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World leaders honored for commitment to democracy
The Washington Diplomat / January 2005

By Larry Luxner

Geographically and culturally speaking, Chile, Senegal, East Timor, Yemen, Georgia, Poland and the Philippines have nothing in common — yet all have struggled against dictatorships and human-rights abuses in recent years.

On Dec. 6, past and present leaders of those seven countries were honored by Madeleine K. Albright, chairman of the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

"On our 20th anniversary, we are pleased to join in marking the growth of the worldwide democracy movement with the honor roll of individuals who have fought for freedom and stronger democratic institutions in regions across the globe," said Albright, who served as secretary of state during the Clinton administration.

The NDI's annual W. Averell Harriman Democracy Awards ceremony attracted 800 dignitaries to the Omni Shoreham Hotel, including two U.S. senators — Richard G. Lugar (R-Indiana) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Delaware) — who were feted for their efforts to forge a bipartisan consesnsus in Congress on the promotion of democracy worldwide.

Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, received the distinguished award "for his role in monitoring the 1986 Philippine election, "which helped forge a bipartisan consensus on democracy promotion by the United States."

Biden, ranking member of that same committee, was honored "for his early and outspoken advocacy of international engagement in placees such as Bosnia and Sudan."

International recipients included:

* President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, for "promotion of democracy, good governance and the peaceful resolution of conflicts in Senegal and the West African region, and for his role in broader African initiatives that advance democratic leadership and accountability."

* President Xanana Gusmão of East Timor, "for his role throughout the 1999 peace process and referendum, and his commitment to building democratic institutions" in the world's newest nation, which is known in Portuguese as Timor-Leste.

* Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, "on behalf of Georgia's democratic forces that spearheaded the peaceful 2003 'Rose Revolution' and for the new government's commitment to transform Georgia into a regional model of political and economic progress."

* Corazon Aquino, former president of the Philippines, "for her role in the peaceful 1986 'People Power' revolution and the restoration of democracy in the Philippines, and for serving as an example of women's political leadership."

* José Miguel Insulza, Chile's interior minister, "on behalf of the political coalition that restored democracy in Chile, and for the coalition government's continued efforts to rebuild the country's representative institutions."

* Amat al-Aleem Al-Soswa, Yemen's first minister for human rights, "for her commitment to democracy and women's political leadership."

* Bronislaw Geremek, former foreign minister of Poland, "for his unwavering commitment to Polish freedom — as an underground dissident, a Solidarity leader and a government minister in a democratic Poland — and for his leadership in building a Europe whole and free."

Probably the best-known of the seven is Aquino, who noted that it's been 18 years since the event commemorated by her award — the People Power revolution that overthrew dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe-loving wife Imelda.

"Indeed from that moment, people power swept the world, toppling dictatorships right and left, with hardly a shot fired in anger. It seemed the world couldn't have enough of it," she said. "But since then, we have had Seattle and Genoa, the streets of Caracas and the paradox of popular insurrections on behalf of anti-democratic causes."

Aquino, reminding the audience, that she was "the plain housewife who couldn't be persuaded to stay in the bedroom, where the dictator said all women belonged," urged world leaders not to forget her longtime friend, Burmese human-rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi.

Insulza, speaking on behalf of the Chilean government, said that since the Pinochet dictatorship which ended in 1988, "we have not only restored democracy and its institutions, re-established the rule of law and civilian control, totally restoring freedom of expression and of the press, investigating the human-rights violations of the dictatorship in search of truth, justice and reparation. We have also carried out these tasks in a context of social peace and economic growth."

In Europe, similar success has been enjoyed by Poland, which spearheaded the pro-democracy movement that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall and ended the Cold War.

Geremek, noting that Poland and other Central European countries have finally "exorcised the ghosts of communism and war," warned that the job is far from complete.

"For other countries in Europe, farther east and south, the transition continues by people who are by turns hopeful and exhausted. Democracy is within their grasp but the roadblocks are daunting. They wrestle continuously with ethnic conflict, territorial boundaries, weak political institutions and economic stagnation," said Geremek.

"Thirteen years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, democracy remains elusive in many countries," he said. "Authoritarian tendencies prevail and power is mined by corruption. Democratic institutions exist, and are touted by government leaders as evidence of progress, yet they are largely devoid of meaningful or independent authority. Elections are highly manipulated or even falsified, media anot free, and citizens have no confidence that their votes matter."

Al-Soswa, speaking for Yemen, said democracy is a relatively new concept in the Middle East, but that it's "the foundation of our country" since its unification in 1990.

"As an Arab and Muslim woman, I see no contradiction whatsoever between Islam and the call for democratic governance and respect for human rights," she said. "I also do not take seriously the claims of some who say, with different motivations, that Islam and democracy do not go together."

She added: "Poverty stands in our way of improving various aspects of women's lives, such as health, education and work — in other words, women's basic capacity for the enjoyment of any rights.

"A more difficult challenge is presented by outdated social norms, customs and continued dogmatic refusal by some people in our own cultures to grant women their natural right of participation in public life. These are difficult challenges, but who said the quest for democracy was easy?"

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