Blog: Parliaments must defend civil society space

Anthony Smith, WFD CEO, blogs following his participation in a Foreign Office event marking International Day of Democracy.

You won’t be surprised to know that International Democracy Day is a highlight of my annual calendar.

This year, I joined a room full of fellow democracy enthusiasts talking about democracy and human rights with the Foreign Office Minister for Human Rights, Baroness Anelay. There were some common themes.  Four of us mentioned the fall of the Berlin Wall – perhaps not surprising considering the visceral, unforgettable images of that symbol of oppression falling under what felt like a wave of freedom.  That moment was one of the triggers that led to WFD’s establishment.  I discovered recently that my sister-in-law was responsible for getting the first film footage of protests in Dresden out of East Germany and flew by Concorde to get it to the ABC News studios to broadcast in October 1989.

Another common theme was Churchill’s famous comment that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, which two of us mentioned.  For me, that quote symbolises the unique capacity of democratic systems to prevent the abuse of power by the executive. That task is just as important now as it was when WFD was founded 24 years ago and indeed, as Sir Jeffrey Jowell said in our meeting, as important as during the Roman Empire when Lucretius famously asked, who will guard the guardians?  Only the people can do that.  The other quote that I mentioned yesterday was by Cyril Ramaphosa who said that democracy allows people to live up to their potential.  So as well as preventing abuse of power, democracy enables people to live fulfilling lives in which they are represented fairly and treated with respect.  What a great combination.

The issue that came up most yesterday was the action being taken in a large number of countries to restrict the ability of civil society to operated freely and openly, not least when defending human rights.  WFD has seen this happen or threatened in many of the countries that we operate in.  Our own work has sometimes been affected by this closing of civil society space.  Parliament needs to play a role in pushing back against such measures, not least when they are introduced through legislation.  We need to help parliaments be aware of the pitfalls of such measures and the impact on human rights.  Of course legislation on NGOs is often needed and there are good examples of responsible legislation available from many countries.  An effective parliament should be reviewing draft legislation carefully to check that it meets this standard.

Finally, there was a certain irony in the fact that our meeting was held in the old India Office Council Chamber, from which a small group of Brits controlled the affairs of what, even then, was one of the biggest countries in the world. If the gents in the portraits on the walls could see India now I hope they would smile at the fact that it has become the largest democracy in the world.


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