Beware of Democracy

Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament, guarded by Israeli border police officers, attend a hearing for the extension of their arrests at an Israeli military court, July 5, 2006. (MaanImages/Moamar Awad)

When elections were imposed on the Palestinian people, while still under occupation, we questioned and suspected the whole process. We wondered how a free election could be conducted while the whole nation lives under a military occupation, especially in light of the undeniable correlation between freedom and democracy, as stated on the US Department of State’s website: [1]

“Freedom and democracy are often used interchangeably, but the two are not synonymous. Democracy is indeed a set of ideas and principles about freedom, but it also consists of a set of practices and procedures that have been molded through a long, often tortuous history. In short, democracy is the institutionalisation of freedom”.

So if democracy is the institutionalisation of freedom, is freedom not a precondition to democracy? The US administration responded to our query: if you Palestinians want to have a place under the sun, you need to be “democratised” like some other “privileged” nations in the region, in particular Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, the Palestinians said “ok, then why not let us democratise ourselves?” and went to the polls and elected Hamas.

Apparently, electing Hamas was not what the US, Israel or the EU wanted. The Palestinians were again confounded; they thought they had played by the rules; they thought their action was in line with that espoused by the US, again on their Department of State’s website:

“Elections are the central institution of democratic representative governments. Why? Because, in a democracy, the authority of the government derives solely from the consent of the governed. The principal mechanism for translating that consent into governmental authority is the holding of free and fair elections”.

Although a neutral observer like former US president Jimmy Carter reported that “Within the bounds of an occupied territory, the legal framework for the elections generally compared favourably to international standards. Except for restraints in East Jerusalem, the election process was open and highly competitive”,[2] this did not change the opinions of the US, EU or Israel and they declared a war against the newly elected authority and the Palestinian people at large. The same people, who are supposed to be protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention, were and are being punished for their democratic choice and for being “democratised”.

Elsewhere, in 2004, the US administration and the EU accepted the elections in Afghanistan, even though many countries and civil society structures suspected the results and the process itself. On BBC news on 9 October their reporter answered the question if the election would be credible. He said: “Many have their doubts, and the UN and others have voiced concerns. Because of the lack of security, there are very few election monitors - under 400. The European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have sent observer missions, but neither will issue a report on whether the election was fair.”[3]

This did not change the fact that Afghanistan was deemed suitably “democratised”, while still under American and NATO occupation. Now, the Afghani people could enjoy their democracy, while continuing to be killed and murdered by the occupation forces, by their elected government and by the warlords.

Iraq is another example of imposed democracy under occupation that was “acceptable”. Iraqis, according to the US, held free elections on 30 January 2005, and voters approved, in October 2005, the Independent Electoral Commission’s draft constitution by a 78 percent majority. During a visit to Iraq in April, the US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, was quoted as saying:

“It is an historic event for the Iraqi people to vote and then for a new government to be formed,”

On the same visit, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice went further than Rumsfeld when she was quoted as saying:

It is “one of those wonderful academic notions that somehow you can have all of these institutions underneath authoritarianism, then you remove the authoritarianism and all of these nice democratic institutions are in place…”

Mission accomplished, according to the US: Iraq has been “democratised”. The occupation still remains however, and Iraqis are still being killed and tortured in American and Iraqi prisons.

During the same speech, Rice added, “People have the right to say what they think and to choose their leaders. They have the right to information obtained from a free and independent press, and the right to freedom of conscience.”

She forgot to mention that this does not apply to the Palestinian people.

On another occasion, Ms. Rice was quoted as stating: “At the same time, evolving democracies cannot postpone elections if countries are afraid of who might win.”

One wonders why some countries need to be bombarded, destroyed and occupied, in order to bring them democracy, and why other countries are punished when they, although under military occupation, practice democracy of their own free will.

One also wonders why, since Hamas was elected, it has been boycotted by the US and the EU, claiming that it is an organisation on their terror list, while Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is also blacklisted, was not challenged when they became a part of the Lebanese government. One also wonders why the international community accepted the election results in India when it brought to power one of the most extremist religious movements, the ultra-nationalist and Hindu fundamentalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), responsible for terrorising its own fellow country minority, yet Hamas should be boycotted.

One also wonders why Iran, which managed to hold free elections nine times, does not qualify to be called a democracy, whereas Pakistan, where the army rules, is considered a democracy in the eyes of Americans.

It is understandable that democratic elections might bring to power different kind of governments and sometimes undesirable governments that may even suppress democracy and human rights. Yet if the US and EU want to play the world supra-police and impose sanctions on these “undesirable”, yet legitimately elected governments, then all countries should be measured with the same stick, and the police officers should be the first ones to have to pass the test of measuring up to democracy. Otherwise their supra-police role is not only hypocritical, and terribly undemocratic, but deadly, in the very literal sense of the word.

Rifat Odeh Kassis is a Palestinian human rights activist and president of Defense for Children International.


Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Cutting Aid to Palestine