Democratic ideals have guided humanity in its efforts to create a world society founded on justice, peace, human dignity, equality, personal freedom and the rule of law. The Charter of the United Nations (UN) starts with the following three words, “We, the peoples” – not we, the state representatives – manifesting the intention to change the paradigm away from state-centric conceptions and proposing a new form of governance based on a democratic consensus.
The founding father of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi, famously said that he understood “democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong.” Sustainable Development Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also puts strong emphasis on the importance of strong institutions guided, inter alia, by participatory models of democracy, the rule of law as well as participative and inclusive societies. We believe that modern society’s DNA must incorporate principles of democracy, human rights and international solidarity if they are to overcome the existential threats posed by huge stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Since the end of the Cold War, decentralized democracy emerged as the governance model while communism lost its ideological sway with the break-up and fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the switch from a bipolar to a unipolar hegemonistic world order. Democratic liberalism became subsequently the dominant force of governance, spreading its ideals and principles to every corner of the world. It was long assumed that the spread of democratic liberalism and capitalism - following the end of the Cold War - would deliver a pragmatic solution to humanity’s ideological, social and political struggles, and would therefore bring an end to history, as famously proclaimed by Professor Francis Fukuyama.
However, the unprecedented rise of armed conflicts and wars, the dismemberment and implosion of multinational states, social instability and popular upheavals, the advent of global economic downturns as well as the surge of global crises, such as climate change and global health pandemics, illustrates that the “end of history” is note at hand and that humanity still has to work to achieve local, regional and international peace and justice.
There is no single universal model of democracy that can be exported as a “take it or leave it” system of governance to countries of the world. Every country has to take into account its unique social and cultural characteristics when aspiring to develop a model of democracy that would serve the political and social aspirations of its people. Societies must follow their own pace and find their own path to build a societal and political order that truly respects and integrates human rights, fundamental freedoms as their moral compass and barometer for justice and progress. The UN and UNESCO have adopted numerous resolutions confirming this view.
There are several lessons to be learned from the recent decades of post-Cold War ideological experiments in democracy and economic liberalization in volatile and politically unstable regions of the planet. We have witnessed the accumulation of pain and frustration within affected societies, notably in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq and Libya, which have experienced continued instability and internecine conflicts, often underpinned by sectarian, religious and ethnic tensions accompanied by institutional backlashes.
Unfortunately, the subsequent political and social vacuums have been filled by violent and extremist groups, who have exacerbated social instability and violence and thrown societies into a path of uncertainty and social disorder. It is not the new “democracy” that is at fault, but the wrong implementation of it. Although the new leaders give lip service to democracy and human rights, their actions disprove their claims. Transitional societies need international solidarity, including advisory services and technical assistance by the UN and its specialised agencies, lest the improvised methods to bring about democratic change and transformation actually result in institutional and political backlash. At the same time, only a genuine, grass-roots democratic movement will guarantee sustainability.
Breaking the chains of instability and violence remains a precondition for democracy to become a force of greater social progress, political stability and a vector for inclusive and sustainable change. The ideals of democracy, implemented in good faith, can and should bring justice and peace to communities hitherto deprived of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. This, however, requires a bottom-up, not top-down approach, in which democratic governance corresponds to the genuine wishes and aspirations of the populations concerned and becomes that form of “government of the people, by the people, for the people (…)” which Abraham Lincoln envisaged and for which he gave his life.