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close this bookThe Courier N 128 July - August 1991 - Dossier : Human Rights- Democracy-Development Country Reports: Benin, Western Samoa (EC Courier, 1991, 96 p.)
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View the documentHuman rights, democracy and development
View the document‘Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside’
View the documentInterview with Dr. Erskine Simmonds, Vice-President of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly
View the documentInterview with Henry Saby, Chairman of the Development Committee of the European Parliament
View the documentAmnesty International - The international conscience for 30 years
View the documentThe African Charter on Human and People’s Rights
View the documentBuilding democracy with tribalism
View the documentDemocracy in the English speaking Caribbean
View the documentDemocracy and development
View the documentDevelopment and the African political heritage
View the documentSome thoughts on governance and democratisation
View the documentTransition to democracy is there a model?

Interview with Dr. Erskine Simmonds, Vice-President of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly

Early dialogue necessary with violators of human rights

Dr Erskine Simmonds is Vice-President in-office of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly. A member of the Barbados Lower House of Parliament from 1986 to 1991 and now a senator? he was a member of a Joint Assembly team sent to investigate the human rights situation in Sudan and Suriname. The EEC Delegate in Barbados, Philippe Darmuzey, met him in Bridgetown on behalf of ‘the Courier’ and had the following interview with him.

· You are a national okra country often described as a true democracy, a fact not very common in the developing world. How do J’OU accountJor this enviable situation?

- I think that Barbados takes its democracy from the system bequeathed to us by the British. You are quite aware, of course’ that our parliament is 350 years old and with a tradition like that, the people themselves are the keepers of democracy. They set the standards and any politician in Barbados who tries to step out of line with that tradition would sooner or later be dealt with very severely by the people. SO, I think it is a matter of the longeducational process of the people to the merits of democracy.

· As a member of the Joint ACP-EEC Assembly, you have taken part in a number of missions to Africa. and also in this region, to Suriname. What lessons: If are you dragon from these missions with regard to human rights?

- I would like to say that human rights violations are not unique to any one country. Human rights violations occur in all countries in the world. It is a matter of degree, and I say to people in third world countries that I visit that there is a certain point beyond which one cannot go. We view it as a kind of spectrum moving, say, from green to red. When you have passed the green mark, moving towards the red, you begin to border on the dangerous and what we would say to you is that you should bring those .viblations to an end.

Now, you asked about my visits to Africa. You have to understand that there are some countries not only in Africa but also all over the world where the system of government is quite different from the systems we might be familiar with and their norms are different. We have to understand that we are, at times, judging them by our own standards, using our value judgments to evaluate their human rights violations. I say that because there are several countries where civil wars have been going on for years. It is difficult to expect in a country which has got a civil war not to have people in prison, people who oppose governments. I think what happens in a lot of countries is that after a length of time, the authorities seem to forget the people they have incarcerated and one needs to remind them that there are channels through which charges should be brought against them. Very often, I have found that when you sit down and discuss with those responsible for the incarceration, they have overlooked the fact that some of the people they have in jail no longer constitute threats to the community. I say that because, if you incarcerate someone for ten years, the political climate invariably changes during that period: ten years after, the kind of people who supported the imprisoned would have left the scene. So, you see, at times when you are in the forest you cannot see the trees and it takes someone else to come in with a new eye to remind you and have you reappraise the situation. We were able during our missions to get some of the political prisoners released. I think this was because we were able to point out to officials that it was detrimental to the image of the presiding government to hold political prisoners.

· On this issue of human rights, are there norms that have to to be accepted by everyone?

- Yes, I think we have to have norms. In this world we must have laws. If we do not have laws then the world becomes a jungle. We have to say to people that if you arrest someone; if you take him into custody’ then it is accepted practice to let that individual know why you have taken him into custody. Secondly, once you have informed him, there is a limited length of time within which you must have brought charges against him. No individual should be held indefinitely without charges. I think this is a basic human courtesy that must be extended in all countries. You cannot take away any individual’s right to live in freedom. If you think that someone has violated the laws of a country, he or she must be told of the violations and he or she must be given the mechanisms to defend himself or herself. I think this is a fundamental right on which we cannot compromise and to which every country should adhere.

· Are there any mechanisms whereby outside pressure can be exerted on any country to make sure that it respects these fundamental rules on human rights?

- This is a very interesting question. I am one who believes that dialogue can do a lot and my belief has been reinforced by the missorts that I have made. I went with a team to Sudan in December, and following our missort, some 55 political prisoners were released. When we got there initially we felt a certain resistance from the Government. We did have a few problems but after dialogue we noticed a general mellowing of the authorities. Let me say here, I think one of the things that disturbs me is the lack of a follow-up. When a country frees some prisoners, we should not rest on our laurels. Once it has been possible to establish dialogue with the country and get them to move, we should have a follow-up. It is very, very important. In my short time in the Joint Assembly (and I am not accusing the Joint Assembly) I have not seen enough of the follow-ups. You see, the freeing of political prisoners, the triumph of human rights, is a credit to the country involved and, indeed, to the entire ACP family and the Lomoncept. We should not wait for a situation to get out of hand and talk about intervention, which causes a lot of dislocation and human suffering. If and when we recognise that problems are incipient, as part of a body that works together, we should initiate dialogue as quickly as possible. This dialogue should not be a one-off dialogue because in the long run, it would cost the individual country, the region and the Joint Assembly much more effort and money to correct a problem that could have been solved by simple persuasion. So, I think that what we need to do, once we recognise infringements of human rights in any particular country, is to start dialogue early. We need to maintain that dialogue and as soon as we realise that they are responding positively, to make sure they stay on the right path, with the right mechanisms, in the interest not only of the country or region but also of the ACP-EEC Joint Assembly.

· Dialogue is also a key word in development cooperation. It is even an important aspect of the Lomonvention. Can external aid, particularly that provided by the European Community, play a role in the promotion of democracy?

- There is no doubt in my mind, looking at the philosophy that is shaping our world today, that we are moving towards two things: privatisation and democratization. This is quite evident looking at the changes that are taking place in Eastern Europe and in other parts of the world. It is therefore incumbent upon third world countries, looking for aid, to understand that the world is no longer one of confrontation with nuclear bombs. The confrontation now is about the rights of human beings to live in peace and to express themselves fully within a society. It is a fact that aid is being linked more and more to democratisation. I think this is a reality which we have to face. My point is that those countries which have no proper democratic systems have to recognise that financial aid for development will be difficult to attract if the whole issue of democratization is not addressed and addressed urgently. I see nothing basically wrong with this philosophy. I feel that in many countries where there are human rights violations, where there are standing armies and where there are civil wars, these are impediments to progress. So, if any country wants seriously to make progress then they must avoid civil wars. I know this is not easy but I think we need to enter into dialogue. Let me add though that many of the conflicts within countries are fuelled by outside interests. Historical, economic and social factors, at times, fuel civil wars within some countries and so in addressing the whole area of human rights and democratisation, one also has to take into consideration external factors that contribute to these problems. So, although I have said that we need to talk to the political leaders within the country, sometimes it will be necessary to talk to agents beyond the boundaries of the countries who may in some way be fuelling turmoil. At times, we may have to say to those external forces that we think that certain interests should not be pursued at the expense of tranquillity within a given country.

What I am saying is not new. It is a fact that we have to face. One may argue theoretically that it is in the interest of people who produce arms to see civil wars all over the world so that they can sell their arms. This is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but we are talking also of the financial dimension to a problem that we have to address.

· In general terms how is the connection between democracy and development reflected at the moment within the ACP Croup?

- The only isolated case I know of is Sudan where the European Community has cut off aid because of its human rights records. I know that this has caused a lot of concern within the ACP Group, especially among countries which have been accused of serious human rights violations. This is understandable because in the countries in question, viable and far-reaching projects are funded by the European Community. A cut-off of aid puts any country at a disadvantage. I would like, however, to comment on this. We have to understand that when we cut off aid to a developing country because of human rights violations, it is not the political leaders that suffer most, it is the masses of the people who suffer. So, what happens, in effect, is that in trying to penalise the people who violate human rights, it is the very people whose human rights are being violated who are penalised. So, we need to have a more holistic view of the situation before acting or before donors cut off aid.

· Is there a genera/ consensus in the ACP Group on this holistic approach you mentionedandon how to makeprogress on this issue?

- The ACP is made up of 69 countries from different parts of the world (the Pacific, the Caribbean and Africa). It is difficult to expect 69 countries; people from varying backgrounds, to come to a specific agreement on any issue. However, even the countries that are accused of human rights violations will agree (as members of the United Nations, and the Lomonvention, which have their own provisions on human rights) that violations are an infringement of law. So, in a sense, yes, there is that agreement. But, some would say that what the outsider may see as a human rights violation at times is not a violation at all. Human rights violation is a matter of degree. An individual, because he is the leader of his political party, may think and act in the interest, first, of his political party and then of his country. His vision may be blurred, seeing his political party as the country: anything that is in the interest of his political party is also automatically in the interest of the country. We, as politicians, are, at times, guilty of that, because we think that our political party is the only one that has the total interest of the country at heart. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to say to you that you are not representing the country but only your political party. YQU know when our vision is impaired it is only the eye specialist who can fit us with a pair of appropriate glasses to see properly. The Joint Assembly should be like the eye specialist when our vision is blurred as regards respect for human rights.

· Dr Simmonds, beyond democracy, are there, in your opinion, minimal conditions for pluralism?

- That is a very interesting question. My observation of the African continent is that it cannot be compared to the Caribbean where you have almost homo genoussocieties and where it is very easy to have a democratic system with opposition parties existing. However, in some African countries, you have the ethnic problem. History has shown, with the first multi-party systems they had, that these systems have accentuated ethnic problems. One has to ask the question whether other systems should not be tried. I am told, for example, that in Uganda the leader of the opposition is also the Minister of Foreign Affairs and a member of the Cabinet (I). Now, that would be unthinkable in our system. Using the simple democratic process, it is inconceivable that an opposition member can sit in the Cabinet and make decisions for our country and, what is more, he is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, which is a very key Ministry. I think one needs to look at that kind of system and see what advantages it has, because what that system does is bring together differing groups of people, whether they are along ethnic lines or not, and they can make meaningful contributions to the development of the country. What I am saying is, that in most developing countries we have to understand that poverty is the enemy, not necessarily the other political party. How do you fight poverty? You fight poverty by avoiding civil wars. You fight poverty by bringing the masses together, whether or not they are from different ethnic groups or political backgrounds. We must recognise what the common enemy is. Civil war is an enemy. Poverty is an enemy. Desertification is an enemy. The creation of refugees is an enemy. If we can get people to see that these are common enemies and if they can develop a political system - call it democracy, pluralism, or whatever you will - to fight those common enemies then I think we would have achieved our objective. So what needs to be done in special circumstances like these is for people to sit down and rationally analyse which political system can benefit their country. I do not think that there is any one political system that can work for the whole world because people come from different social backgrounds, different cultures, and have different experiences. Once we recognise the causes of failure, there is nothing wrong in looking at them and experimenting with systems that will solve those problems, including all the problems of human rights.

· Now let us look at the question oJ7the economic cost of the transition to democracy. Is it possible to pursue a policy of democratic adjustment at the same time as an economic structural adjustment? Given the support to structure/ adjustment foreseen under Lom V, is there any potential to use this support to advance the democratic process?

- This is a very important question because when we talk about structural adjustments, for us in the ACP, it means the ones presented by the Bretton Woods Institutions and our experience here has been very bad. The results, if I look at the Caribbean, for example, in places like Guyana and Jamaica where the IMF have gone in, there has been great social dislocation. You find people from those potentially rich countries (compared to Barbados) actually fleeing, migrating to other countries because the standard of living in their countries has fallen tremendously. I therefore would like to see the Lomonvention looking at ways of helping ACP countries reconstruct their economies. Now, I know there will have to be some social consequences, but while the economy is being reconstructed, these consequences should be made less painful. And, let me say that in the countries that are democratic, such structural adjustment can pose a serious threat to the democratic institutions with the threat of military dictatorship around the corner. It would give ammunition to those opposed to the government; an opportunity to mobilise frustrated people to create political and social turmoil. I think this is an aspect that escapes the Bretton Woods Institutions when they consider structural adjustment programmes. I understand that in a way because I think they deal primarily with the economic factors of countries but economic factors are not the only ones which determine, the peace, stability, progress or success of a country. You have to have people who are content. You must have people who are prepared to work within that country to uplift it. One of the problems with structural adjustment is that when the pill becomes too bitter to swallow, it is the intellectuals who leave the country first, so that even when structural adjustment begins to be effective, the people needed for the implementation of the programme are gone. Skilled people do not stay around. The other factor is that when structural adjustments are implemented in a particular country, within that region, it causes dislocations in neighbouring countries. This is because that country’s commodities are cheaper as a result of devaluation and businessmen in neighbouring countries, not involved in structural adjustment, find it more profitable to buy their products from the country where the adjustment is taking place rather than produce at home. All of these factors have to be taken into account when we are talking of structural adjustment and democratization. Structural adjustment administered in a vacuum can at times be a disincentive and an enemy to the process of democratization.

· So then, doyouseeany way there can be perhaps a transitional period for a country involved in reconstructing its democracy, for example, a kind of external support?

- I personally think that any insti tution; any international institution that is seriously interested in the democratis ation process of any country has to look not only at the economic factors, but also at the social and political factors. These are linked, because in the final analysis the politician in a democracy has to go to the people to ask for a vote. Now, people are not going to vote for a party in a democracy when they perceive that party as having made their fathers and mothers lose jobs and as having been engaged in closing schools so their children cannot be educated and have a brighter future. After all, the world has become a small place where you can turn on the television and see people in all parts of the world and how they live. People all over the world aspire to higher standards of living. That is normal in any society. So, once the standard of living drops with struc tural adjustment, it would have negative effects on the political system, especially if that political system is democratic. So, structural adjustment programmes have to include social measures and, at times, an initial, substantial injection of funds.

Interview by Philippe D