A flawed democracy ill-served by hypocrisy

Editorial

The Independent

30 January 2005

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. Surprisingly, perhaps, these are not the words of some woolly minded liberal advocating an enlightened approach to tackling the causes of jihadist terrorism. They are the words of President Bush in his second inaugural address. And when he declared that "every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value", we wondered where he had been for the past four years. Still, if he means it that the policy of the United States is of "ending tyranny in our world", we are with him.

What a pity, then, that his officials had to reassure several less than wholly democratic regimes allied to the US that the President did not mean anything by his words. And what a crying shame that today's election in Iraq is so far from being free and fair. For Iraqis, the familiar trope about democratic choices being between hope and fear is all too literally true. The quirkiness of democracy in Iraq is of a peculiarly bitter and threatening kind. The soldier in a balaclava to conceal his identity, handing out election leaflets. The helicopters overhead while US troops are too thin on the ground and the international observers are in Jordan. The candidate who is too scared to stand in his name and who appears on the ballot paper only as a number.

Yet The Independent on Sunday accepts that this election is the only hope for the Iraqi people, most of whom are aching to exercise their right to vote even if many of them will be too frightened to do so. Although US-British policy should never have brought Iraq to this pass, this imperfect election is the only way forward to an Iraqi constitution and "real" elections in December this year. But the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, do have choices. There are better ways to help Iraq towards democracy and there are worse ways. At almost every point before, during and since the invasion, the Bush administration has chosen the worse way. It has deployed too few troops to secure order; it has undermined their moral authority by in effect condoning torture; it has failed to secure international co-operation except from the UK; and it has run the occupation with an astonishing combination of incompetence and arrogance. Yet points of decision continue to present themselves and choices can still be made to move US policy to a different path, to the path set out by George Bush in his address 10 days ago.

One of the greater choices faced by the leaders of the free world, not just in Iraq but also in the wider struggle against jihadist terrorism - of which Iraq was not a part but is now, thanks to Mr Bush - is this: should the extension of human rights around the world be promoted by means that themselves respect human rights? The answer seemed obvious enough to the Mr Bush who inaugurated his second term with these words: "The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." The answer seemed obvious enough to Tony Blair who proudly boasted of incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

And yet it has been so casually contradicted by their actions. Mr Bush still keeps hundreds of men in Guantanamo Bay, with no rights, no dignity, no matchless value, despite a ruling of the US Supreme Court that they do come under US jurisdiction. Mr Blair, meanwhile, has responded to a Law Lords ruling that powers of detention without trial are unlawful if applied only to foreigners. The powers shall now be applied, without discrimination, to British citizens as well. Only it will now be called house arrest, a term until recently unknown to British law and redolent of dictatorship. We remain puzzled that Mr Blair and Charles Clarke, the new Home Secretary, did not at least move a little in the alternative direction of greater transparency. Why not allow telephone taps to be used in evidence so that the charges against alleged terrorists are better tested?

Our loss of freedom is a small and, for the moment, mostly theoretical deprivation compared with the bloodshed and fear of the Iraqis. But there is a democratic thread that connects us all. However small the effect may be, every human right dismissively disrespected at home weakens the struggle against terrorism. Just as every Iraqi detainee humiliated or tortured makes it harder for the troops to defend the human rights of other Iraqis.

Human rights are fundamental and indivisible. To compromise one principle of justice is to undermine them all. To speak of liberty, rights and democracy when one's actions speak of curtailing them is to create a credibility gap that those opposed to freedom can and will exploit. Hypocrisy is no safe foundation for democracy.