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Human Rights Leaders Call For Authentic Democracy, Support For Defenders



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The following statement was issued at the close of the third Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum, held May 23-24, 2006, in Atlanta. Read more about the forum.

ATLANTA….Human rights, and the people trying to protect them, are being threatened in more countries around the world than at any other time in recent history, according to the Carter Center's third annual Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum. Despite recent numerous elections that have raised the hopes of millions of people for freedom and justice, democracies - both fledgling and established - are falling short in their support of fundamental human rights.

Pressure is mounting on activists who, in their daily work, help to realize the promise of democracy by advancing respect for human rights. This is jeopardizing the weak foundations of many new democracies.

Leading human rights defenders from throughout the world, at a May 23-24, 2006, forum jointly organized by Human Rights First and The Carter Center in Atlanta, have concluded that the promise of democracy rings hollow without real human rights progress. Only a deep-rooted democracy based on human rights principles and the protection of those who defend them will be sustainable.

Human rights defenders from 21 countries joined former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, and U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders Hina Jilani. The theme of the forum has been "Beyond Elections: Defending Human Rights in the Age of Democratization."

"President Bush rightly has asserted that democracy and human rights are desired and deserved by all people," said President Carter. "The question is not whether to make this a priority of global policy, but how to do it effectively. Young democracies must move quickly to build institutions that will vigorously protect the rights of all, while older ones must not allow their human rights practices to fall short of international standards, even in time of war. We have a great deal to learn from the courageous human rights leaders who have gathered for our forum from some of the most dangerous countries in the world."

Western democracies are being held captive by their dependence on oil and gas resources and alliances with authoritarian - and sometimes oppressive - governments in the global "war against terror." This leads to inconsistent messages in democracy promotion and results in increasing anti-American sentiment among populations in general, as well as among courageous defenders of human rights and democracy in many nations.

Democratization is seriously undermined when governments that seek to promote these principles abroad fail to respect human rights themselves. Human rights defenders view this as hypocrisy, evidenced by such countries condoning torture, detention without trial, or other denials of due process.

The forum's recommendations for the democratic world are striking:

  • Help those who have been risking their lives for many years to build democracy at the local level;
  • Do not give aid and comfort to dictators and tyrants (even if originally elected) who will never give up power willingly;
  • Stay the course after free and fair elections to ensure that human rights are embedded in the culture and institutions that are likely to be weak in countries transitioning from dictatorship or emerging from conflict;
  • Return to fundamental human rights principles, especially in counter-terrorism and other security strategies and policies.

Some examples from around the world:

  • A former Iranian congresswoman, sentenced to 20 months in prison after speaking about women's human rights in the parliament, warned that escalating military threats between her government and the United States are resulting in even heavier repression against pro-democracy forces there.
  • In Egypt, the government is seeking to crush efforts by judges to strengthen their independence, and is brutalizing protests that have sprung up to support these demands. Free, fair, and open elections are still absent in Egypt, with challenging candidates silenced or persecuted.
  • Nigeria's transition to democracy could have set a model for the region, but these gains are seriously at risk by heavy-handed efforts to amend the constitution to allow the president to stay in power beyond his constitutionally allotted second term. Now it seems that preparations for the next presidential elections are lacking.
  • Russia's new restrictive law governing the work of non-governmental organizations is an example of the retreat from democracy and human rights by the administration of President Putin. This encourages similar pressure on independent human rights activists by governments throughout the region.

Human rights defenders propose the following agenda that will require long-term support from the international community to ensure that change brings forth the fruits of democracy: tangible improvements in human rights conditions and freedom from want for the most basic human necessities.

1. Demonstrate consistency in promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms in each region, applying the same standards across the region. Use different tools in different countries depending on the specific national context, human rights track record, and participation of respective governments in international organizations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international treaties provide a common foundation for this concerted commitment.

2. Democratic states should work together - unilateral calls for democracy are less effective. The United States and the European Union must elaborate detailed, well-conceived and clear policies aimed at reversing authoritarian developments and deterioration of human rights. Ideally, this should be a common policy implemented by the United States, the EU, and other leading democracies.

3. Do not abandon new democracies after an election has taken place; rather, continue supporting human rights defenders and work with them to develop independent human rights organizations and to nurture state institutions that legitimately protect human rights and promote democratic principles. International funding commitments to promote democracy should likewise prioritize long-term, sustainable support for truly democratic institutions.

4. Focus support on promotion of media that provide information on public affairs, governance, and international standards needed by an electorate and are independent of political or commercial influence. Access to information is universally cited as one of the most important aspects of a true democracy.

5. Ensure that indigenous and other disadvantaged or marginalized groups with limited access to democratic institutions and education are included in all democratic processes.

6. Democratic governments and inter-governmental organizations should demonstrate their strong solidarity with human rights defenders and effectively intervene on all levels in those cases when defenders come under a threat from authoritarian regimes. They must provide support to human rights defenders by increasing their visibility. They should also work closely with human rights defenders based in countries in transition, as the monitors of the integrity of democracy promotion programs are members of civil society.

7. Governments should stop using security concerns as pretexts to undermine democracy and human rights; such efforts are ultimately counterproductive and self-defeating.

8. Democratic governments should reaffirm their own commitments to human rights standards, including cooperation with international and regional mechanisms, and call for the same by newly democratizing states. The U.N. human rights protection system should be reinforced. The newly created Human Rights Council should renew the mandates of the special procedures, including special rapporteurs and representatives.

9. Human rights organizations promote, defend, and sustain democracy. Besides providing resources and aid directly to such organizations, the international community should exert prompt and effective pressure on governments that attempt to restrict NGO human rights activities - including through adoption of legislation - and maximize their opportunities to build strong roots and constituencies of support within their own countries. Strong support for NGOs, other elements of civil society, and strong and independent judicial systems are especially important.


The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, in partnership with Emory University, to advance peace and health worldwide. A not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization, the Center has helped to improve life for people in more than 65 countries by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; improving mental health care; and teaching farmers to increase crop production. To learn more about The Carter Center, please visit:

Human Rights First is a leading human rights advocacy organization based in New York City and Washington, DC. Since 1978, we have worked in the U.S. and abroad to create a secure and humane world-advancing justice, human dignity, and respect for the rule of law. All of its activities are supported by private contributions. No government funds are accepted. Please visit to learn more about Human Rights First.

Photo Credit: The Carter Center/D. Hakes

Saad Eddin Ibrahim (right), board chairman of the Ibn Khaldun Center For Development Studies in Cairo, Egypt, addresses reporters during the news conference held at the close of the two-day Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum. At left is Hina Jilani, U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, of Pakistan.

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