“Democracy is a process, not an event,” Ambassador Johnnie Carson, nominee for Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations this week. The Obama administration will “work in partnership with African governments and civil society organizations to strengthen their democratic institutions and to protect the democratic gains they have made,”
If confirmed, he will promote the “development of independent judiciaries, strong legislative bodies, robust civil societies and transparent elections” and advocate greater resources for increased Africa programming by organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.
The state of African democracy and human rights was the subject of last week’s Johannesburg +10 All Africa Human Rights Defenders conference in Kampala, Uganda. The conference, organised by the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, a NED grantee, took stock of progress made in protecting human rights defenders and sought to devise strategies to address new and persisting challenges in defending human rights and civil society.
Some 85 human rights defenders from 45 African States and 33 partners from across the world adopted the Kampala Declaration of Human Rights Defenders and called on the African Union to pass an additional protocol to the African Charter to protect and promote the rights of human rights defenders.
Organization matters, the NED’s Carl Gershman told delegates. Statements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent Johannesburg and Human Rights Defenders Declarations are important “not just because they establish international norms but also because they inspire people to take effective action to defend and implement those norms.”
He contrasted the fate of three Congolese human rights defenders arrested last month with that of Birtukan Mideksa in Ethiopia, a former judge and opposition leader. The three Congolese activists were quickly released following the mobilization of protests, while Birtukan remains in solitary confinement because local groups are weak and lack political space, and, as a consequence, the international community has been mute.
“Without such action that is made possible by organization and political influence, such declarations would be words of little consequence and possibly even a rhetorical façade giving cover to real abuses by cynical autocrats,” said Gershman.
The obstacles to democratic development in sub-Saharan Africa are familiar, NED Africa director Dave Petersen said today. Less well known are those factors facilitating the spread of democracy, such as the internet, the growing group of African that respects democratic norms, and African institutions like the AU, SADC, and ECOWAS which are less tolerant of coups and repressive government.
“The genie has been let out of the bottle,” he told a conference on Good Governance in Africa Critical Factors Affecting Successful Democratization. “African NGOs are taking advantage of these developments,” linking up in solidarity with their counterparts in other parts of Africa and internationally; lobbying the pan-African institutions and their own governments with greater professionalism and confidence; building a critical mass of networks that now extends beyond just individual countries, but continent-wide,” he said.