Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

JPT Practice # 5 Advance Democracy, Human Rights, & Religious Liberty

It should go without saying, but recent years have proven otherwise: One cannot and should not try to “advance democracy” by means of military invasion or coercion. Democratic movements must arise indigenously. Established democracies seldom go to war with other democracies and, not needing to fear uprisings from repressed peoples, can spend much less on military budgets. (The U.S. is a glaring exception here, but is thereby becoming less democratic; more a plutocratic oligarchy.) As Roger Williams, Richard Overton and others knew long ago, the lack of human rights and religious liberty is a major cause of war. Protecting and spreading these norms works for just and lasting peace.

Since established democracies rarely fight other democracies, spreading democracy works to create “zones of peace.” Note: Democracies sometimes do support non-democratic regimes which violate human rights and sometimes democracies fight “proxy wars” through other nations. Democracies are not perfect. They are quite capable of bad behavior. Just Peacemaking theory supports advancing democracy for 2 reasons: 1) Self-determination and self-rule are goods in themselves. 2) Since democracies seldom fight each other and tend to spend less on military preparations and arms, the more democracies, the fewer wars overall. See further, Spencer Weart, Never at War: Why Democracies will Never Fight Each Other (Yale Univ. Press, 1998); Rudolf Rummel, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence (Transaction, 1996); Bruce Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993).

But the question naturally arises, How does one “advance democracy,” if one rules out doing so by military force from without? Well, for one, one doesn’t sell arms or otherwise support a dictatorship–no matter how much it may look in the short term interest of one’s nation. One also can offer incentives and reward moves that are steps to democratic reform. If a democratic movement develops indigenously, one can support it diplomatically and can sanction a nation which tries to suppress such a movement, especially if the movement is nonviolent. If a democratic movement wins, but is suppressed by a military (e.g., Burma), one can refuse to recognize the non-democratic government as legitimate. Trade sanctions and other tools can be used to pressure the government into recognizing the democratic elections.

One must also support universal human rights. This can be done through government agencies and international bodies (e.g., the UN, the International Criminal Court, etc.), but NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, etc. also have vital roles to play. It is difficult, if not impossible, to promote human rights abroad while violating them domestically. The campaign against the U.S.’ use of torture, secret prisons, domestic spying, and other human rights violations is a vital part of the struggle against global terrorism and for peace.

A vital part of this practice is the promotion of religious liberty for everyone. That includes standing up for the religious liberty of those with whom one disagrees. Christians must support the religious liberty of Muslims, Jews, Budddhists, and atheists, as well as defending the religious liberty of Christians. One cannot try for special privileges for one’s own religion. Government should be religion neutral.

Pope Paul VI coined a phrase which became a by-word of Catholic missions in the 1970s and 1980s, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Working nonviolently to advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty, sows seeds of peace domestically and globally.

September 21, 2006 - Posted by | just peacemaking

1 Comment

  1. As always, great stuff, Michael. I don’t know if you noticed that I offered a critical commenter over at my blog (who was criticizing peacemaking), the opportunity to be King of the US and tell us what he would do to end the oppression and violence around the world.

    No answer.

    I think this is one of the big secrets of war-as-solution: it can’t work on the global scale. Of course, you and I would be doubtful that war-as-solution can ever truly bring peace. But even if you accept the resolution of WWII, for instance, as war resulting in peace and the spread of democracy (to Japan), it becomes clear that we can’t bomb the peace back in to Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Congo, N. Korea, China, etc, etc, etc. We’re stretched thin just trying to bomb the peace back in to Iraq – and it was a defeated nation to begin with.

    It can’t be done. Even if war-as-solution worked – there’s not enough money nor bombs nor soldiers to kill off all the oppressors and all the violence that would arise as a result of trying to kill off the oppressors and all the violence that arises as a result of the vacuum left by killed oppressors, and so on and so on…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 21, 2006

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