Is Democracy of Universal Application?

Kofi Abrefa Busia - Former Prime Minister of Ghana - 1978 1

I recall that during the early years of the Second World War when the rest of Europe was made aware of the atrocities that had been suffered by minorities under the tyranny of Hitler, general interest was aroused in the question of Human Rights. The question which excited much discussion and controversy concerned the definition of Human Rights which would apply to all countries, and which all countries should endeavour to secure and protect for their citizens. It was considered an essential foundation for world peace and international relations that there should be a declaration of such rights. Learned articles were written on this issue. There were some who took the line that there were such differences in culture and political systems that it was impossible to define rights which would be applicable to all societies. How could rights which would apply to 'civilized' and advanced industrial societies apply also to small 'backward' pre-industrial societies? What would be regarded as a right in one society would not even be recognized as such in another.

I remember at the time, in the summer of 1941, attending a conference at New-College, Oxford, where this matter was discussed. The participants at the conference included professors of Philosophy, Law, International Relations, the Classics, Anthropology and Sociology, as well as experts in African, Asian, North American and European studies. One particular day stands out in my mind. In the morning we listened to an address by an eminent Classical scholar on the subject of Human Rights. In broad sweeps he reviewed the philosophies of Human Rights from the Ancient Greeks to the contemporary European writers and thinkers, attempting to show how the rights they discussed applied to all men as men, wherever they lived and in whatever age. He was followed in the afternoon by an eminent professor of International Relations who based himself on laws and practices in different contemporary states and societies showing how diverse were the rights which their laws and practices sought to secure and therefore how futile and even unrealistic seemed the task of trying to list rights which would apply to all of them.

The climate of opinion established by these early discussions and debates must have influenced the delegates of the fifty nations who met at San Francisco in 1945. Some of the delegates urged the inclusion of provisions for the protection of Human Rights in the Charter. The preamble to the declaration which was eventually adopted expresses the recognition of 'the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family'. Today, the many countries of the United Nations which have accepted and signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would indicate that such rights are desirable and applicable to all societies. However, the controversy is not yet over, there are those who would dispute this universal applicability on racial grounds, and, as is well known, there are countries, notably South Africa, whose policies conceive of different Human Rights for different races. In different countries there are discriminatory practices based on differences of race, class and caste, religion, sex, or prejudice and privilege which challenge the concepts of rights which are applicable to all. We must make a distinction between the countries which accept that there are Human Rights which could apply to all but which nonetheless have practices which fall short of the ideal and those countries whose philosophies maintain or justify these discriminatory practices as the true expression of reality.

The question of Human Rights is still a burning issue because it is linked with concepts of democracy. There are certain Human Rights which are held to be an integral part of any truly democratic system. Since the Second World War there have been many publications, notably by the United Nations and UNESCO, dealing with the different concepts of democracy offered by the variety of governments, parties and ideologies which parade under the banner of democracy. What is proposed here is an examination of those principles which Western democracies have come to regard as essential elements of their systems of democracy and to ask whether they can be of universal application.

An essential problem of all governments is that concerning the exercise of power. Who is to exercise power? What is the extent of that power and what are the restraints to be put on it? One of the principles on which Western democracies are agreed is that power shall be exercised by elected governments. Those who rule shall be persons elected to do so by members of the state who are qualified to exercise this right of election. Positions of power in any community are prestigious and scarce and many aspire to them. In Western democracies those who aspire to them must reach them according to the rules. The rules do not allow, for example, that power should be seized by coup d'état, ballot rigging, bribery and corruption, blackmail, or the unorthodox elimination of opponents. Thus power in a democracy must be legitimized by the choice of all qualified people. Can all societies adopt this principle of choosing their rulers by election?

Experience has shown that there should be procedures and institutions which enable the voters to give free and fair expression to their will and that there should be genuine choice. The principles of free and fair elections and genuine choice are significant and noteworthy. Since the end of World War II there has been the establishment of one-party states in Eastern Europe, China, and certain parts of the Third World. This has raised a debate as to the importance of choice as an integral part of democracy. In some one-party states, for example in Africa, there has been a development whereby more than one candidate contests elections in a constituency even though they are members of the one party. It has been argued that this allows choice and therefore such states are democratic.

In the Western democracies we are considering, choice involves a dialogue which has found institutional expression in bi-party or multi-party systems. These offer choice between philosophies, personalities, policies and programmes. The choice offered in a one-party system concerns only the choice between personalities. Is this enough? It is further argued that the one-party systems provide for stability and the elimination of the divisions and rancour which have marked the bi-party and multi-party systems. It has often been demonstrated that stability can be achieved, for short and even long periods, through repression and force. Democracies seek to achieve stability on the basis of consent, hence the dialogue and the wider choice offered by the Western democracies. They do provide avenues for the expression of dissent, disapproval, or discontent, but it is obvious that the voters are free to choose not only between personalities, but, as has been said, between philosophies, policies and programmes.

The question is whether stability should be valued above freedom. The preeminent principle of democracy is freedom. The dialogue which is an essential part of democracy allows free speech and free discussion of the issues that the parties present. This means that every issue by whomsoever presented is open to debate; to acceptance or rejection. Fundamentally, it implies the acceptance of the fact that no individual or group of persons can hold themselves out as knowing what is best for all the people. The assumption that there is a group of persons who know what is best for the rest is not in Western terms a democratic idea. Where such an assumption is allowed implicitly or explicitly the basic freedoms of democracy are in peril. Limitations can be placed on such freedoms as the freedom of religion, of speech and of association. In such states one must be in conformity with the dictates of the party and its leaders.

In the early 1960's when the one-party systems emerged in Africa there were those who sought to justify them on the grounds that they were best suited to the conditions of the countries which adopted them. The protagonists fall into two classes. There are leaders in Africa who would say that given the social conditions of different tribes and languages, the high rate of illiteracy and the inexperience of self-government, and the recent authoritarian past of colonialism, it would be unstable, inefficient and impractical to attempt straight away to operate a multi-party system. They see the one-party system as a more suitable training ground. They would recognize the fact that the wider scope and larger freedoms which are offered by the multi-party system; are the ideal, but that it is more pragmatic to proceed through the one-part) system. They freely accept its limitations. The case as put by such leaders and the practical results of their policies is an understandable justification of what they are doing. Their case is not to say that what they are doing is necessarily the best, but that it is the best in their prevailing circumstances.

This is different from other protagonists outside Africa and living in the Western democracies who justify what they see by saying that nothing better can come out of Africa and that it cannot be assumed that the principles of Western democracy are applicable to all peoples; the implication being that one-party systems are for Africa the acme of democratic government. Yet the principle of equality based on the recognition of the dignity of the individual is an important tenet of Western democracy. Following this principle such rights as the right to life, liberty, and security of person; equality before the law; security from arbitrary arrest and detention, and so on, are regarded as the entitlement of all, without distinction.

During the twentieth century the concepts of socialism and the welfare state have raised expectations. The rights which governments are expected to honour include the right to work, the right to social security, the right to education, and other social and economic rights. These expectations have led to the evolutionary extension of the functions and powers of governments; duties which extend to all spheres of individual and group life within the state. Government legislation or aid or subsidy encompass all life from birth to death. With this extension of the activities and powers of governments, the scope for tyranny has also correspondingly widened, therefore in a democracy the need to evolve institutions which restrain governments from being tyrannical and oppressive has also increased.

Through the principle of representation given expression in parliamentary systems the people have sought to impose restraints on those who have been elected to rule. Besides the parliamentary opposition, other institutions such as trade unions, employers' associations, the independent judiciary, and voluntary bodies exercise pressures and powers which in a democracy are organs of restraint on the government. They have to be heeded. This gives meaning to the principle of accountability. Those who rule are held to be accountable not only to parliament but to the other institutions of society. Through the principle of periodic elections this accountability is re-enforced, for the people retain the right to change their rulers. The exercise of this right can lead to periodic changes of government. The bi-party or multi-party system ensures that this is done without revolution. There are some who argue that the possibility of frequent changes of government makes for instability, but the retention by the people of the power to change their rulers is a bulwark of democracy, without it the structures of democracy are insecure and it is apt to be eroded by the floods of tyranny.

Western democracies consist of more than forms and institutions. They constitute a way of life which rests on principles of morality. The principle of justice for example underlies many of the rights to which they adhere or aspire. All men should be equal before the law because this is just; there should be no discrimination against persons on the grounds of race, class, sex or religion; there should be equal pay for equal work and all citizens have a right to participate in the government of their country directly or through freely chosen representatives. Also based on moral principles are such liberties as the right of exit and asylum, the right to marry without restrictions on grounds of race or nationality, freedom of religion and of conscience, and freedom of opinion and of speech which are advocated as necessary elements of the way of life for Western democracies. Hence morality is the breath which animates the body politic of democracy.

It is not irrelevant to refer to the obvious fact that Western democracies do not provide for the realisation of their common principles through the same institutions, nor, even where the institutions are the same or bear the same name do they have the same powers, functions or influence in the different countries. For example the role of parties in the British parliamentary system, because of the strict party discipline, has a more stringent effect on the legislature and the executive than the role of parties in the American Congress where party discipline is loose. Yet American Constitution and practice provides for restraint on the executive in the more formal, written constitution.

The increasing power and influence of British trade unions on government, especially when the Labour party is in power, is not matched by the influence of labour unions in the United States of America, although the latter exercise power as pressure groups. The federal system of the U.S.A. relies more on pressure groups in influencing Congress. Further restraints on the executive are more formally defined in the constitution by the existence of state powers, and through the division of functions between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. In the federal system of Switzerland, which is a much smaller country, there is greater direct influence of the body of citizens on major policies and legislation through referenda, than say, in Britain, where parliament claims to be a touchstone for the peoples' views. For this reason parliament insists that frequent referenda would only undermine its functions and powers and therefore weaken its authority and diminish the representative principle.

The powerful judiciary of the American system has constitutional powers which Congress has to defer to, whereas recent events in Britain show that parliament does not consider that the independence of the judiciary in Britain can carry authority over parliament, which is still the last court of appeal. In spite of adherence to the principle of representation through elections, Britain has a House of Lords where the hereditary principle is still accepted. The system of local governments in Britain which with their powers and functions are a part of the democratic system have nevertheless not the same rights and powers as have, for example, the state governments in the U.S.A. or West Germany. In the presidential system of France the parliament has considerably less power than the parliament of the United Kingdom under the constitutional monarch.

The important institution of the opposition which all the Western democracies would regard as essential for democracy has not the same scope for effective action in the different countries. The leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in Britain for example and the role which the opposition plays in parliament is different from the opposition party in Congress or the coalition of opposition in West Germany. Examples could be multiplied to make the obvious point that the institutions through which a democratic country seeks to give expression to the principle of democracy it avows vary according to the history, social conditions and experience of each country. The institutions are understandably not the same. Nevertheless, something is found to enable all the different countries to be called democratic. What is it that is common to them to enable them all to be so regarded?

In a recent visit of the British Prime Minister to India there was much stress laid on the fact that the two countries have close relationships because they are both democratic. India has just come through the traumatic experience of rule under emergency provisions where there was no freedom of the press, where the independence of the judiciary was attacked, where opposition leaders were flung into prison and there was virtual dictatorship. At the present time the government in power is supported by a coalition of parties only loosely bound by their common opposition to the previous government, and the present opposition of the Congress Party that had ruled India since independence is itself divided. Despite all this, India has shown that where a country has the will, it can make the principles of Western democracy thrive in a soil, culture and institutions different from those of Europe. It is generally accepted that India is the largest democracy in the world.

The judgement as to whether a country is democratic or not in terms of the Western democracies we have been considering, would appear not to be based on their having the same institutions. There are, however, certain principles which would be regarded as essential criteria. Among these are some of those that we have pointed out above. We may repeat:

To these we may add tolerance. For the success of democratic government, both rulers and ruled must learn and exercise tolerance. The importance of dialogue has been emphasized. Those who hold opposed views must be allowed to express them. The example given above of the opposite views expressed by the professor of Classics and the professor of International Relations on Human Rights, demonstrates how even experts from the different viewpoints of their disciplines see but facets of truth. It has been regarded as an important right in Western democracies that toleration shall be given to the expression of differing views.

It is the commonly shared principles rather than identity with the set of institutions of any one country that are the criteria of Western democracies. There are some who, when considering whether new governments in the third world are democratic or not, appear to be saying that the institutions of Westminster, Washington or Paris, as the case may be, cannot thrive on foreign soil, they therefore go on to conclude that if in one country no opposition is allowed or no criticism of the government is tolerated and those who would oppose are locked up, it may well be democratic for that country. In this view, Western democracy cannot be universalised. This judgement, based on institutions, may appear to be liberal, but in fact when some of the cases are examined, the arguments are either pusillanimous or racist. Pusillanimous because they do not dare stand up for what they know to be the essentials of democracy, regardless of institutions, or racist because they seem to be saying that 'our democracies can only be run by us and not by a lesser breed of men'.

Some leaders of the Third World have therefore turned to Eastern bloc countries which with faith, confidence and even aggressiveness propagate their brand of democracy as applicable to all. The principles of Western democracy which we have stated above posit values and ideals. The battle cry of 'Liberty, Fraternity and Equality' of the French Revolution, the opening of the American Declaration of Independence:

'We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter and abolish it'
As well as Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
'that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth,'

have all had universal appeal and have inspired many leaders in the Third World in their aspiration to establish democratic governments. The question whether Western democracy is of universal application or not should be answered in terms of its values and ideals. It is true that by the standards of these ideals every democratic state in the west has its shortcomings. Every succeeding generation compelled by a desire for the realisation of those ideals has to strive through legislation or action to improve contemporary conditions. Democracy will make its universal appeal if those who believe in it have the confidence to uphold it. President Carter, in one year of office, has, by his faith and courage and his determined stand, done much to advance the cause of Western democracy. We may quote two short sentences from a speech given in Indiana, U.S.A., in May 1977 to show the force of his views:

'We can no longer separate the traditional issues of war and peace from the new, global issues of justice, equity and human rights'
'Because we know democracy works we can reject the arguments of those rulers who deny human rights to their people. We are confident that democracy's example will be compelling... We are confident that democratic methods are the most effective, and so we are not tempted to employ improper methods at home - or abroad.'

The expression of such confidence and conviction in Western democracy and in the universal applicability of its principles and values is remarkable. It has aroused faith in Western democracy not only in the U.S.A. and Britain, but also in other parts of the world where hopes for democracy have been flagging.

The volume of essays for which this is a contribution is in honour of a man who has shown a lifelong interest and given active service in the cause of federalism, human rights and democracy. These interests have this in common: their success demands responsible citizenship based on civic morality and humanity. Those who share his confidence and conviction in the principles and values of Western democracy can, in participating for their realisation, contribute to international cooperation and world peace.

This essay, published in 1979, is taken from Menshenrechted Föderalismus Demokratie, Festchrift zum 70. Geburstag von Werner Kaägi (pp. 55-63) - a special volume of essays on democracy on the occasion of Werner Kaägi's 70th birthday. It is one of the last published works by Kofi Abrefa Busia, former Prime Minister of Ghana and was written in exile only months before his death.

Busia portrait