Advancing Democracy

Advancing Democracy

Mini Teaser: Despots have long formed coalitions on the international stage. Democracies are finally responding.

by Author(s): Paula J. Dobriansky

Given the extent to which women's rights have been generally neglected throughout the Middle East and North Africa, activities sponsored by the women's pillar address an area essential to democracy and development in the region. As Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, said in implementing major reforms substantially improving the status of women in his country,

"How can society achieve progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice, violence, and marginalization, notwithstanding the dignity and justice granted to them by our glorious religion?"

The women's pillar aims squarely at this problem with projects to reduce and eventually eliminate the legal, regulatory, economic and political barriers to women's full participation in society and government. These have ranged from training in the organization of political campaigns to building a regional women's network and strengthening the capacity of NGOs working on legal issues. Enhancing opportunities for women's economic participation is another key way to facilitate their political engagement. In August of this year, I had the pleasure of joining Secretary Powell as he welcomed the courageous and impressive participants in a business internship program for young Middle Eastern women.

In June the governments of the Group of Eight (G-8) countries committed themselves to a Partnership of Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa. Recognizing that successful and durable change will come only from within, this effort expressed strong support--"a generational commitment"--for reform in partnership with governments, business leaders, and civil society groups in the region. The Partnership is to concentrate on assisting the region in the political, economic and social spheres; G-8 leaders gave special emphasis in the political sphere to guarantees for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as state reform and good governance. The G-8 specifically agreed to adopt a Plan of Support and to establish a Forum for the Future as a platform for ongoing dialogue among G-8 partners and countries of the region on reform efforts, including democracy and public participation. The G-8 also committed to a Democracy Assistance Dialogue, the first session of which is to be organized this year by co-sponsors Turkey, Yemen and Italy. This is a mechanism for democracy-promotion organizations in the G-8 and other nations to interact with countries in the broader Middle East region, comparing "what works" and collaborating to increase the effectiveness of their joint efforts.

No discussion of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa can be complete without some discussion of democracy's historic advance in Afghanistan and Iraq. While each country continues to face expected and unexpected challenges, both have made enormous strides since the United States and our coalition partners liberated their combined population of 50 million individuals from uniquely despicable regimes.

Most dramatic in Afghanistan is the fact that voter registration for the country's national elections has already far exceeded expectations. Over 10 million Afghans--41 percent of whom are women--have demonstrated their enthusiasm for democracy by registering to vote despite sometimes dangerous conditions. During my last trip to Afghanistan, in February, I met a group of Afghan women who had walked miles to register to vote. More recently, elements of the former Taliban regime have singled out female election workers for murderous attacks. The fact that over 4 million women have still registered is a particularly powerful statement.

Iraq's new interim government has shown an impressive commitment to national reconciliation, an essential step toward creating a successful democracy in a country sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi played an important personal role in this process, reaching out to skeptical and even hostile groups to persuade them to take part in Iraq's National Conference in August. For their part, Iraq's people have displayed a similarly impressive excitement about their new freedom. Substantial majorities (75 to 95 percent) of Iraqis in seven cities surveyed said that it is "very important" to vote in the country's forthcoming elections; NGOs have flourished in post-Saddam Iraq.

Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate the broader reality that the global success of democracy and democratic values is far from automatic. In both countries--and everywhere else--building and maintaining democracy requires a very substantial effort on the part of national leaders and close partnership with other nations. As President Bush has said, "The success of freedom is not determined by some dialectic of history. [It] rests upon the choices and courage of free peoples, and upon their willingness to sacrifice." The United States has made its choice.

Essay Types: Essay