Democracy: Human Rights, Empowerment and  an Active Civil Society [Archives:1999/26/Focus]

June 28 1999

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
The word democracy has been found in political discourse for over 2,500 years. Even in Yemen, as the Quran tells us, democracy or consultation was practiced by the Sabean monarchy, as the kings and queens who ruled over Saba, one of the ancient kingdoms of Yemen, relied on consultation with the erstwhile nobility and social dignitaries of the time before rendering any decisions on important matters of policy or international relations.
Notwithstanding the early historical roots of democracy, it is important to point out that it was Islam and the mission of the Prophet Mohammed, Peace of Allah be upon Him, who introduced the concept that religion and democratic thought go hand in hand, and who insisted that human beings are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life, property and political activism. The early days of the Islamic state, as organized and run by Mohammed (P), in Medina in 622 AD, followed by the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omer, Uthman and Ali, God bless their souls, were clear and undeniable manifestations of the Islamic credo that government must rely on the will and satisfaction of the governed and the consciousness that God is holding those responsible for public affairs into account. 
Moreover, the people themselves must insure that their governments are run within clear guidelines that uphold the rights of all the people, who have pledged their allegiance to that government, as long as those rights are safeguarded and justice is meted out in keeping with the equitable laws of Islam. While such important conceptualizations have become corrupted by the subsequent regimes that followed the 4 administrations of the Prophet Mohammed’s (P) disciples, it is nevertheless safe to assume that they had a profound influence in helping the development of democratic government that was to later ensue in the West, as many a western chronicler has admitted, without fail.
In the West democratic practices have evolved in one of two ways, either gradually and somewhat peacefully, over the ages, as in the case of England, or in abrupt violent revolts heralded by nurtured intellectual activity combined with mass discontent among the population, as in the case of the French Revolution. The American Revolution has become the classic success story for that institution of democracy and rule of law by equity, with built-in mechanisms to adjust to meet greater political awareness among the citizenry and to adapt to the increasing desire for the removal of the authoritarian and the often inefficient functioning of government bureaucracy.
By no means do all the modern democratic governments fall into one mold that gives them a uniform appearance or framework, but there are no doubt important converging aspects that characterize the more developed of these governments:
1)Human and Civil Rights: The statutes of democratic societies clearly spell out the rights and freedoms that the citizens are unquestionably entitled to, which cannot be subjected to any violations or transgressions, for whatever reason Ð including “national security”, and have no room for any personal narrow-minded interpretations. These rights and freedoms are the pillars on which democratic governments stand. The safeguarding of these rights is, in fact, the initial primary task of government and the Courts of Law in democratic societies. They take great pains, in all the cases brought to them, whether criminal or civil (and even cases of national security), to first insure that, in these cases, none of the personal rights and freedoms have been violated in any way, shape or form. Sometimes this can even be to the detriment of the arrival at a decisive ruling in the case itself. If a person’s rights have been violated, the case will be thrown out, whatever the evidence against them.
2)Empowerment: This entails a more widespread active participation in decision making in government and control over the resources of the country. This means accountability and transparency in the organization, regulation and control of the various institutions of government and the break-up of government into clear distinct lines of authority, with built in checks and balances that prevent any likelihood that any institution will prevail over and above law, reason and public interest. It means the institution of government at different geographical and population levels with well-defined powers and jurisdictions and with elected officials holding the critical positions of oversight and policy directions at the different administrative government levels. This also necessitates the decentralization of government, whereby the Central Government is left to oversee national policy, strategic outlooks and the protection of national sovereignty. It also implies that there will be more autonomy to local and regional government institutions which are to be organized along the same framework as the Central Government, in terms of the institutions that make up such local authorities, and the designation of its senior officials through free and open elections, and more importantly in terms of being run along the same rules for transparency and accountability, that the Central Government is expected to abide by. These local and regional authorities will be the government frameworks that will engage in the public management of the day to day affairs of their geographical and population domains and the role of the Central Government would be confined here to only assuring the equitable distribution of national resources to all the regions and local authorities and that access to such resources is facilitated, without regard to political considerations.
3)An Active Civil Society: It has been proven over the years, that no matter what form Government takes, it can never be expected to manage the state of affairs of a nation all by itself. Moreover, governments, by their highly politicized nature, cannot be relied on to insure the equitable distribution of national, regional and local resources, and that access to national, regional and local assets and services is open to all in a fair and balanced manner. But democratic societies have been able to overcome this deficiency of government by allowing the population to assemble and organize in membership and non-membership non-profit associations and organizations that are dedicated to a wide range of causes and beliefs, which can be humanitarian, social or the advocacy of certain important public issues,s which government action has been either weak or unsuccessful in addressing. The significance of civil society in democratic societies can never be over emphasized, and the role of non-governmental organizations in these societies has been an important source for the more democratic stature that these societies have continued to evolve into.
From the preceding discussion, the parameters by which “emerging democracies” are expected to gauge their true democratic development and the progress towards real, effective democratic government, are defined, and the need then comes for setting the appropriate criteria for each parameter and the minimum standards for assessment thereof.
In the Yemeni situation, regretfully, we are still too far from meeting many of the international standards in most of the criteria within these parameters, for us to be able to say that we have truly embarked on the path towards true democratization. On human rights, we are not yet at the level where we find such human rights either properly instituted by statute or by application of those rights that may have been a part of the statuary foundations that do exist. In government structure, we still find the central government involved in all aspects of statecraft and the management of all the national resources and accessibility to government services and facilities. Moreover, the insistence of the central authorities to maintain all important decision making under the tight control of a largely inefficient hierarchical bureaucracy, with the decision making authority still mainly at the top, has hindered any efforts towards empowerment and more active participation of the people involved, thus the highly entrenched corruption and mismanagement can be found at all levels. On the other hand, the lack of transparency and accountability only tends to make the situation more difficult to correct and lessens the hope for any chance of greater empowerment, as the vested interests that are entrenched in government find the status quo more appealing for nurturing their narrow interests and imposing their political will.
In the case of civil society, there is still no law that regulates and encourages the development of a viable and effective non-government sector, although much work and money have gone into the preparation of such a law.
It is clear that Yemen needs to fully comprehend that democracy is not just a slogan or rhetoric that has minor advantages. Democracy must be seen, felt and appreciated by the very people who live under a democratic system. The Yemeni people, themselves Ð as is the case in many of the emerging democracies of the world- need to be cultured into concepts of democratic thinking. They must realize that the government should not be expected to come out with the democratic framework in its highest form of development. Unfortunately, neither the government, nor the existing political parties and non-government organizations have displayed any real efforts towards enhancing political culture and democratic conceptualization among the people of the country.