With Democracy, One Size Does Not Fit All: Interview with Alfred de Zayas

“There's no one single model of democracy, but we can all agree on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Alfred de Zayas, the United Nations independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, adding that the modalities of applying the universal declaration "can be country to country adjusted according to the cultural diversity, the traditions of those countries.”

According to Mr. de Zayas, it’s not the label of democracy that is important. “What is crucial is this correlation between the will of the people, the needs of the people, and the governmental policies that affect them.” 

He said he has a particular interest in the Switzerland model of direct democracy, “But since democracy is a concept that is new and in certain countries there's no tradition of democracy, you cannot impose it top down…you have to be patient; you cannot force it.” 

“I think that all the African countries are making considerable progress toward democracy. It should not come from the West. I really object to the arrogance of some who think that we can export democracy. It must be homegrown so that you own it, so that you feel ‘this is us.’” 

Mr. de Zayas believes democracy can help people hold governments accountable for how their national resources are spent. "One of the problems in many countries, unfortunately, is that national resources are being squandered, are being wasted in the military. Most African countries really do not need a large military. They certainly do not need state-of-the-art planes or state-of-the-art tanks and more weapons. It is really a crime to spend tax money instead of putting it into education, putting it into healthcare, to put this money into weapons. That fuels not only wars—that's evident—but it also fuels corruption...When government squanders money, and it does not use it for what the people want and what the people need, then these authorities should be made to account, and there should be no impunity."

Mr. de Zayas believes that the direct democracy model could be applied at a global level. “I believe that a world parliamentary assembly, or if you want, a United Nations parliamentary assembly could be established,” which he said could be linked to the UN charter as a consultative party. 

He questioned whether the General Assembly is able to speak for the people. “The General Assembly is made up of a 193 states' members and observer members,” he said. “But who sits in the assembly? It’s governments. It's ambassadors. And to what extent do these 193 ambassadors really represent their constituencies?” 

“You know and I know that there is a huge disconnect between power and the people,” he said. He pointed out that many countries are democracies in name but are essentially lobby democracies, “and they cater to special interests, cater to corporations, cater to the oil industry, etc, and they don't really cater to citizen A or citizen B."

"You have the opportunity once every two years or every four years to put a little cross on the ballot box, but democracy is not just the ballot box,” he said. 

The interview was conducted by Priscilla Nzabanita, research assistant in the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript

Priscilla Nzabanita: Today on the Global Observatory we are pleased to welcome Mr. Alfred de Zayas, who is independent expert for the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. Thank you, Mr. de Zayas for agreeing to have this interview with us. 

So, my first question for you is that your mandate calls for a broad analysis of obstacles to a democratic and equitable international order. Can you describe what this mandate specifically entails?

Alfred de Zayas: As you know, it's a new mandate. It was created last year, 2012. I am the first mandate holder, so I'm giving it shape. It is a convergence of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Imagine promoting an international order that is more democratic and more equitable that entails everything. It is the most universal mandate that has ever been created. And I'm supposed to identify obstacles. I have done so in my first two reports to the Human Rights Council, and my separate, different two reports to the General Assembly. 

Obstacles, of course, are multiple, and [at] the core of democracy. As I said in the discussion today, there's no one single model of democracy, but we can all agree on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the modalities of applying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be country to country adjusted according to the cultural diversity, the traditions of those countries. 

As far as advancing with democratic order domestically, whether it be in Asia or in Latin America or in Africa, it's not the label that is important. What is crucial is this correlation between the will of the people, the needs of the people, and the governmental policies that affect them. That's why I have particular interest in the model of direct democracy, which is the kind of government in Switzerland, for instance, where the population has the right of initiative. With a certain number of signatures, you can initiate legislation. Or you can test legislation that is, or rather a bill, that is before Parliament or even a piece of legislation has been adopted, you can have a referendum to abrogate it. You also have recall and impeachment. These are guarantees that the people are sovereign. 

That functions very well in Switzerland because Switzerland is a very advanced country with many centuries of experience in practicing democracy. But since democracy is a concept that is new and in certain countries there's no tradition of democracy, you cannot impose it top down. You have to assist these countries in developing not only the constitution—obviously, the constitution will guarantee democracy, and most laws that are adopted will on the face of them be democratic, but unless you have a mechanism for implementation of these norms, you're going to find that it's on the surface democratic but in reality still autocratic. 

Again, you have to be patient; you cannot force it. I think that all the African countries are making considerable progress toward democracy. It should not come from the West. I really object to the arrogance of some who think that we can export democracy. It must be homegrown so that you own it, so that you feel 'this is us.' And the African Union has a very important role to play. There is not only the African charter on human and people's rights—and everything is in there, basically, the rights and the duties. And you have the African charter on governance and elections, etc. 

The groundwork has been laid. It's now a matter of transparency. It is a matter of putting national resources where they should be. One of the problems in many countries, unfortunately, is that national resources are being squandered, are being wasted in the military. Most African countries really do not need a large military. They certainly do not need state-of-the-art planes or state-of-the-art tanks and more weapons. It is really a crime to spend tax money instead of putting it into education, putting it into healthcare, to put this money into weapons. That fuels not only wars—that's evident—but it also fuels corruption. Because to make these big deals, selling armaments, there are usually commissions and there are retro commissions, etc. There's a whole complex of corruption that accompanies the military-industrial complex and the trade in weapons. So, one additional problem that you have to tackle is the problem of accountability. When government squanders money, and it does not use it for what the people want and what the people need, then these authorities should be made to account. There should be no impunity. 

The problem of impunity in Africa is grave, but, of course, it's not only in Africa. You have impunity in almost every country because the powerful will do whatever is necessary to retain their power, their privileges, and their advantages, and in order to do that they will bend the law.

PN: I think the next question I had for you, you've sort of answered, which is how do you anticipate to engage with the African countries. So if you could pick up on that. The other question I had is about your recent report to the Human Rights Council, which focuses primarily on the issue of participation. Within Africa, what key groups have you identified as being the least able to participate in decision-making processes and institutions, and what obstacles prevent their participation?

ADZ: Well, let me answer the last question first. The poor are essentially disenfranchised—the uneducated, the illiterate are disenfranchised. It is very difficult to mobilize this population because their priorities are elsewhere. We know the work of Jean Ziegler, and the work of Olivier De Schutter as a rapporteur on the right to food. People have, first and foremost, the right to life, and in order to sustain life, you need food and you need water, and you need shelter. These are the day-to-day worries of very many people. If you have extreme poverty, these people are really not terribly concerned about high-flying ideas of democracy or of elections and election monitoring. Their priorities are elsewhere.  

It is an urgent need in all African countries to devote a greater percentage of the national budget to eradicating illiteracy, to eradicating child mortality, to eradicating extreme poverty—as indeed reflected in the Millennium Development Goals, and in the post-2015 development agenda. As to what I personally can do, I have in past years—not since I have had the mandate, actually, from earlier—I had established a context with the African commission on human rights, with the African court on human rights. I follow the meetings of the African Union, and it is on my agenda. So as I say, I am in newcomer. I am just recently appointed as rapporteur. Africa is certainly on my agenda, and I will advance with these contacts as I draft my future reports to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly. 

But as I said, also, in the discussion, I have regular contact with ambassadors from Africa in Geneva. I participate on very many panels of the Human Rights Council—side events organized by African groups on African issues. So, I am still in the stage of learning. 

PN:  My last question to you is something that I know I've read is close and dear to your heart: that you're an advocate for a world parliamentary assembly. How in practice would such an assembly work? And do you think it would enhance a more democratic and equitable international order?

ADZ: I'm happy that you pose this question because my heart is very much in it. I believe that a world parliamentary assembly, or if you want, a United Nations parliamentary assembly could be established, linked to the United Nations system by virtue of article 22 of the United Nations charter and does not require any amendment to the charter. Initially, it would be a consultative party. You’re not going to create a legislative assembly side-by-side to the General Assembly, but you are aware the General Assembly is made up of a 193 states' members and observer members. But who sits in the assembly? It’s governments. It's ambassadors. And to what extent do these 193 ambassadors really represent their constituencies? 

You know and I know that there is a huge disconnect between power and the people. And many democracies in name, essentially, are lobby democracies, and they cater to special interests, cater to corporations, cater to the oil industry, etc, and they don't really cater to citizen A or citizen B. You have the opportunity once every two years or every four years to put a little cross on the ballot box, but democracy is not just the ballot box. Democracy is the core relation of needs, political will of the population, and actual policy. That's why the possibility of identifying your priorities is so important. The possibility of having transparency, fiscal transparency and budget transparency is crucial if you're going to have this correlation between needs and policy. Now, a world parliamentary assembly could initially borrow, if you want, the already existing parliamentarians of those countries who've already been elected. 

You could start first with parliamentarians who are already in office, and they could then participate in this consultative body, a work in progress, called a world parliamentary assembly. Eventually the idea is to have directly elected representatives, which means instead of having just professional diplomats, you would have artisans, and you would have plumbers and you would have architects and you would have lawyers, and you would have doctors—you would have a cross-section of society of all countries represented. The book that just came out by Professor Joseph Schwartzberg from the University of Wisconsin, I can highly recommend. It is called Transforming the United Nations [System]. It really is an architecture for a workable world. 

It makes very concrete proposals, not only how to reform the General Assembly and the Security Council and ECOSOC, but also how to establish a United Nations parliamentary assembly. I find it entirely feasible, and the number of advocates of the United Nations parliamentary assembly has been growing exponentially. Just two weeks ago, I attended a conference at the European Parliament—hosted by the European Parliament, welcomed by the president of the European Parliament, who has endorsed the idea of the United Nations parliamentary assembly—in which scholars from many countries participated. We adopted the declaration of Brussels, which I could share with you. And there you will see the modalities, the details of what is an entirely future-oriented project that will—and I am confident of that—it will end up in a parliamentary body that will be genuinely representative of citizens. 

And in this connection I repeated my call to the General Assembly yesterday to declare a World Parliament Day. We already have a world day on democracy, but a World Parliament Day in order to celebrate the existence of Parliaments, and to underline the crucial importance of parliaments in representative democracy. 

PN: Thank you very much again, Mr. De Zayas, that was very informative.

About the photo: A female voter displays her purple finger after casting ballots at an elementary school in Nasiriyah, Iraq, March 7, 2010. (DVIDSHUB/US/Flickr/)


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