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  • Documents on Democracy

World Movement for Democracy

On November 1, at the opening of the Eighth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy in Seoul, Iranian historian Ladan Boroumand delivered remarks on the current state of global democracy (for more information on the Assembly, see pp. 185–86). Below are excerpts from her remarks:

When the World Movement for Democracy held its inaugural Assembly in New Delhi in 1999, its aim was to build a worldwide movement that would benefit from 25 years of the “dramatic expansion of democracy” and create a network of organizations from all over the world that were united “by shared universal democratic values and a commitment to mutual support and solidarity.” In the mind of its founders, the most important role such a network of activists and civil society organizations could play was “to consolidate recent democratic gains.” The founders of the World Movement knew only too well that creating an enduring democratic culture is a difficult long-term endeavor that requires sustained efforts at all levels of social life. They also foresaw the dangers looming in the uncertain situation of Russia, China’s repressive attitude after Tiananmen, and the rise and spread of a totalitarian Islamist ideology that was diversifying and expanding well beyond Iran, the first country it had conquered.

But in 1999, Islamism was not yet considered a serious challenge to the triumphant democratic worldview, and communism’s collapse in many parts of the world, including in its cradle of Russia, had discredited antidemocratic arguments carried by communist ideology. In short, in the realm of ideology, democracy was still unchallenged. Authoritarian regimes were not defying it ideologically, but only violating it in practice. Even in a country such as Iran, with its Islamist regime, the political language of the leadership had changed after the demise of communism, and taboo words such as democracy, freedom, civil society, and individual rights had burst into official political discourse. [End Page 181]

Sixteen years after that first World Movement Assembly, the situation has dramatically changed. We no longer have the strong wind of triumphant democracy in our sails. Instead, we are facing a reinvigorated wind of authoritarianism that defies us not only in practice but also ideologically and tests our understanding of our own values, our consistency, and our commitment.

Chaos in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, plus the lingering economic crisis and need for lucrative new economic ties with rich authoritarian regimes, prompted democratic governments to deemphasize democracy promotion and favor a traditional diplomacy based on selfish and shortsighted notions of “national interest.” But reality keeps getting in the way. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; the tragic war of Boko Haram in West Africa; the annexation of Crimea and Putin’s “hybrid war” in Ukraine; China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors; the assassinations of Jewish kids and journalists in the heart of old Western democracies; the hundreds of thousands of refugees at the doors of these same societies; the financing of propaganda outlets and extreme rightist parties in their midst by foreign authoritarian regimes—these continue to demonstrate that what authoritarians do is not easily contained within national borders. Thus China’s detention of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and assault on prodemocracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, the extrajudicial killings of Russian opposition figures, the arrests of Venezuelan dissidents, Iran’s executions of political and religious dissidents, and Syria’s bombing of its own people are not the internal business of China, Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Syria anymore. On the contrary, they are the business of the whole world.

Democratic regimes urgently need to rethink and rearticulate their foreign policies and their alliances based on their democratic values rather than on the legacy of the Treaty of Westphalia or the pressure of irresponsible commercial lobbies.

Inaction, ladies and gentlemen, is as much founded on principles and values as action is. It is time for democratic polities to name the principles that preside over their inaction and disunity, and to ask if they are consistent with their democratic values. For at this point what is at stake is not only the expansion of democratic values in the world, but...


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pp. 181-185
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