Documents on Democracy

Issue Date April 2010
Volume 21
Issue 2
Page Numbers 177-186
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Essayist and critic Liu Xiaobo, a past president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and editor of Democratic China magazine, was sentenced in Beijing to eleven years’ imprisonment on 25 December 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” He was a leading signatory of Charter 08. Below are excerpts of his statement before his sentencing:

June 1989 was the major turning point in my 50 years on life’s road. Before that, I was a member of the first group of students after restoration of the college entrance examination after the Cultural Revolution (1977); my career was a smooth ride, from undergraduate to grad student and through to PhD. After graduation I stayed on as a lecturer at Beijing Normal University. On the podium, I was a popular teacher, well received by students. I was also a public intellectual: in the 1980s I published articles and books that created an impact. I was frequently invited to speak in different places, and invited to go abroad to Europe and the U.S. as a visiting scholar. What I required of myself was to live with honesty, responsibility, and dignity both as a person and in my writing. Subsequently, because I had returned from the U.S. to take part in the 1989 movement, I was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement to crime,” losing the platform I loved; I was never again allowed publish or speak in public in China. Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher lost his podium, a writer lost the right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the chance to speak publicly. This was a sad thing, both for myself as an individual and, after three decades of reform and opening, for China.

Thinking about it, my most dramatic experiences after June Fourth have all been linked with the courts; the two opportunities I had to speak in public have been provided by trials held in the People’s Intermediate [End Page 177] Court in Beijing, one in January 1991 and one now. Although the charges on each occasion were different, they were in essence the same, both being crimes of expression.

Twenty years on, the innocent souls of June Fourth are yet to rest in peace, and I, who had been drawn into the path of dissidence by the passions of June Fourth, after leaving the Qincheng Prison in 1991 lost the right to speak openly in my own country, and could only do so through overseas media, and hence was monitored for many years; placed under surveillance (May 1995–January 1996); educated through labour (October 1996–October 1999s), and now once again am thrust into the dock by enemies in the regime. But I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed twenty years ago in my “June Second hunger strike declaration”—I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentenced me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities. …

For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.

As we all know, reform and opening brought about development of the state and change in society. In my view, it began with abandoning “taking class struggle as the key link,” which had been the ruling principle of the Mao era. We committed ourselves instead to economic development and social harmony. The process of abandoning the “philosophy of struggle” was one of gradually diluting the mentality of enmity, eliminating the psychology of hatred, and pressing out the “wolf’s milk” in which our humanity had been steeped. It was this process that provided a relaxed environment for reform and opening at home and abroad, for the restoration of mutual love between people, and soft humane soil for the peaceful coexistence of different values and different interests. It provided the explosion of popular creativity and the rehabilitation of warm-heartedness with incentives consistent with human nature. Externally abandoning “anti-imperialism and anti-revisionism,” and internally abandoning “class struggle” may be called the basic premise of the continuance of China’s reform and opening to this day. The market orientation of the economy, the cultural trend toward diversity, and the gradual change of order to the rule of law, all benefited from the dilution of this mentality. Even in the political field, where progress is slowest, dilution of the mentality of enmity also made political power ever more tolerant of diversity in society; the intensity of persecution of dissidents [End Page 178] has declined substantially; and characterization of the 1989 movement has changed from an “instigated rebellion” to a “political upheaval.”

The dilution of the mentality of enmity made the political powers gradually accept the universality of human rights. In 1998, the Chinese government promised the world it would sign the two international human rights conventions of the UN, marking China’s recognition of universal human rights standards; in 2004, the National People’s Congress for the first time inscribed into the constitution that “the state respects and safeguards human rights,” signaling that human rights had become one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law. In the meantime, the present regime also proposed “putting people first” and “creating a harmonious society,” which signaled progress in the Party’s concept of rule.

This macro-level progress was discernible as well in my own experiences since being arrested. While I insist on my innocence, and hold the accusations against me to be unconstitutional, in the year and more since I lost my freedom, I’ve experienced two places of detention, four pretrial police officers, three prosecutors and two judges. In their handling of the case, there has been no lack of respect, no time overruns and no forced confessions. Their calm and rational attitude has over and again demonstrated goodwill. …

I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop, and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme. I’m also looking forward to such progress being reflected in the trial of this case, and look forward to the full court’s just verdict—one that can stand the test of history.

I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where all citizens’ speeches are treated the same; where different values, ideas, beliefs, political views both compete with each other and coexist peacefully; where majority and minority opinions will be given equal guarantees … [and] in particular, political views different from those in power will be fully respected and protected; where all political views will be spread in the sunlight for the people to choose; all citizens will be able to express their political views without fear, and will never be politically persecuted for voicing dissent. I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.

Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.

I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints. Thank you! [End Page 179]


Porfirio Lobo of the National Party won the Honduran presidential election on 29 November 2009 following months of political turmoil after former president Manuel Zelaya was forcibly deposed from office in June (see the article by J. Mark Ruhl on pp. 93–107 above). On January 27, Lobo was sworn in as president of Honduras. Below are excerpts from his inaugural address:

It has not been an easy road, we’ve just emerged from the worst crisis in our democratic history, but with [God’s] … help we’ve managed to avoid all of the worst dangers that confronted our nation, and we’ve demonstrated to the world that we are a people who love liberty and peace. …

The electoral process that culminated today began more than a year ago, long before the beginning of the crisis. These were the elections with the highest turnout, the most supervision, and the most transparency of any in the history of democratic Honduras. My congratulations to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The transparency of the electoral process allowed us to win at the polls by a large margin, securing the greatest number of votes ever by a presidential candidate.

Our party and our cause also triumphed in the National Congress and in the majority of the nation’s mayoral districts. But the votes of those who voted for us and those who did not count in equal measure; there were no victors or losers, only a winner … Honduras. Every Honduran vote is a promise, and obligation for us. Today we form a government composed of all the parties, and I thank them for accepting a role in it.

Sri Lanka

Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa won the January 26 presidential election with 58 percent of the vote. According to Commonwealth election observers, “overall the 2010 Presidential elections in Sri Lanka did not fully meet key benchmarks for democratic elections.” On February 8, opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka was arrested for “military offenses.” Thousands of citizens who protested his arrest were met with violence. Below are excerpts from a statement issued on February 14 by the Sri Lankan Lawyers for Democracy:

Lawyers for Democracy, a body of lawyers representing over 300 lawyers around the country committed to democratic values, are deeply concerned with and condemn the events of the past week where a person’s right to protest and expression guaranteed in the Constitution of Sri Lanka were severely undermined by the law enforcement authorities and supporters of the government. Thousands of citizens of Sri Lanka [End Page 180] took to the streets to protest the unlawful arrest of the common opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka but were deprived of their right to peaceful protest when unwarranted power and violence was unleashed on them.

Several protests were organized throughout Sri Lanka where citizens from all walks of life came together to condemn and protest the unlawful arrest of General Fonseka. Many of these protests which started peacefully were disrupted by use of force. … We were shocked to witness that protesters were first attacked by hooligans and thugs who were provided protection by the police. Subsequently the same peaceful protesters were beaten by the police.

We as lawyers call upon the Government and in particular the defence authorities to uphold the law of the country and respect the right to dissent. We urge the authorities to immediately stop unlawful attacks on peaceful protests, initiate independent investigations and bring the perpetrators to justice.


Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was reelected as president of Indonesia on 8 July 2009 (see the articles by Edward Aspinall on pp. 20–34 and by Saiful Mujani and R. William Liddle on pp. 35–49 above). Below are excerpts from his October 20 inaugural address:

We have just passed the 2004–2009 historical period which was full of challenges. Today, the Indonesian nation is thankful and satisfied that in the midst of the political unrest and crisis in various parts of the world, we are still standing upright as a democratic state that is relatively strong and stable.

This year, we have seen the people of Indonesia make their choice in elections that have taken place in a peaceful and democratic way. This is the third time we have been able to hold direct, general, free, and confidential as well as honest and fair elections.

In elections, winning or losing is normal. In a democracy, we all are winners; if democracy wins, the people win, and Indonesia wins. …

Our economy needs to grow higher, but this economic growth should be one that is inclusive, that is just and accompanied by an equitable distribution.

We also want to build a civilized democratic system, a democracy that provides room for freedom and political rights for the people but without dismissing stability and political order. …

The second key to success is unity and cohesion. In democracy, we can have different opinions but this does not mean that we should be split. In a healthy democracy, there are times when we engage in debate, there are times when we close our ranks. [End Page 181]

United Nations

On 11 September 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a “Guidance Note on Democracy.” Extensive excerpts appear below, preceded by an introduction by Roland Rich, head of the United Nations Democracy Fund, that briefly describes the character and significance of this document:

While the “Guidance Note on Democracy” is an internal document of the United Nations Secretariat intended to guide UN officials in the conduct of their work, it is also a public document, and the Secretary-General is deeply conscious of its potential normative impact. The “Guidance Note” recognizes that the Charter of the United Nations does not contain the word “democracy,” but argues in favor of the instrumental indispensability of democracy, which is “ultimately a means to achieve international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights—the three pillars of the United Nations mission as set forth in the Charter.” It recalls the conclusion of the 2005 World Summit—the largest gathering of heads of state and government held to date—that “democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” And it recognizes the context of the controversy surrounding democracy promotion in recent years by stating that “given the intensive debate surrounding democracy assistance, it is more important than ever to find an effective and acceptable universal framework for conducting such support.”

The full document may be found at for reasons of space only excerpts can be presented here. Sections I, II, and V are included in full, but only brief selections from Sections III and IV. In the full document, each of the “Guiding Principles” listed in Section III and each of the “Areas of UN Focus” listed under Section IV is followed by one or more paragraphs of elaboration.

The Secretary-General’s “Guidance Note on Democracy” is a forthright document that deals with some of the more difficult issues faced by the international community with regard to the democratization process. It does not privilege the role of government, but sees it as part of a broader process. It does not shy away from some of the more contentious issues, such as the need for a multiparty system. It does not adopt the facile view that threats to democracy are chiefly external, but rather identifies such internal factors as bad governance, abuses of state power, and endemic corruption as more pressing problems. It does not accept cultural relativism, but rather aims at local ownership within [End Page 182] the context of internationally agreed norms and principles. It gives a central place to the rule of law. It views democratization as part of the ongoing process of self-determination. It carves out a critical role for civil society and the media.

Many UN delegates have made the point that it would not have been possible for member states to have reached consensus on a document of this kind. It took the leadership of the Secretary-General to adopt this principled stance. It is now up to the UN staff to implement this Guidance Note in its work around the world.

I. Introduction: At the World Summit in 2005, as in the Millennium Declaration in 2000, Member States of the United Nations (UN) recommitted themselves to protecting and promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy, recognizing that they are interlinked and mutually reinforcing and that they belong to the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations. This commitment was reiterated by Member States in 2007 in General Assembly resolution A/RES/62/7.

The majority of States in the world today describe themselves as democratic. However, democracy is a dynamic social and political system whose ideal functioning is never fully “achieved.” Democratization, furthermore, is neither linear nor irreversible and thus both state institutions and citizens must monitor and maintain oversight of this process. Accordingly, all countries, as well as the international community itself, could benefit from continued strengthening of, and support to, their democratic processes.

In the twenty-first century, we continue to be confronted with the triple challenge of building or restoring democracies, preserving democracies, as well as improving the quality of democracies. Key challenges for the UN in this context are: how to more effectively promote universally recognized democratic principles, institutions and practices; how to respond, in a consistent and predictable manner, to ruptures with democracy, as triggered by coups d’état or other unconstitutional transfers of power; and how to respond to, or even help to prevent, the slow and gradual erosion in the quality of democracy and the weakening of democratic freedoms, practices and institutions which sometimes occur.

In the face of such on-going challenges, and given the intensive debate surrounding democracy assistance, it is more important than ever to find an effective and acceptable universal framework for conducting such support. To address this issue, in November 2007, the Secretary-General requested the development of an “organization-wide strategy that further defines the UN approach to supporting democracy,” anchoring this in the three pillars of the UN’s work—peace and security, development and human rights. [End Page 183]

This note sets out the United Nations framework for democracy based on universal principles, norms and standards, emphasizing the internationally agreed normative content, drawing on lessons learned from experience and outlining the areas of support in which the UN has comparative advantages. It commits the Organization to principled, coherent and consistent action in support of democracy.

II. Normative and Conceptual Foundations: Democracy, based on the rule of law, is ultimately a means to achieve international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights—the three pillars of the United Nations mission as set forth in the Charter of the UN. Democratic principles are woven throughout the normative fabric of the United Nations. Indeed, the first three words of the Charter itself are “We the peoples,” followed closely thereafter by important references to essential democratic underpinnings such as “human rights,” “fundamental freedoms,” “the equal rights of women and men,” “life in larger freedom,” “self-determination,” and the removal of distinctions on the basis of “race, sex, language or religion.” The General Assembly, in “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” elaborated on the general human rights provisions of the Charter including the obligations of non-discrimination, equality before law, freedom of movement, thought, opinion, information, expression, assembly and association—recognized as rights necessary for democracy. The Declaration contains explicit provisions declaring that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures” and guaranteeing everyone “the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives [and] the right of equal access to public service …” (article 21). It further requires that any limitations on human rights and freedoms must be “determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society” (Article 29). The Declaration has been given legal effect in many subsequent UN treaties and instruments.

At the 2005 World Summit, all the world’s governments reaffirmed “that democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives,” stressed “that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing” and renewed their “commitment to support democracy by strengthening countries’ capacities to implement the principles and practices of democracy and resolve to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations to assist Member States.” [End Page 184]

The UN has long advocated a concept of democracy that is holistic: encompassing the procedural and the substantive; formal institutions and informal processes; majorities and minorities; men and women; governments and civil society; the political and the economic; at the national and the local levels. It has been recognized as well that, while these norms and standards are both universal and essential to democracy, there is no one model: General Assembly Resolution 62/7 posits that “while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy” and that “democracy does not belong to any country or region.” Indeed, the ideal of democracy is rooted in philosophies and traditions from many parts of the world. The Organization has never sought to export or promote any particular national or regional model of democracy.

The appeal of democracy stems in part from its association with the advancement of the quality of life for all human beings, and thus, with the work to reach the Millennium Development Goals. Development is more likely to take hold if people are given a genuine say in their own governance, and a chance to share in the fruits of progress.

III. Guiding Principles for Effective Assistance: The United Nations has learned many lessons from decades of engagement in democracy support. … [A] valuable lesson learned is the need to ensure that the UN is actively and continually evaluating its efforts on how best to provide sustainable democracy assistance that builds local capacity and nurtures a democratic culture. This assistance, while technical in nature, cannot be separated from the political realities.

Bearing in mind this framework, and based on experience to date, the following principles should guide UN democracy efforts:

  • Adopt proactive approaches to threats to democracy
  • Do no harm
  • Uphold local ownership
  • Broaden domestic engagement and participation in democracybuilding
  • Explicitly address the effects of discrimination against women
  • Develop democracy support strategies with a long-term horizon
  • Invest in a comprehensive approach to democratization

IV. UN Democracy Assistance: Areas of UN Focus and Comparative Advantage: … Democracy needs strong, accountable and transparent institutions of governance, based on the rule of law, and including an accountable executive, an effective legislature and an independent and impartial judiciary, efficient and inclusive public administration, as well as an informed, empowered and politically active civil society and population. Where should the UN, with its universal legitimacy, focus its [End Page 185] efforts in this wide range of needs, with a view to the implementation of the universal instruments and declarations adopted by its membership? The conceptual areas below identify the most useful dimensions for UN democracy assistance. …

  1. Provide political facilitation
  2. Encourage popular participation and support free and fair elections
  3. Foster the development of a culture of democracy
  4. Support political pluralism
  5. Advance transparency and accountability arrangements
  6. Promote the rule of law
  7. Encourage responsive and inclusive governance
  8. Support a strong and vibrant civil society

V. Conclusion: Enhancing Coherence and Coordination: The UN must ensure principled, coherent and consistent messages and actions in support of democracy that complement the initiatives of the many other actors that work in this field. In reflecting the aspirations of its membership, the United Nations is well placed to bring together critical partners at the global, regional and country levels to deepen support for democracy and rule of law, and to promote consensus on ways to achieve sustainable outcomes. The Organization should also improve its ability to take advantage of the wealth of analysis on democracy work being carried out outside the United Nations system.

Many parts of the United Nations system are engaged in one or more aspects of democracy assistance. It is therefore critical that coherence among UN initiatives in this area be improved, including interactions with stakeholders, partners and the wider international community. Better coherence requires an approach that ensures that democracy assistance is more effectively integrated into the three main pillars of the Organization’s work: peace and security; development; and human rights.

The present note should provide a platform for working together on the basis of shared principles, joint analyses and demand-driven strategies to help ensure that our work is not only coherent and synergetic but also effective and responsive. The forthcoming Democracy Portal of the UN Website will be an essential tool in this regard. The present note should be disseminated through the Portal and by the various UN system partners as a useful tool for fostering coherence and a shared understanding of the principles and areas of UN democracy assistance. This would be supported by continuing inter-agency discussions through the ECPS Working Group on Democracy as a forum for feedback and reflection on the present note. [End Page 186]