Democracy through the looking-glass

By Jack Hanning
Secretary General of the Association of Schools of Political Studies
November 2014

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” (1)

When the Berlin Wall came down, 25 years ago, the fall of communism and the toppling of dictatorships sparked continent-wide euphoria. Peace, stability and democracy became by-words for a prosperous and bright European future. But the dream of a continent-wide democratic “wonderland” was short-lived as economic hardship, coupled with political uncertainties and military conflicts gradually engendered a sense of drift and gloom.


What has gone wrong and what can we do about it?

Why are there a growing number of countries in both the Council of Europe and the European Union which appear to be opting for autocracy rather than democracy?

Why are countries which used to chant the mantra of no double standards and no dividing lines in Europe actually applying double standards and creating new political (and military) dividing lines themselves?

Over the last 25 years, the European Union, the Council of Europe and dozens of civil society and other organisations have spent vast amounts of time, energy and money helping democratising nations reform their institutions, their legal systems, their judiciaries, their police etc. 

All this has been done in agreement with the authorities of these countries which, of their own volition, chose to join the Council of Europe. They freely and willingly accepted to subscribe to the standards and obligations flowing from membership of an institution which embodies the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law and which stands for the peaceful settlement of disputes.

The use of military force by one member state against another member state such as we have just witnessed in Crimea, by definition, creates new dividing lines in Europe and is contrary to the UN Charter, the CSCE Helsinki Final Act and everything which the Council of Europe and the European Union represent. As the former French President François Mitterand put it so aptly in his last speech to the European Parliament “nationalism is war”. 

Repressive legislation to silence civil society, (e.g. the Russian NGO GOLOS) is incompatible with the notion of a democratic society upheld by the Council of Europe which highlighted the need to work with non-governmental organisations in its first ever 
Statutory Resolution adopted in 1951.Here we have a different, not to say a double standard too!

Other examples are the ban on Twitter and You Tube as well as the imprisonment of dozens of journalists in Turkey which, in clear contradiction with the European Convention on Human Rights, breach the notion of freedom of expression, restrict press freedom and necessarily intimidate others from working effectively.

The arrest and detention of people active in political and public life in Azerbaijan including the 7-year sentence meted out on the Director of the Baku School of Political Studies, Ilgar Mammadov, and other politically motivated cases are clearly contrary to the Council of Europe’s legal and Human Rights standards.

The recent elections in Hungary are another example of failure to live up to democratic principles. According to the OSCE a number of factors provided the country’s ruling party with an undue advantage including biased media coverage and a blurring of the separation between the State and the party.

What is clear is that there is a worrying trend in a number of countries where the very notions of democracy and human rights are being distorted. We are confronted with a mirror image in which democracy means autocracy and justice means repression and intimidation. It is as if we were witnessing the emergence of a Europe of autocracies alongside the Europe of democracies imagined in the wake of WW II! 

It brings to mind the graphic words of the great French lawyer and politician, Pierre-Henri Teitgen, who in 1949 when pleading for international Human Rights machinery said “…Evil progresses cunningly, with a minority operating, as it were, to remove the levers of control. One by one, freedoms are suppressed, in one sphere after another. Public opinion and the entire national conscience are asphyxiated...” (2)

Teitgen goes on to underscore the need to intervene before it is too late. Today that means the Council of Europe and the European Union must sound the alarm and act decisively before things go from bad to worse.

It also means we need more, stronger and better resourced Schools of Political studies to alert the up-coming generations to the dangers and pitfalls facing democracy.

The Europe for which we are striving is based on freedom and justice: freedom to question and inquire; freedom to write and speak; freedom from corruption and mismanagement; freedom from discrimination; freedom from intimidation; freedom from tyranny.

As the former Czech President Vaclav Havel once put it: “We must not be afraid of dreaming the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality. Without dreaming of a better Europe, we shall never build a better Europe!”

(1) Lewis Carroll 1871 
(2) PACE Official Reports, August 1949, p.1158.