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Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Part of Points of Order – in the House of Commons at 5:49 pm on 13th October 2008.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 5:49 pm, 13th October 2008

That will save me five minutes of my speech. I emphasised our own backyard to point out—I hope quite forcefully—that before we start to lecture others on democracy and free and fair elections, we should put our house in order. I believe that we are largely doing that as a result of the scandals in a number of cities and towns in this country.

There are many definitions of "democracy", although I shall not go into them. I am an avid reader of The Economist and the output of the Economist Intelligence Unit. It has taken a good approach to what constitutes a democracy, using a scoring system that puts the UK—I do not think this is right—23rd out of about 30 democracies, although I am consoled by the fact that the French are 24th. There are also other ways by which one can evaluate whether a country meets democratic standards.

My point is that not more than a fifth or a sixth of countries can be designated "democratic". Many purport to be democratic and many have not the slightest interest in becoming democratic, but some are struggling to do so. We took a long time to achieve democracy—comparatively speaking, we were a wealthy nation in the 19th century—so one has to have a degree of tolerance towards other countries that want to be more democratic, but are in the early part of the process.

Some people mocked Islamic countries in this regard, but in fairness I must point out that a number of countries are trying to be more democratic, such as Albania, which does not have much of a record of democracy. We have done a great deal in the international community in relation to Kosovo and Bosnia. I am a great supporter of Turkey, whose Islamic Government are far better at achieving and maintaining democracy than their ostensibly secular predecessors. They are certainly far less corrupt.

Other examples are Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco, which are trying hard. Algeria is fighting a war against terrorism and is also trying hard. I have visited Kuwait and other Gulf states, and I head a small non-governmental organisation that is helping capacity-build in the second Chamber of the Omani Parliament. I merely make the point that it is difficult for an Islamic country quickly to move towards western-style democracy, even if it is not from a standing start. Perhaps such countries will not adopt western-style democracy, but I am confident that a number of countries are progressing in the right direction at a pace they can cope with.

We are progressing and the UK's record in promoting democracy is good, but it amuses me to look at the annual report produced by the Department for International Development, whose record in promoting democracy is excellent. In the index to the report, the only reference to democracy, as with the Foreign Office annual report, is to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This country is trying hard and succeeding well in promoting democracy, not forcing it down people's throats or saying, "Look, we can tell you how to do it." There is an exchange of experience. Therefore, I hope that future annual reports at least pay lip service to the fact that both those great institutions of our state are promoting democracy. Why do they appear embarrassed to admit that we are promoting democracy? Why are they hiding behind terms such as "human rights", which the Government are promoting and appears in the reports, and "good governance"? Those are weasel words, albeit important words, and I feel embarrassed that those institutions are not prepared to say them.

On democracy promotion, I do not want to give a checklist. I am not one of the greatest admirers of the United Nations, and many of the problems that we heard about earlier are the result of countries with little democratic tradition such as China and Russia—previously the Soviet Union—doing all they can to prop up Governments as illicit and authoritarian as their own.

Security Council decisions can easily be vetoed, so it is not at all surprising that democracy is hardly as high on the agenda as it ought to be. However, it is quite high. The record on what is being done by the political and electoral assistance divisions, and by other parts of the UN, is good. What was virtually the founding document of the UN extolled the virtues of free elections as an essential element of any society in the world. The UN's record is far from bad; it is good and deserves more praise. I am saying that not because I am going there in January, but because the record is not as bad as some people purport it to be.