World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001


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POLITICS: Genuine Democracy Needed, Annan Tells Legislators

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 31 (IPS) - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told a conference of parliamentarians that democratic and human rights cannot be guaranteed simply by holding elections.
''For elections to be genuinely free, and for people to feel genuinely represented in government, much more is needed,'' he told a gathering of 412 members of parliament and 152 parliamentary speakers from 141 countries who are meeting here this week.

Annan said that genuine democracy is not only predicated on free and fair elections but also on institutional checks and balances, an independent judiciary, viable political parties, a free press and the freedom of each individual to express his or her ideas without fear of retribution.

In an implicit reference to recent political developments in Asia, Africa and Latin America, he said that attempts to ratify the illegal seizure of power through flawed elections should be seen as what they are: ''attempts to gain international recognition for illegitimate rule by pretending to observe democratic principles.''

In Africa, General Robert Guei, who engineered a military coup in the Ivory Coast last year, is planning to run for office as a civilian candidate in a presidential election scheduled for Oct. 22. In Asia, Pakistan has reverted to military rule under General Pervaz Musharaff who has refused to provide a time-table for the resumption of a democratic government.

In South America, democracy has been undermined by events in Ecuador and Peru. The Peruvian government has been accused of voter manipulation at its recent presidential elections.

The South Pacific, on the other hand, has been unsettled by coups in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

Najma Heptulla of India, President of the Conference of Presiding Officers of National Parliaments, told reporters Wednesday that parliamentarians meeting at the United Nations are trying to forge a closer political relationship with the world body.

The three-day conference, which is sponsored by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), is trying to bring a ''parliamentary dimension'' to the United Nations, she said.

The conference, which concludes Friday, is timed to precede the Millennium Summit of over 150 world leaders at the United Nations on Sep.6-8.

Heptulla said the parliamentarians' conference seeks to stress that democracy was the only way of redressing people's problems, and that more and more countries were adopting it.

''And as presiding officers of their respective parliaments, the participants at the conference would be translating the decisions taken by the UN and their own governments, and facilitating the implementation of all those decisions back home,'' she added.

Asked about Pakistan's absence from the conference, Heptulla said the IPU had decided to suspend Pakistan's membership because that country did not have a parliament. But she felt that Pakistan could reclaim full membership in the organisation in the near future - once parliamentary government was restored.

IPU Secretary-General Anders Johnsson said that globalisation is having a profound impact on political, economic, social and cultural relations throughout the world. ''It is forcing democracies to take a closer look at the inner workings of their legislatures: at how they enact laws and how they oversee the executive.''

Johnsson said examples are legion. When legislators discuss investment or employment bills in the Mexican Congress, for instance, they frequently invoke the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that links the Mexican economy to those of Canada and the United States.

''Hardly a day goes in the parliaments of Indonesia or Thailand without members referring to the recent financial crisis and its aftermath. Debates in African parliaments constantly refer to external events while members of parliament (MPs) in western European countries have for long been grappling with the implications of European integration,'' he added.

But MPs in all countries have one thing in common: they are elected to represent the people in their countries. In order to be able to fulfil that constitutional mandate in today's world, MPs have no choice - they have to play a much bigger part in international co-operation. And they do, Johnsson said.

At the World Forum on Democracy in Warsaw last month, Annan said that popular sovereignty is also being increasingly threatened by a new danger: ''fig-leaf democracy''.

Certainly, many young democracies are making quiet but persistent progress, with regular and legitimate elections and peaceful transfers of power, Annan said.

''But last year alone has witnessed a troubling number of cases where democratic rule has been subverted, or maintained in name only, while in reality authoritarian government has taken over,'' he complained. (END/IPS/IP/td/da/00)

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