An invitation to give the opening keynote address (video) at the “Commonwealth, Human Rights and Development” conference held at Cumberland Lodge from 11th-13th March 2011, gave me the opportunity to pull together some of my thoughts over the last couple of years concerning democracy and human rights. In particular, I sought to address:
- the diversity of meanings attributed to democracy;
- the coalescence of interest between the rhetorics of democracy and the free market following the collapse of the Soviet Union;
- the importance of the notion of democracy in the Commonwealth
- the character of democratic institutions; and
- the need to challenge widely taken for granted assumptions about the benefits of democracy and human rights.
In so doing, I drew six main conclusions:
- Notions of democracy and universal human rights should be contested and not accepted automatically as something ‘good’.
- We need to contest many of the claims to legitimacy of democratic states and rulers. In particular, attempts by powerful states to impose democracy on other states, seem to me to be highly hypocritical.
- Instead of seeking to impose democracy on others, those who believe in democratic values would be better advised to help support the development of democratic institutions, especially elected parliaments, the judiciary and political parties
- Discourses on rights should be balanced by ones on responsibilities; a shift of attention to responsibility might well be able to deliver more for the poor and the marginalised
- The communal traditions of Africa may offer interesting insights to counter the negative aspects of the individualism associated with human rights, democracy and capitalism.
- Finally, it seems to me that a practical focus on how we treat others, especially the poor and the marginalised, is of much more importance than claiming that they have universal human rights.
I remain to be convinced that humans do indeed have universal rights.