Gerardo Amarilla | The importance of democracy for the construction of peace among nations.
Thank you very much, good afternoon. I prefer to talk here, because we have to battle and we have to fight against the drowsiness that comes after lunch, which affects us all; and more than that, this is a topic that sometimes seems so ethereal and so difficult to go down to earth, what we are going to address today, that I would like to reflect with you this afternoon on the importance of democracy as a regime, as a system, for the construction of —really— a peace between the nations of the planet.
If we remember, the word democracy (which comes from the Greek word) meant 'the power of the people', and we can translate it as such, and it was conceived by the Athenians to define the system of government of the city, where the decisions were taken by an assembly of citizens.
Of course, the concept they had of citizens in the sixth century a. of C. (that is, 500 years BC) is not what we have today, it was very limited; Women, slaves, and foreigners did not belong to that category.
In some cases we can say that we have evolved, in others not, because today, in , refugees and those displaced —that are so many thousands on our planet— do not have citizens' rights either. It has been 2500 years since the Athenian democracy and refugees and the displaced have no right to exercise citizenship, much less the new forms of slavery that exist in our time. Actually, very vulnerable populations, women and children, live in terrible situations of life and working conditions that affect millions of people on our planet.
In any case, the substantial difference was, in this city of Athens, the collective participation of a significant number of people in the decisions of society, which differed substantially from what happened in the rest of the region of that time, where kings and emperors were the ones who made the decisions, concentrating the absolute power in a person, without limits or controls, without counterweights and without possibilities of changing that situation peacefully and civilly.
Sometimes we read this, and these absolute regimes without possibility of being transformed or changed by citizens seem to happen 2500 years later.
All these situations occurred many times, for many years, generating instability and even internal conflicts, which unfortunately ended up being internationalized.
In the ancient world, we also have the example of the Roman Republic which was a short period where its leaders were elected and laws passed through popular assemblies. Unfortunately, due to the manipulation the positions or interests of the majority were not generally respected, which is why unfortunately the Roman Republic is not considered as a democratic system.
The Republic degenerated into the despotism of the empire, but the free cities of the present, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and even Spain itself, applied some democratic principles for a long time, even until the Middle Ages.
We in Latin America sometimes scorn, but we really had the town halls, which were an example of popular participation and democracy; very limited, very limited, as we said in the Athenian democracy, but they were clearly some remnants of that Roman institution that really gave the cities power to resolve some issues, and well, there was somehow a popular participation there.
- In the Modern Age and in the Renaissance, the social and economic changes of the West led to more and more members of society becoming interested in government matters, and the need to be able to influence the decision-making that affected their life resurfaced.
The result of this was the resurgence of the spirit of freedom based on ancient Greek and Roman principles. The concepts of equal political and social rights were further defined during the Renaissance, in which the development of humanism was enhanced, and later, during the Protestant Reformation, by the struggle for religious freedom.
At that time there were fervent debates about ancient writings and the experiences of Greece and Rome, which began to revalue the participation of all men in the decision-making of States.
- Without any doubt that the Reformation (and we are commemorating, precisely in this month of October, the 500 years of the Protestant Reformation) had, without a doubt, transcendent impacts on the history of humanity. That process that began when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses in the abbey of Wittenberg —and with it challenged the absolute power of Rome— initiated a process that had derivations in different areas of society, such as the work ethic, the universalization of the education, the expansion of finance and its savings and credit system, respect for private property, the promotion of science, the revaluation of women, the rule of law as a rule of coexistence, the separation of powers as a limit of the abuses, and the concept of public servant of the ruler.
- Undoubtedly, all these ideas began to generate movements that attempted to capture in society, producing substantive social changes that challenged the existing status quo and promoted conflicts that led to new experiences of government.
From then on, nothing was the same, and the pretensions embodied in the famous phrase of the absolute French monarch, "The State is me" (L'État, c'est moi), would no longer be the rule, and began to be questioned forever in the way to face the Government.
In the free access to the Scriptures, they end up helping us to understand the book written by the prophet Isaiah when he says that "God is our king, He is our lawgiver and he is our judge.” There the Renaissance thinkers abbreviated and understood that there were three different functions: execute, legislate, and judge, that those three functions when in the hands of the Creator, the Almighty, the Architect of the universe or a superior force, which can evidently be together; but when these functions are reduced to man, perfectible man, imperfect man, inclined towards vices and having appetites for power, there we must separate functions, it is necessary to separate them.
And there the French thinkers, somehow began to think that separation is the guarantee of checks and balances that can ensure freedom and respect for the individual rights of human beings, fundamentally the most humble and the least powerful.
Likewise, some events occurred many centuries before, in the experience of Greece and Rome, when in the exodus through the desert Moses calls for the election of judges among the tribes. Calvin analyzes this by saying that: "Here it is clear that those who were to preside at the trial were not appointed only by the will of Moses but elected by the will of the people. And this is the most desirable kind of freedom: that we should not be compelled to obey any person who can be tyrannically placed over our heads, but that which arises from an election; in such a way that no one can rule unless it is approved by all of us.”
And there we have the awakening of this new time, in which some very important premises are captured:
- First, the rule and the primacy of the law; that it be above the whims of the rulers (in Latin America we still have a long way to go to this, unfortunately).
- That the ideal is the participation of the people, of the citizens in the election of those governors.
- That the power is never absolutely concentrated in a person or group, but that the ideal is that it is separated as a way to generate those healthy balances.
- That there be a system of permanent controls so that those leaders do not deviate from their main objective, which is to work for the common good, governing and directing with fairness and justice.
- Then we have the English Revolution. John Locke said that human nature has an undeniable tendency towards evil and therefore the powers must be separated as ways to avoid tyranny.
As a result of these ideas and the openness they generated, the Netherlands became an early republic and benefits from the Jews expelled by Europe, who have prosperous commercial and financial businesses there; the Scandinavian nations attend a growing and strong parliamentarism; In England, already in the middle of the seventeenth century, an army was constituted that was submitted to the parliament and that was to guard the liberties of belief, the expression of the citizens, the respect for the popular representation, and for private property.
- Then we have the French Revolution, which unfortunately had little success, limited success in establishing a new stable and strong regime that could replace absolutism. A few years later there was a coup d'etat and Napoleon was decreed as Emperor.
But in any case, the French Revolution leaves us with a very important legacy to humanity, which is the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which there in that document some premises that feed, like a wildfire, the advent of a new stage were established and reaffirmed.
The declaration that men are born and remain free and equal in rights and that the purpose of any political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man, clarifying that these rights are freedom, property, security, and resistance to oppression, are some embodied in that Declaration that is somehow stating that there are new winds in Europe that spread to the rest of the planet.
- The Declaration of Independence of the United States is also a masterpiece that talks about a new conception of the democratic system and the relationship between governors and the governed in a pact that must be respected by both parties.
In these first paragraphs, where it is argued that as evident the truths that men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness, is a recognition that those rights are, by origin, natural, and that they can never be curtailed by any ruler.
And they also clarify, in the second paragraph of that Declaration, that in order to guarantee these rights, men institute (obviously men and women that we include) legitimate powers of consent of the governed; that when they want a part of the government to destroy the principles, the people have the right to reform them or to abolish and institute a new government that is based on these principles, and to organize their powers in the way that they believe will offer the best chance of achieving their safety and happiness.
The instrumental nature of the governments is determined in this paragraph, that when they are not happy custodians of the rights of the individuals or pretend to subjugate them (as it is unfortunately in many cases at present), the people have the right and the duty to change them or replace them.
This system in a way —which is born with the Constitution of the United States— has stability over time and generates that complex of checks and balances that avoid the deviations and tyrannies that John Locke feared.
And as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address: "May this nation, by the grace of God, have a new dawn of freedom; and that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people does not disappear from the face of the Earth."
In this statement by Lincoln, (which in fact some authors attribute to a bishop of England a few centuries earlier) he is speaking about something more demanding than a democracy as a system that assumes only the expression of the people, but has to do with the purpose of the system, with the objectives to pursue and with the necessary benefits of the system, for who it has to be. It's not just counting the votes and knowing who won an election and period.
The challenges of our time
Many times we have heard that democracy is not a perfect system, but that it is the perfectible form of government, the best perfectible form that humanity has been able to find, and we have to concern ourselves in each time to improve that instrument to try to solve the new problems or face the new challenges that are presented to us.
We all talk about democracy, but it is important to stop for a minute on what kind of democracy we have and what risks we have even within the system itself.
- That is why it is so important, how to try to improve the tool; it is to be alert or attentive to the risks that are constantly present and that within the system may seek to distort it. The pressure and danger of these minority groups or not, is always latent, that they may try to subjugate the principles and pillars on which democracy is based.
- It is fundamental to highlight, therefore, the importance —as Dr. William Soto Santiago said today— of the legitimacy of the Government in its origin, but also in the legitimacy of its performance; the supremacy of the law that must be above the institutions and, of course, of the men and women who occupy the different functions. It must be the golden rule that we cannot allow to be violated in the slightest.
- The importance of preserving transparency in electoral processes is essential before the process, during the process, and after it.
Unfortunately we have become accustomed in Latin America, in rules that do not know how to distinguish between State, government, candidate, and political party; they mix everything and unfortunately use the power of the government to inaugurate works openly, benefit the citizens, press or give gifts to the press during electoral campaigns, distorting the process and influencing the popular decision.
- Today, transparency in management is also a fundamental pillar (and it was discussed in the morning), where citizens deserve free access to all government information, and be able to judge, question, review, challenge decisions that affect the resources that are our property and that the rulers administer only by our mandate and authorization.
With sadness, we witness an alleged neo-constitutionalism in Latin America, which has resulted in a neo-absolutism. People, groups, or parties that intend to eternalize in power, tainted by the use of state pre-sales, confusing the administration of public affairs as if they were private.
- Democracy must ensure that citizens, without cheating or manipulation, we can freely change the rulers. The alternation of parties and people in power must be guaranteed; and the fact that this happens without traumas is the best symptom of the good health of democracy.
- The operation of separation of power from the State, the independence of the same, that ensure a fair balance in the system of checks and balances, is an essential requirement to guarantee individual liberties to citizens and human rights.
- Another pillar, no less, is to guarantee the true freedom of the press, independence, and competence of the media.
In our societies there is a lot of power that these media have and we must be attentive to their manipulation, or to the improper use that the State, companies, or corporations can have. We also have to avoid the concentration of these means in a few hands.
- We are also witnessing a revolution linked to the exponential development of technology and the emergence of social networks. This has to do with changing behaviors, tastes, and the use of information through non-traditional means. Electoral campaigns are already being judged on social networks, a large part of these media are fundamental for parties and governments.
We can say with some authors, that we are facing a transition of a democracy based on what the internet has been, perhaps even the most radical change in the democratic, republican, and representative system we have in contemporary democracy.
There are authors who speak of a transition from the traditional and representative Madisonian democracy, where the citizens were mere spectators, who expressed themselves only with the vote every four or five years., to a direct Jeffersonian democracy, where through the wonder of social networks citizens are not limited to being spectators, they want to be actors; they want to express their opinions, to discuss, to question. This produces greater and better information of citizens, a greater involvement in public affairs and, therefore, a strengthening of democracy.
This new cybercitizen becomes a permanent prosecutor of its leaders, strengthens democracy, and improves the levels of efficiency, honesty, and excellence of its representatives.
These demands of contemporary democracies also contribute to condition the rulers as seekers of the best conditions in the enjoyment of rights and the enjoyment of freedoms for their governed.
Peace constitutes a state that is more than necessary, is essential, to reach its best stages of development in the different communities.
That is why the component of seeking peace and harmony between the different nations is differential of the democratic systems that seeks or should seek the best development of the peoples.
Peace is not only the absence of conflicts. I really like the concept of the Jewish term Shalom, which is translated into Spanish: 'peace', yet is much broader, that speaks of a comprehensive peace, which also includes the desire for a healthy and prosperous life.
The rulers in a democracy, unlike other regimes, have a strong conditioning of the governed, which now have new and technological means of exercising that pressure to achieve security, prosperity, and happiness more effectively. And those goals can only be achieved if we have peace.
Democratic States with the full exercise of the rule of law are the only subjects of International Law that can, in the best way, guarantee, promote, and defend peace among nations.
Thank you very much.