20 June 2001


Yet Sometimes Reluctance of Democracies to Fight or Take Risks
Can Be Handicap When Action in Just Cause Is Really Needed

NEW YORK, 19 June (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of the Cyril Foster Lecture, "Why Democracy Is an International Issue", delivered by Secretary-General Kofi Annan at Oxford University, United Kingdom, on 19 June:

Thank you very much, Vice-Chancellor, for that most generous introduction.

It is a very great pleasure for me to be back in Oxford, and an even greater honour to be asked to give this Lecture, as the official guest of the University.

The story of Cyril Foster and his bequest is both humbling and inspiring for all of us who work in international affairs. Here was a man who lived and died in a caravan, in conditions of such obscurity that virtually nothing is known about him, except that he owned several small shops in the London area. Even the precise date of his death is uncertain. And yet the cause of international peace was so important to him that he left almost all his money to this University -- with which he had no known previous connection -- leaving you to decide how best to use it to promote the cause of peace.

His sole stipulation was that you arrange for "a prominent and sincere speaker" to deliver this Lecture, once a year, "dealing with the elimination of war and the better understanding of the nations of the world".

Since 1960 you have had many prominent speakers, and I like to think they were all sincere -- especially, of course, my two immediate predecessors as Secretary-General, who gave the Lecture in 1986 and 1996 respectively.

But there is one striking omission from the list: it doesn't include a single woman. Maybe that would not have surprised Cyril Foster, who died in 1956. But it does seem surprising now -- and I doubt if even Oxford, the legendary home of lost causes, will get away with it much longer.

I note that both Javier Pérez de Cuéllar and Boutros Boutros-Ghali spoke to you about the role of the Secretary-General. I doubt if I could add much to their wisdom on that subject, so I have chosen a different theme. It is a theme dear to my heart -- as indeed it is to that of Dr. Boutros-Ghali, whose last major report to the General Assembly, as many of you probably remember, was entitled "An Agenda for Democratization". It was suggested to me by your Chairman, Professor O'Neill, although in a slightly different form. He proposed the theme "Democracy and International Peace".

Actually I believe that democracy’s importance as an international issue goes far beyond its direct connection with international peace. I shall devote much of this lecture to explaining that a major concern of the international community in today’s world is the restoration of domestic peace, in societies where it has broken down, and that in this work democratic governance, and the realization of human rights, are essential ingredients. Without them, peace will not be stable.

But let me take Professor O’Neill’s theme as a starting-point. The idea of a connection between democracy and international peace is at least two centuries old. Many would associate it with the work of Immanuel Kant, whose essay "Perpetual Peace" was published in 1795. Kant argued that "republics" -- by which he meant essentially what today we call liberal or pluralistic democracies – were less likely than other forms of State to go to war with one another. Broadly speaking, the history of the last 200 years has proved him right.

During that time there have been many horrible wars, which technology has made more destructive than those of earlier periods. And liberal democracies have played a big part in those wars. But almost always they have fought on the same side, not against each other.

Dynastic States have fought each other throughout history -- and so have religious States, totalitarian States, and military dictatorships. But liberal democracies have generally found other ways to settle their disputes. Let me swiftly qualify that observation, before we are tempted to build too many hopes upon it. Until recently there were only a few liberal democracies in the world. So we don’t really yet have enough case histories to justify sweeping generalizations or confident predictions.

Also, history shows that young democracies, or ones that are just emerging as great Powers, can behave in quite an aggressive way. They may argue that their opponents are undemocratic, or anyway less democratic than themselves, but this difference is not always so obvious to third parties. So perhaps we should confine ourselves to saying that war is less likely between mature democracies.

Why should that be so? The explanation that seems to me most convincing, or most likely to be decisive, is that liberal democracy is essentially an open and transparent system, which contains in-built safeguards against military adventurism.

Democratic rulers cannot mobilize their countries for war without convincing most of the citizens that war is both just and necessary -- which means convincing them that vital national interests or principles are involved, and that there is no peaceful way to achieve the same objective.

That is much easier if you can portray the government on the other side as evil, aggressive, and not open to rational persuasion or reasonable compromise. And people in a democracy find it easy to believe the worst about another country which has a closed political system -- because, when decisions are taken behind closed doors, you cannot tell whether the reasons given are the real ones, or indeed whether something quite different from what has been announced is being planned.

And on its side, a regime which is not accountable, and which can control or manipulate the mass media more or less as it pleases, will find it easier to mobilize a society for war, whether against another similar regime or against a democracy.

By contrast, it is much harder to convince people in a democracy that war is necessary against another country with an open and transparent political system, more or less like their own. In such cases, the two peoples can engage each other, not just through war and diplomacy, but on a much broader front. They can see into each other's political processes, and also influence them. So it is broadly true that, the more open and accountable governments are to their fellow citizens, the less likely they are to use force, at least against other States whose systems are similarly open.

It follows that democracies are least true to themselves when their governments pursue covert or secret policies, for which they are not fully accountable. Cases have come to light where even the greatest democracies worked to undermine the stability of other elected governments, by means they would probably not have dared to use if their decisions had been open to public scrutiny. Kant himself understood this danger, which was why he considered "publicity" a fundamental principle of right.

Having made those qualifications, we may share his view that a world composed entirely of "republics" -- or, let us say, of States with open and accountable systems of government -- would be a more peaceful world than the one we actually live in. That is an important connection between democracy and international peace. But since we do not yet live in a peaceful world, we should also note that the reluctance of democracies to fight or to take risks can sometimes be a handicap, when action in a just cause is really needed.

Much of the carnage in the Second World War might have been avoided, if the democracies had been more decisive about standing up to Nazi Germany at an earlier stage.

And even today there is a painful paradox in the fact that the United Nations, in its efforts to maintain peace and security, often finds that mature democracies are unwilling to provide troops for peacekeeping operations. That paradox is all the greater when you consider how many of our peacekeeping missions over the last 15 years or so, in different parts of the world, have involved efforts to make democracy work.

The truth is that that has happened for reasons which, for the most part, are not directly connected with international peace. They have much more to do with the domestic affairs of States, and especially with the resolution or prevention of internal conflict.

In the late 1980s and early nineties, we found ourselves helping to organize or supervise elections in a whole series of countries -- from El Salvador to Mozambique to Cambodia. These were not peacekeeping missions of the classic type, where lightly armed forces are interposed between two regular armies, and maintain a ceasefire while the search for a political settlement goes on elsewhere. They were much more complex operations, deployed in countries emerging from long and bitter civil wars.

Our mission in these countries was not so much to keep the peace as to help build it, by helping people who had fought each other find ways of living together again as fellow citizens, in a peaceful and orderly society. And that, in fact, is much more typically the mission of our peacekeeping operations today.

In a few cases, as you know -- Kosovo and East Timor are the current examples -- our mandate has expanded to providing a transitional administration, which has to oversee the entire political process.

In most cases it is more modest than that, but still involves providing assistance to the local authorities in a wide range of tasks. Typically, these include humanitarian relief, de-mining, the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of soldiers, training the police and judiciary, monitoring human rights, and rebuilding not only the physical infrastructure but also the institutions through which a society organizes and regulates its collective life.

Inevitably that includes political institutions. At the centre of virtually every civil conflict is the issue of the State and its power -- who controls it, and how it is used. No conflict can be resolved without answering those questions, and nowadays the answers almost always have to be democratic ones, at least in form.

Of course, there are other, more traditional sources of legitimacy for political power: divine sanction, dynastic succession, the charismatic authority of a strong leader, or the force of history as represented by a highly organized ruling party. Quite a few States still derive their success and stability from an appeal to one or other of these, or to a combination of them. But they can do so with confidence only so long as they rule with their people’s consent.

Once consent has broken down, or conflict has broken out, and stability has to be restored by negotiation, it almost invariably turns out that the only source of legitimacy all parties can accept, at least in principle, is the will of the people. And so a big part of the peacemaker's task is to help find a consensus on the mechanisms by which the will of the people can be ascertained -- and by which, once ascertained, it can be implemented.

We therefore find ourselves having to organize elections, or at least ensure that they are organized, in a way that all parties accept as credible. And often we also have to help design the constitutional framework within which those who have been elected will exercise power. That second point is very important. An election by itself can seldom, if ever, resolve a conflict about which people feel strongly enough to resort to bloodshed.

We learned that the hard way in Angola in 1992. We held elections that were generally agreed to have been free and fair -- but the conflict promptly resumed, because the losers were unwilling to accept the authority of a government controlled entirely by the winners. I notice that you have learned this lesson here in the United Kingdom, too.

In your national elections you use a winner-takes-all system. That may be controversial, but it doesn’t endanger the peace of the realm, because the different parties respect each other, and those who lose elections need not fear being locked up or put to death.

But in Northern Ireland, where you have had to manage a communal division that has often given rise to violence -- and where trust between people of different communities cannot be taken for granted – you have developed a quite different system, involving proportional representation and institutionalized power-sharing.

Arrangements of that type, which guarantee the rights of minorities and protect them from being trampled underfoot by the majority, have been part of the solution in almost every case where civil conflict has been ended through negotiations.

They form part of a broader understanding, which I think is now generally shared, that democracy does not mean allowing the majority to crush the minority. What it means is a system in which all citizens can feel that their rights and views are respected, and that they have some say in the decisions that affect their lives. In other words, what happens in between elections is at least as important for democracy as what happens during them.

Opposition parties must have the chance to build coalitions and put their case over a period of time -- so that, when the election comes, the voters can make mature and informed choices.

We must beware of what I call "fig-leaf democracy", which occurs when rulers attempt to legitimize or perpetuate their power by holding flawed elections, that are not really free. Elections can only be truly free and fair if they are held in a peaceful atmosphere, in which all parties can compete on an equal footing, with a chance to make their case through the mass media -- including, of course, any media that are owned or controlled by the State. It must be an atmosphere in which unpopular opinions can be voiced; in which facts embarrassing to those in power can be exposed; and in which peaceful campaigning and political meetings are not only permitted but protected from violence.

In other words, democracy requires the rule of law, administered without fear or favour, by independent courts and impartial police. All these things are necessary if conflicts are to give way to lasting peace -- or, even better, if they are not to happen in the first place. If you introduce them without waiting until violent conflict has broken out, you have a much better chance of preventing it, or -- to put it another way -- of ensuring that the inevitable conflicts which arise in any society are managed without violence.

I often quote a study done for the United Nations University, which shows that conflicts are more likely to break out in countries where social inequalities coincide with the divide between different ethnic or religious communities. And I am especially pleased to do so here today in the presence of one of the study’s authors, Professor Frances Stewart.

Suitably enough she is head of an institution, Queen Elizabeth House, which is one of several fine examples, within this university, of coexistence and fruitful cooperation between people of many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. If only more of the world that I have to deal with were like that.

In many parts of that world, over the last 10 years or so, the United Nations has had to cope with conflicts in which one group's fear of another was cultivated and exploited by political leaders for their own selfish ends, and made the basis of appalling acts of ethnic or racial hatred. It is for that reason, above all, that I attach such importance to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which is to be held in South Africa in two months' time.

I hope it will help us devise a global strategy, which each of us can use to combat these hateful phenomena in our own societies. They are the roots of conflict in every part of the world, and we must tackle them urgently, in every society, if we are to prevent more and worse conflicts in the future.

No doubt that is one reason why the United Nations finds itself more and more involved in democratization, even outside the context of peacekeeping and peace-building. An increasing number of countries turn to us, not just for electoral assistance, but for a much wider range of tasks in the general area of governance and human rights. I believe that this work does help to prevent conflicts. But of course it also makes a broader contribution to development.

States which respect the rights of all their citizens, and allow all of them a say in decisions that affect their lives, are also likely to benefit from their creative energies, and to provide the kind of economic and social environment that attracts investors. Thus I think it is legitimate to say that democracy is an issue of great importance not only to international peace, but also to development, and therefore to the agenda of the United Nations as a whole -- indeed, to the hopes of all humanity for a better future.

Democracy is practised in many different ways, and none of them is perfect. But at its best it provides a method for managing and resolving disputes peacefully, in an atmosphere of mutual trust. And nothing destroys that atmosphere more corrosively than fear and intolerance, combined with injustice and discrimination.

It is true that in the past many societies did combine a degree of democracy with racial discrimination. But today we see that discrimination is one of democracy’s worst enemies. Why? Because people lose faith in democratic institutions -- indeed, in institutions of any sort -- as soon as they feel that they are not being treated fairly, and especially if they feel they are being threatened or excluded simply because they belong to some particular group or category.

In Europe today it is xenophobia, and the political manipulation of fear of foreigners, that pose the greatest threat to democracy, or at least to the quality of democracy. Since tomorrow is World Refugee Day, perhaps I could remind you of the famous UNHCR poster depicting Einstein with a bundle of clothes on his back. The caption read: "a bundle of belongings isn’t the only thing a refugee brings to his new country". Einstein was a refugee.

Europe today seems almost to have forgotten that message. Immigrants, instead of being welcomed for the contribution they make to a productive economy and a diverse society, are too often portrayed as a threat, and procedures aimed at detecting "bogus" asylum seekers result in the harassment or detention of bona fide refugees. Sometimes they deter or prevent refugees from even approaching a country where they might be safe. These unpleasant phenomena have an impact on foreign as well as domestic policy -- which is yet another reason why democracy is an international, and not just a domestic, issue.

I have devoted my main argument this afternoon to the importance of democracy within States -- first as it affects their relations with each other, and secondly as it affects their internal harmony and development.

But there is also a need for more democracy on the global level, which is what the United Nations has been about from the very beginning. It is based, as the Charter tells us, on the very democratic principle of "the sovereign equality of all its Members". In our case, however, the Members are not individual citizens but sovereign States -- and of course in reality those States are very unequal -- unequal in size, in wealth, and in power. That is not likely to change in the near future, but it is not a situation that any of us can feel comfortable about.

Stability can hardly be taken for granted in a world where the majority of human beings are denied the economic opportunities enjoyed by the privileged few, and largely ignored when decisions about the world economy are taken. In my view those States that do enjoy wealth and power have a moral obligation to take account of the views of those that don’t, and also a strong interest in doing so -- an enlightened self-interest, if you like.

The United Nations does its best to bridge the gap. Its life is a constant, sometimes uneasy compromise between the need to take account of these inequalities, for the sake of realism, and the aspiration to redress them, or at least to compensate for them, by giving a voice to the small, the poor, and the weak.

We cannot claim that there is perfect equality between Member States, but the small and the weak do, on the whole, feel less unequal in the United Nations than in other international bodies. Many of them believe, with Dag Hammarskjöld, that the essential task of the United Nations is, indeed, to protect the weak against the strong.

In the long term, the vitality and viability of the Organization depend on its ability to perform that task, by adapting itself to changing realities. That, I believe, is the biggest test it faces in the new century.

Most Member States -- and probably most people in general -- believe that the United Nations would be more democratic if the Security Council were reformed, and made more representative of the membership as a whole. I share that feeling, while recognizing that this is very much a matter for the Member States to decide among themselves -- and noting that sadly, while almost all of them agree on the need for reform, agreement on the details remains elusive.

But I also suggest that we should not focus only on the Security Council. Many important decisions, with profound effects on the lives of billions of human beings, are taken in other institutions -- the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the Group of Eight, and indeed the boardrooms of multinational corporations.

I suggest that we would live in a better and fairer world -- indeed, a more democratic world -- if, in all those places, greater weight were given to the views and interests of the poor. They, alas, still form a substantial majority of the human race.

One argument that is sometimes used for resisting this is that those who claim to represent the poor are not truly representative, because of the lack of democracy in poor countries. That argument is not always used in good faith, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand. I am glad to say, however, that its validity is declining, as democracy spreads through the developing world.

Already the Organization of African Unity has taken a courageous stand, by declaring that it will no longer admit leaders who have come to power by unconstitutional means at its summit meetings.

I look forward to the day when the General Assembly of the United Nations follows this fine example. For I have no doubt that its authority will be greatly strengthened when all the governments represented in it are themselves, clearly and unmistakably, representative of the peoples of the world, in whose name the United Nations was founded, 56 years ago next week.

Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, democracy is an international issue.

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