28.10.2009 - SHSviews 25

Interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali: ‘Democracy is the sharing of power.’

in SHSviews 25

Vice-President of the Permanent Forum of Arab-African Dialogue, created with the support of UNESCO, the former UN Secretary-General was in Paris during the month of March 2009 to participate in the first meeting of the Forum’s Committee. On this occasion, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, responding to questions from SHSviews stressed “the importance of democratizing globalization” and strengthening “South-South solidarity”.

You chair the International Panel on Democracy and Development established by UNESCO in 1998. What lessons have you drawn from this experience? Has it led you to believe that there is only one or are there several models of democracy?

Democracy and development are inextricably linked. As such, they cannot be separated. The problem is whether one must start by development to achieve democracy or vice-versa; to secure democracy first, then working to achieve development; or quite simply, to address both concepts at the same time.

My answer is a pragmatic one. In some countries, we need development as a precondition for democracy because such a goal cannot be achieved when, for example, 80% of the population is dying from starvation or is illiterate. In contrast, in other countries characterized as corrupt or authoritarian in which development aid is contingent upon regime change, I would say that democratization is the first step; however there are no hard and fast rules. Each situation has its specificity. My firm belief is that once achieved, the development and democracy nexus becomes inseparable.

You have just attended the first meeting of the Steering Committee of the Permanent Forum of Arab-African Dialogue for Democracy and Human Rights, organized by UNESCO in March 2009. Why is there a need for such a Forum?

This framework is important because it weaves together African and Arab countries. In fact, half of the Arab countries are also African countries. Furthermore, both Arab and African countries were subjected to the same English and French colonialism. Taken together, these similarities support the permeation between these countries which, given a shared colonial past, will react in the same way with respect to problems of human rights and democracy. A final argument that comes to mind is the fact that there has always been interest in North-South relations — between Europe, America, Africa, and Asia — whereas South-South relations have been neglected.

Do human rights and democracy promote values to which the Arab-African world must conform?

Democracy is, above all, pluralism; different points of view, different opinions. Nevertheless, the reality varies depending on the country. For example, in a country divided between twenty tribes, each tribe should be represented in the decision-making process. The same applies to a country divided into 15 different religious groups. Therefore, it is important that all of the representative communities participate in the decision-making process.

What I mean is that there are various forms of democracy; various ways that populations can participate in finding the solutions to the problems with which they are confronted. What is important is that power does not rest in the hands of a single person or a single tribe. Democracy is the sharing of power; it is the wielding of power by different organizations.

How would you respond to a young Arab or African who retorts that his or her life has unfolded in neither a tribe nor a village but rather in the world at large and consequently, the trials and tribulations he or she faces are those of a modern city?

I did not say that it is only through a tribe that democracy must emerge in the Arab-African region, but alongside European representation a chamber that represents tribes can also be present. One does not preclude the other. Therefore, you should not only involve this young African or Arab, but also the clan to which he or she belongs.

Do the development of communication networks and the globalization of trade have an influence on the enjoyment of human rights in the Arab-African region?

Globalization will have an impact on national democracy insofar as certain issues, such as the environment and current economic crisis, cannot be solved at the national level alone but require a concerted international effort. National democracy, like national sovereignty, will then lose importance in relation to the benefit of non-denominational, global power; hence the importance of democratizing globalization.

How do you view the tendency for identities to become defensive and tense in response to runaway globalization?

In the face of globalization, people can indeed seek refuge in identities defined by religion, ethnicity or tribe, or even at the level of a village. The issue is to strike the right balance between the belfry (as a symbol of defensive identity processes in the West) and the satellite dish (as a symbol of globalization), or between the satellite dish and the minaret (as a symbol of defensive identity in the Muslim world). The way things are going, the satellite dish, globalization, will take precedence over identity retrenchment. Hence the need to protect identities.

The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expression, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in October 2005, is one such way to protect the belfry, the minaret, or even the Hindu temple. It is imperative to find peaceful solutions to these problems.

How relevant is it to speak about human rights and democracy when it is widely known that the real threat to the Arab-African world is its economic and social divide?

One of the obstacles to democratization and to the protection of human rights is the great suffering of the countries of the Third World. Someone who can neither read nor write is not interested in the freedom of the press. Someone who has never left their village has little use for a passport to be able to travel. Having said that, there is a common denominator of human rights insofar as all human beings are similar: we all have parents and one day, we will all die. Let’s take the example of an agricultural worker from the South; although he has nothing in common with a billionaire from California, the fact that they are both persons, ensures that they have the same rights because they are of the same kind. Despite the billionaire’s wealth, he or she will die one day and so will the agricultural worker. The human condition here is the same. The language of humanity is that of human rights. One cannot be allowed to help underdeveloped countries if the principle that human rights are universal rights is not respected.

What outcome do you expect from the Arab-African Forum that will take place in December 2010 in Cairo?

We are looking to strengthen South-South solidarity, to find solutions to our common problems encountered in the ‘South’. Because of a certain eurocentrism, we used to have the tendency to look to the ‘North’. This inclination must be reversed. If our conference succeeds in reinforcing South-South relations, this would be a crucial first step. We are confronted with problems related to democracy, to human rights and to migration. For example, everyone talks about migratory movements between Arab-African countries and Europe, but there is little written on migration between Africa and the Arab world, between Arab countries themselves or between African countries.

What must be done then?

While emigration to Northern countries cannot be underestimated as it is substantial and will only increase due to their ageing populations, the importance of South-South migrations cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, there have been very few studies undertaken on this subject.

For example, did you know that there is significant emigration towards South Africa? Did you know there is also transitory immigration of people that stopover in Libya, waiting to be able to continue their journeys onwards to Northern countries? Did you know that the revenue generated by the Egyptian workforce in Libya and in the Gulf countries amounts to US$2 billion in contribution to the Egyptian economy, similar to that of the Suez Canal?

Governments of the “South” must be encouraged to take measures which protect migrants; they must establish rules that respect democracy and human rights because the problems between the countries of the South demand more attention than they currently receive.

Interview by Nfaly “Vieux” Savané


Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Born the 14 November 1922 in Cairo (Egypt) into a Coptic Christian family, Mr Boutros-Ghali was the former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1992-1996) and Secretary-General of the International Organization of Francophonie (1997-2002). Current president of the National Council of Human Rights of Egypt, he also chairs the International Panel on Democracy and Development (IPDD), set up by UNESCO in 1998. He is also a member of the Support Committee of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. Mr Boutros-Ghali holds a doctorate degree in international law from Sciences-Po (Paris); he has taught international law in Cairo and is the author of more than a hundred publications and numerous articles on regional and international affairs, law and diplomacy, and more broadly, political science.




<- Back to: Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme
Back to top