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Crisis of Democracy: “But it’s not too late“

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Crisis of Democracy: “But it’s not too late“


Manfred Nowak is an Austrian human rights professor who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture from 2004 to 2010. He is the Scientific Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights in Vienna, and a former judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Democracy International seized the opportunity to question Mr Nowak about the relationship between the rule of law, democracy and human rights, as well as the most recent developments in Turkey.

Manfred Nowak argues that democracy and the rule of law are currently facing a crisis globally that is caused by the growing economic gap between the rich and poor.

Interview by Cora Pfafferott

Das Gespräch finden Sie auf Deutsch hier

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law – these ideas are often mentioned in the same breath. How do you see the relationship between these three concepts?

These terms are very closely connected with each other. Human rights form the primary link to democracy and the rule of law. Human rights guarantee political rights such as elections and also freedoms - such as the freedom of opinion, press freedom, and freedom of assembly. These freedoms are essential for a democracy.

At the same time, there is the principle of equality. Democracy only works in practice when equality is guaranteed. This includes the protection of minorities and disadvantaged groups. In other words, democracy is safeguarded by human rights. The same applies to a state based on the rule of law. It guarantees equal access to the courts and the right to a fair trial. This means that the actions of government are circumscribed by law. In a democracy, human rights are much better protected than in dictatorships or in a police state.

Many people – mostly in the Western world- are claiming that democracy and the rule of law are threatened in Turkey. Following the failed coup in Turkey in July, President Erdogan called for “Democracy and Martyrs Rallies”. On 7 August Erdogan celebrated with his supporters a “victory of democracy”.

Taking into account these diverging viewpoints, how do you judge the developments in Turkey?

The failed coup must be condemned. It would have been fatal for Turkish democracy. A military coup - bringing to power a military regime with no democratic legitimacy - is the classic antithesis to a democracy.

At the same time, democratic freedoms are massively threatened in Turkey. President Erdogan has already been restricting press and media freedom, as well as the right to form political parties, for some considerable time. The Kurds are being oppressed, so the protection of minorities is being disregarded. These are strong authoritarian tendencies that put enormous stress on the European Convention on Human Rights.

A democracy needs an open and free society in which no-one should be afraid of being arrested the next day as a consequence of political action. But Turkey has for some time been developing in the direction of an authoritarian state and is on its way to changing from a democracy into a dictatorship.

Turkey is not a unique case. Other countries such as Poland and Hungary are also accused of dismantling democracy and the rule of law. Is this a global trend?

Yes, and we need to look at these developments in the bigger picture. Currently we are facing the world’s biggest crisis since World War 2. These crises include global financial and economic crises, climate, environment and food crises, “failed states”, organised crime, violence, terrorism, armed conflicts and disenchantment with politics, the call for a “strong leader”, and a disdain for democratic decision-making and conflict resolution mechanisms. All these crises have a huge impact, have multiple causes and are inter-dependent. They make it difficult to arrive at the right policies to break through this vicious circle.  

How do you explain these crises?

I explain them primarily as a consequence of global neo-liberalism . Today there is huge economic inequality which leads to the erosion of social cohesion. Due to neoliberal strategies, many countries are no longer able to deliver what people expect from a functioning state.

By Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

French economist Thomas Piketty has highlighted the dangers that result from this growing economic inequality. In his book “Capitalism in the 21st Century”, he has shown that the basic democratic consensus of a society falls apart once economic inequality of income and capital reaches a certain level.

When citizens feel that their work no longer provides them with a decent standard of living, the democratic consensus begins to crumble and we have a crisis of democracy. We can see these developments today across the whole world - including Europe. Democratic debate becomes much fiercer as far-right and populist parties polarise opinion. But in a democracy we need consensus and compromise. 

What do you think is the most effective way of strengthening democracy and the rule of law?

It is enormously important to have a debate about inequality. Countries must take measures to counteract neoliberal developments and generate more equality again, because this is a functional prerequisite for a democracy. Basically it’s about changing the economics. People must be able to trust that their political systems can regulate the economy.

In addition, we need to tackle the radicalising discourse. This could also mean that we would have to ban parties that threaten democracy. A democracy must be in a position to defend itself effectively against its enemies.

Neoliberalism is about deregulating the state and privatising the public sector. If economic inequality rises due to neoliberalism – are politicians still powerful to act politically?

Neoliberalism does not come from nowhere; it has been a deliberate policy direction since the 1970s, influenced by the “Chicago School”. During the 1980s, politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher deliberately decided to go for privatisation and a ‘shrinking’ of the state. This definitely weakened the state and many countries are no longer in a position to control the global financial networks.

But it’s not yet too late. At the international level states can take back power in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. That is where they are influential in deciding policy. We still have one last chance to curb the influence of the global markets and to demand the return of greater regulation.

In this endeavour the European Union should be a pioneer and take the first step. The EU is a big market and has a long welfare state tradition. If the EU starts to put more emphasis on regulation, we can hope that other states like India, China and maybe even the USA will follow suit.

For six years you were the UN special rapporteur on torture. In this capacity you travelled to many countries in the world. If you had to travel to a country to save “democracy and human rights” next month – which country would you choose?

Well, I don’t need to travel far, I can stay in my home country Austria. There are some tendencies here that threaten democracy and the rule of law. On 2 October there will be the rerun of the presidential elections. If the candidate from the Freedom Party wins, there could be new national elections and the possibility of the Freedom Party choosing who will be Chancellor. We would then have the first right-wing populist President in the EU.

For me this would mean a huge threat to the rule of law and democracy. The same scenario could happen in France or other European countries. Actually, we don’t have to travel far to strengthen democracy and the rule of law. There is enough to do in Europe.

Thank you for your answers

Interview by Cora Pfafferott, 23 August 2016

Credits of Header Image: UN Photo/ Pierre Virot, slightly edited, see source here

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