Human rights and democracy, anyone?

by Chris Chatteris SJ


Most people want to live under democratic regimes that respect human rights. This is the contention of the Russian opposition figure in exile, Maxim Katz. He has some interesting new evidence for this from an unexpected source. He notes an interesting recent phenomenon in his native land, which has invaded Ukraine and is now slowly being pushed out.


It seems that even the extreme right-wing Russians who criticise Putin for not pursuing the war in Ukraine vigorously enough demand the freedom of speech to say so. Their instincts may be totalitarian, but they want the liberty to say that, for example, they do not like the fact that their warmongering poster boy, one Igor Girkin, has been arrested and accused of ‘extremism’ for calling out Putin’s limp-wristedness. Girkin was indicted for downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014 over occupied Ukraine. His supporters do not like that he has been silenced and is unlikely to get a fair trial.


Katz points out the paradoxical truth that the freedom of expression and equality before the law aspired to by these rabid characters on the right is more or less what the Russian left is demanding. Whether they see the irony of their demands is another matter.


He also notes that authoritarian regimes almost everywhere conduct sham elections. He suggests that they do this because they know that democracy is a pretty universal aspiration of people in our era. So, these regimes hold out the hope of democracy because people continue to live in the hope that their voices will be heard and their votes count.


One such rigged election recently took place in Zimbabwe. It was a charade, of course, but the fact that ZANU-PF feels the need to give lip service to democracy shows that they know there are democratic desires in Zimbabwe.


Following Katz, we could conduct a thought experiment in which we all went onto the streets of wherever we come from and asked people what political and human rights they want. Assuming they felt safe to respond, most respondents, from whatever class, culture, or continent, would state that they more or less want the things laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They would want the right to freedom of expression, the right to the freedom of movement and to a democratic system in which it is actually possible to remove bad governments and replace them with something better. They would want equality before the law.


That such a thought experiment is likely to yield such results seems obvious if we imagine asking opposite questions such as, ‘Would you like to live under a regime where what you say, for example, on social media, can land you in jail, where you cannot move around freely to seek work, where there are no elections at all and where you are not likely to get a fair trial?’


Therefore, if Maxim Katz’s intuition is correct about a general desire for these freedoms among most people of our era, the question is why autocratic regimes survive at all and, more mysteriously for me, why some of us who live under democratic regimes tolerate and give comfort to the autocratic regimes they do not have to put up with? Cyril Ramaphosa recently travelled to Zimbabwe to congratulate the president on his election ‘win’.


Indeed, some people who have the luxury of living in democratic regimes take particular cynical pleasure in knocking democracy, regarding it as overrated or too Western or too imperfect. For such members of the commentariat, my thought experiment would consist of an extended stay in North Korea.


Democracy and human rights are hard to win and easy to lose, and we will miss them if and when they are gone.

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