch“). Furthermore, the economic interests of powerful countries often convinced them and sometimes still convince them to support dictators in oil-rich countries (Saudi Arabia for instance). And besides oil there are other strategic interests that may make it “necessary” to support dictators in other countries (for example, concern for the security of Israel led the US to support Mubarak in Egypt).

Sometimes, powerful countries decide that they should use their military to directly intervene in a country and install democracy by force (Grenada may be an example, and people sure try hard in Afghanistan and Iraq and perhaps also in Libya). Another form of intervention intended to support democracy is conditional aid: wealthy countries or international institutions often tie aid to “good governance” requirements.

And a final external trigger for democracy development is the dominance of the West in the international entertainment industry. When people in authoritarian countries consume western entertainment, they learn to associate democracy with prosperity and freedom.

Of course, external triggers alone won’t produce an enduring democracy, and certainly not when those triggers don’t encourage domestic aspirations. For example, it’s futile to force a country to hold elections through the use of conditional aid or military intervention when the rule of law isn’t in place, when there’s sharp polarization between groups or when a democratic culture isn’t in place. Democracy depends on internal support. People have to believe in democracy and participate, and the institutional structure has to be in place. However, the appetite can come while eating: a certain amount of experience with democracy may be required for institutions and mentalities to grow. Hence, it’s just as futile to wait with external triggers until all the preconditions for democracy are in place.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (17): Inequality

A transition to democratic government is very unlikely when the population of a country is sharply divided in unequal classes or groups. Some of these groups will try to monopolize political power in order to repress rival groups and maintain the distributional status quo. For example, when there’s a division between a landowning class or an industrial class on the one hand, and a group of impoverished rural or urban workers on the other hand, then the former group will fear election victories by the latter group because such victories will lead to redistribution of land or other assets. Privileged classes will therefore work against democracy. As a result of this, the working classes will radicalize and aim for a revolutionary overthrow and the abolition of property rights altogether, thereby also making democracy less likely.

Something like this is arguably a good description of much of the recent history of Latin America. Positively stated: more economic equality – perhaps following the expansion of a middle class – will make democracy more viable, since different groups have less to lose from a democratic power shift.

But polarization doesn’t have to be exclusively economic in nature. Religious or ethnic divisions can also hinder the creation and continuity of democracy, especially when there’s also a spatial division between groups. This is probably what happened in Africa since decolonization. Of course, non-economic divisions are often exacerbated by economic ones, in which case we can hope that more economic equality will take the sting out of ethnic divisions.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (16): Climate and Geography

There are some contingent reasons why countries’ governments develop or fail to develop a strong system of centralized control over resources. And those that fail to do so tend to be more democratic. The detailed argument is here, but I’ll give you a short summary.

Montesquieu already related differences in human political conditions to climatic differences. And indeed, it’s not uncommon to see the argument that water for instance plays a crucial role. Water makes land valuable, but only in countries where there’s continuous rainfall over the seasons will water be available in sufficient quantities. In other countries, a centrally coordinated irrigation system will be necessary, and this requirement favors a strong central government. In countries where citizens don’t depend on the government for water for their agriculture for instance, those citizens have more bargaining power.

Also, continuous rainfall results in agrarian surpluses, which in turn favor urbanization and taxation. Taxation is a well-known cause of democratization (“no taxation without representation“), and popular mobilization against authoritarian rule is easier in large cities. Urbanization also leads to commerce, specialization and industrialization, phenomena which result in a large and powerful middle class, able to bargain the taxes it pays against more rights and freedoms.

In light of this, it’s not surprising that democracy developed first in North-West Europe and North America, regions with plenty of rainfall. And neither is it surprising that so many non-democracies suffer from the so-called resource curse: countries that are endowed with natural resources that – unlike rainfall – can easily be brought under central control tend to develop governance structures that favor such control. Government will be centralized and authoritarian because the resource rents for the leaders are very high. And when there’s central control over resources, there’s also central control over all the rest: leaders have a strong financial incentive to stay in power and to oppress opposition movements.

But it’s not just climate that favors democracy or autocracy. There’s also geography. A country that is shielded from external military threats as a result of its geography or topography – for example because it’s an island, has a long coastal line, or is situated in a mountainous area – doesn’t need to sustain a standing army at the exclusive disposal of its leader. Without such an army, the leader’s control over coercion is limited and it’s much more difficult to develop a centralized governance system. Perhaps the success of democracy in countries such as Iceland, the UK, Scandinavia and Switzerland can be explained in this way. The army in Switzerland is really a volunteer militia, whereas the army in the UK has long been the hobby of the nobility.

So these are two examples of climate and geography deciding the balance of power in favor of citizens. A government that isn’t favored by climate or geography in its attempts to centralize power faces a stronger citizenry. Likewise, if a government depends on its citizens’ agreement for the use of an important resource such as the military – for geographic reasons – then those citizens have bargaining power. They will only participate in war or conquest if they get something in return, e.g. more rights and freedoms.

Of course, it would be silly to claim that climate factors or geography determine political outcomes, or even that they are the main causes. Democracy depends on a lot of things, especially beliefs and intentional collective action , much more than objective and contingent circumstances. But those circumstances do play a role, as they always do. Other causes are discussed in other posts in this blog series.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (14): Assassination

If we agree that democracy is something important, then we need to know why, how and when countries turn to or away from democracy. So, here’s another installment in our ongoing series:

Assassinations are a persistent feature of the political landscape. Using a new data set of assassination attempts on all world leaders from 1875 to 2004, we exploit inherent randomness in the success or failure of assassination attempts to identify assassination’s effects. We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves toward democracy. We also find that assassinations affect the intensity of small-scale conflicts. The results document a contemporary source of institutional change, inform theories of conflict, and show that small sources of randomness can have a pronounced effect on history. (source, source)

I guess no need to say that this isn’t a sufficient condition for a democratic transition. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (13): Prosperity

I already mentioned in a previous post how democracy is correlated with prosperity. There’s a much higher proportion of democracies among rich countries than among poor countries. The level of national income is the most important factor explaining inter-country variations in the degree of democracy. If we assume from this correlation that there is a causal link from prosperity to democracy, then low income is the most important barrier to democracy. But the causal link probably goes in both directions. Countries aren’t just democratic – or remain so – because they prosper (among other reasons), but it’s also the case that countries prosper to some extent because they are democratic (disproving the often heard claim that economic development requires authoritarian government).

The correlation between democracy and prosperity is obvious from this paper (at least for non-Muslim countries).

The stronger one of the causal links seems to be the one going from prosperity to democracy rather than vice versa. If you accept that, there’s an additional question (it’s one made famous by Przeworski and Limongi): are there more democracies among rich countries than among poor countries

  • because economic development increases the likelihood that countries will undergo a transition to democracy (this is often called modernization theory), or
  • because economic development makes democracies less likely to fall back into dictatorship?

Przeworski and Limongi found that affluence makes it very unlikely that a shift from democracy to dictatorship occurs, while Boix and Stokes find that there is an effect of affluence on the likelihood of a shift to democracy. Both effects are visible in this study.

It’s likely that the economic effect on transition towards democracy is a bit smaller than the effect halting the opposite transition. The reason is probably the fact that the transition from democracy to authoritarianism is in se much easier than the other way around. Some even say that democracy is inherently suicidal. Whatever the merits of that claim, it’s obvious that an authoritarian leader has the resources and the necessary lack of scruples to cling to power. Especially when his country becomes more prosperous. He can then use this prosperity to bribe the population into submission, and buy the arms and security forces when this doesn’t work.

Again, economic development isn’t a sufficient or even necessary prerequisite for democracy to appear or to survive. Things are more complicated than that and many other factors are in play, including conscious human activity and volition. People can decide to make or destroy a democracy at any level of economic development.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (12): Arab Democracy, an Oxymoron?

When people look for reasons why countries haven’t made the transition from authoritarian government to democracy, they often mention economic development or culture, or both. And culture usually means religion more specifically. And religion usually means Islam. Now it’s true that if you look at the largest Muslim region, the Arab world (roughly North Africa plus the Arab Peninsula), you won’t find a single democracy. You can check the most common democracy indexes, Freedom House and Polity IV. That’s an anomaly: no other large region in the world is similarly devoid of democratic governance.

The question is of course: why? In our post-9/11 world the obvious answer is Islam, which is believed to be a religion that is particularly incompatible with democratic principles such as separation of state and church, pluralism, rule of law, human rights etc. Some even say that there will never be democracies in the Arab world as long as Islam remains an important force.

However, sometimes the obvious answer is also the wrong one. Some Muslim countries outside the Arab world have reasonably well developed democratic systems of government (Albania, Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal, Turkey etc.) and are doing much better than some non-Muslim dictatorships out there.

But then, if it’s not religion, what is the reason for the absence of democracy in the Arab world? In an interesting new paper, Larry Diamond has a look at some possible reasons. He focuses on the so-called resource-curse and the correlated lack of accountability (accountability only emerges in countries that have to tax their people), but I think he’s wrong there. Lack of economic development could be a cause, but he rightly dismisses it. If you compare economic development in Arab and non-Arab countries, you see that per capita GDP of Kuwait is on the same level as Norway, Bahrain compares to France, and Saudi Arabia is on a par with South Korea. Conversely, you’ll be able to find non-Arab democracies that are much less developed than the average Arab country.

A more promising explanation of enduring Arab authoritarianism is FOTA: fear of the alternative. moderate opposition groups in Arab countries tend to accept their authoritarian governments. Their dislike of “modern pharaohs” is topped by their dislike of radical Islamist groups that could profit from free elections. Rather than the principle “one person, one vote, one time” followed by theocracy, they settle for the relatively mild yoke of secular Arab dictatorship. Something similar happened before in Latin America, when the feared alternative was communist rule.

Another explanation for the lack of Arab democracy is the large proportion of GDP spent on the security apparatus, and the relative efficiency of Arab security forces. This is probably linked to the support these countries receive from the West, which is another reason for their longevity. And finally, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a very convenient diversion: it allows public frustration to discharge outwards, without internal consequences.

As you can see, none of these causes condemn Arab countries to dictatorship. Compared to religion, these are things that can be changed quite easily, if the will is there. The FOTA is self-fulfilling: it’s likely that radical Islamist movements are encouraged by authoritarian rule, as much as they are restrained by it. So better give it up. And the West could use its leverage, resulting from decades of support, to push for reforms.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (9): The Resource Curse

If we value democracy, then it’s interesting to know

  • how societies have achieved the transition from authoritarian forms of government to more democratic ones
  • why other societies have failed
  • and how democracies have avoided the opposite transition.

This knowledge will help us to promote and sustain democracy in the future. Something we already know is that this isn’t simple. There are a huge number of factors at play and there’s no silver bullet. Some of the most widely discussed factors are economic development, levels of education, and religion and culture.

I’ll bracket two important issues here: what kind of democracy are we talking about, and how do we measure transition or development towards democracy? If you want to know what promotes or inhibits democracy and act on this knowledge in order to further the cause of democracy, you can’t avoid these questions, but discussing them here would take us too far.

What I want to focus on here is the so-called resource curse. This curse is believed to be a phenomenon that blocks countries’ development towards democracy. Promoting democracy means lifting the curse. Now, what is this curse, and is it real or just another simplistic explanation of the course of history?

Countries which own lots of natural resources such as diamonds, oil or other valuables that are found in the ground, are often relatively poor, badly governed, violent and suffering from gross violations of human rights. Resource wealth can trigger corruption and grabbing, can give autocrats the means to retain power by buying off opposition or building a repressive state apparatus, or can tempt democratically elected leaders to cling to highly beneficial positions of power.

This sounds good but even a cursory glance at reality reveals some counter-indications. There are many resource rich countries that are governed very well and are pinnacles of democracy (take Norway). Still, that may only disprove part of the resource curse. It may be the case that democracies benefit from resources and are able to solidify themselves, while non-democracies are doomed to remain as they are because of resource abundance. Resources then only create a curse when democratic institutions are absent. So we shouldn’t worry about democracies failing because of resources, but about autocracies failing to transform because of them.

However, there’s an article here claiming that

resource wealth is positively associated with both economic growth and institutional quality.

Much depends, it seems, on how to measure resource abundance. There also is a reversal of the direction of causation, a common mistake in statistics:

There is no evidence that resource-dependent countries end up with slow growth and bad institutions. Rather, countries with bad institutions attract little investment, and as a result they grow more slowly and remain dependent on exports of commodities.