In the absence of democratic principles, tyranny reigns

thato_motaungAuthor: Thato Motaung
Researcher, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria

International Day of Democracy: 15 September 2014

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” – William Wilberforce​

When the world celebrated the International Day of Democracy (15 September 2014), I reminded myself of some of the key tenets of democracy, namely: free and fair elections, the rule of law, the upholding of fundamental rights and freedoms — to name but a few. The mention of the rule of law in particular raised red flags in my mind as I pondered where to place Eritrea when choosing between definitions of democracy and autocracy.

The rule of law and the respect for human rights stand as prerequisites to realising democratic statehood. The laws which govern a state are enshrined in a constitution; a constitution sets the parameters for lines that cannot be crossed; the principles by which a state should conduct itself. Where then does one begin to place or reference these barriers in a country with no constitution? Who has legitimacy in decision-making? What legal standards are used? The lines continue to blur…

Let us see the Eritrean population become more than valiant survivors of human rights violations or displaced migrants in foreign lands who have lost hope in their country’s ability to respect their dignity.

Hopes were high that with the liberation of the country in 1991 a new chapter would be open that would see the promotion of peace, justice and democracy. Unfortunately, these three words have disappeared beyond recognition and the demand for their implementation is now considered a crime subject to severe punishment, indefinite incarceration or death”. (Eritrean Activist)

Eritrea’s constitution — written in 1997 — remains unimplemented. The result? No separation of powers between the legislative, judicial and executive branches of state exists; all checks and balances expected in a democratic state do not exist. Compulsory and indefinite conscription is an ingenious means of controlling the economy, whilst simultaneously allowing impunity for the use of forced labour, sexual abuse or torture during military service, knowing that criminal justice will never prevail.

Concepts such as freedom of expression exists only in theory, not exercised since the 2001 ‘Crackdown’ when private media was closed, journalists forced into exile and many were imprisoned for their opinions. Try and exercise your freedom of expression and you will be held incommunicado for indefinite period in some of the harshest prison conditions known to humankind. The day 18 September 2014 marked the thirteenth year since those arrested during the ‘Crackdown’ disappeared. To this day their whereabouts remain a subject of conjecture, except for their jailers, no one for certain knows where they are and who is dead or alive. I have not yet mentioned the restrictions to movement, religious expression, or opposition to government. What we see is a vigorous endeavour to break the human spirit in order to rule with an iron first. This is no democracy.

“Given the continuous crimes committed by the regime against innocent Eritrean citizens and political ‘dissidents’, it is highly unlikely that they would entertain any chances of opening up for democratisation and rule of law in the country”. (Eritrean Activist)

It is painfully perplexing to be able to list — just at the top of my head — some of the tools needed to immediately move Eritrea onto a more democratic path, and not see them realised. To begin with, implement the constitution, set the boundaries of power — use them — then align them with standards and conventions created to guide states in the realisation of democratic leadership. Rely on the instruments such as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance — a charter rooted in promoting and advancing constitutional order, legitimately elected authority, and the respect for human rights as supreme.

It is undisputed that the rule of law abandoned will produce an oppressed population. It is therefore vital that Eritrea restores national pride by empowering its society instead of enslaving them in the context of indefinite national service. Empower a society that is not only knowledgeable of but can practice its rights and where prisons do not hold scores of political prisoners but actual criminals who are themselves convicted in courts that are truly independent and fair. Let us see the Eritrean population become more than valiant survivors of human rights violations or displaced migrants in foreign lands who have lost hope in their country’s ability to respect their dignity.

About the Author:
Thato Motaung is a researcher in the fields of gender, peace and security and human rights on the African continent. Prior to working for the Centre, she was a Research Fellow to the African Union Commission, Bureau of the Chairperson in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She holds a Master of Science in European Studies: Transnational and Global Perspectives from the K.U. Leuven in Belgium, and a Bachelor of Science in Political Studies & Industrial and Economic Sociology from Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

3 Comments on “In the absence of democratic principles, tyranny reigns”

  1. Biel says:

    Thato; a good one, thank you. As I read your article, Eritrea shifts out of my mind and instead, what re-echoed is another Eritrea in form of ‘South Sudan’. Precisely, much as your article provokes sympathy with the sufferings Eritreans, it goes further to remind me of the same unfortunate narratives that happened in South Sudan in less than 2 years of its long fought for independence. That shamefully, led to the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. Abuse of rule of law by the state through a rule of man; governing by law, shall continue to make more ‘Eritreas’ in Africa and South Sudan has attained the name! I join you in wishing for a hopeful reverse of events! Perhaps, somebody in a position of authority listens! Keep more coming! Biel

  2. Dear sister Thato, I hope you are being working in well and thanks a lot for your an essential article. however we as in the African Continent as human rights activists our journey to establish democratic principles and systems as promote and fulfill the values of human rights and rule of law amongst our nations elsewhere not easy or difficulty and complex. infringement of the rule of law and democracy not only in Eritrea but in major of our countries as above commented on by my colleague from South Sudan as well am not far from Darfur region in Sudan as lawyer of human rights. what am going to add to your article is let us all to promote these values amongst our people beginning to include in our basic educational systems and in our universities studies. we also make social media mobilization including face book blocks, online services to promote these values. more important for this we must make effective contact between us by any possible to exchange information relate to rule of law and human rights without limit ourselves facilities from our leaders or other donors. finally i hope you continue the same activities to realize all our people gain free elected system, justice and human rights.

    thanks also to Africlaw staff .

  3. Thato M says:

    Thank you Biel and Abass Y. A. Atim for support and thought provoking comments.

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