When talking about democracy, what it is, the values in a democracy, and what it means to be democratic, many people will talk of equal rights (political and civil), a government of the people, voting, and the ability to speak out against the government without fear of being imprisoned, beaten, or killed. All of the values that democracies are supposed to uphold, that people talk of when talking about a democracy, are issues that involve the rights of minority groups, whether ethnic or religious. Minority groups are often the least consulted in political spheres and the most oppressed by governments that are newly or “quasi”- democratic.
Throughout the world many nations have claimed to be democratic, allowing people to vote for a President and holding “free and fair” elections because in today’s world, to claim anything other than democracy can be suicidal to one’s economy and political well-being. Although many states claim a democratic governance, when one looks at minority rights it tends to be much easier to see how truly democratic, or undemocratic, a state really is. The gap between established democracies and those states which we will refer to as newly democratic or quasi-democracies is best seen when looking not just at how elections are held and the outcomes of them, but how minorities are treated. “How minority group interests are treated in democratic systems is a real concern of citizens, government officials, and scholars”.[i]
When talking of “established” Democracies on this site, we are talking about states that have had democratic governance, holding free and fair elections, as defined by the Inter-Parliamentary Union[ii], for at least a quarter of a century. One such nation to analyze in how minorities are given equal rights would be the United States (US). Minorities in the US have not always had the opportunity to vote or take part in government; it has been a gradual process, earning rights for some minority groups before others. Voting was once a privilege reserved for only the white, land-owning men in the US, however, when looking at the US today, minority groups have equal opportunity to vote and hold office, are incorporated at some level in all aspects of government and civil society, and have the same opportunities. However, the US is not the only state to look at when talking of established democracies and minority rights. Canada is another nation and a different way of looking at how a democratic nation establishes minority rights and even how the issues can break apart a nation.
In Canada, there has long been a struggle for French-Canadians of Quebec to secede from Canada and form its own state due to many cultural differences. The legal right of Quebec to secede from Canada was acknowledged by “Canada's Supreme Court [which ruled in 1998 that] unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec would be illegal under the Canadian constitution and international law. [However], at the same time, it said that the Canadian federal government and Canada's nine other provinces would be legally obligated to negotiate the terms of secession if a “clear majority” of Quebecois voted in favor of separation in a provincial referendum with a “clear question.”[iii] The rights of the minority group and the inherent cultural difference have divided the Canadian Nation whereas in the United States minority rights issues cannot be dealt with in a similar manner.
Canada also contends with the minority rights of the Indigenous people that occupy the region’s Northwest Territories. They claim that the Canadian government has given very little to compensate them for the difficulties and injustice that was forced upon them by the Canadian government during the colonial times. The Indians are demanding political participation within the Canadian Parliament to be properly represented and recognized as self-determinate. These indigenous groups see the definition of self-determination to not mean an individual sovereignty, but to mean an equal representation within Canadian politics. This is to allow them to keep their cultural distinctiveness and their practices without complete secession. [iv]
In Australia, there is just as much of a “melting-pot” of ethnicities as seen in the United States. With the large quantity of ethnicities there are several minorities that do not get any special representation or legal rights within the Australian government. The indigenous groups, however, do receive certain legal land rights and other rights that the Australian government sees as appropriate for the original people to occupy the land. [v]
Although these cases do not appear to have anything in common, if we compare the rights of the minority groups in Canada, Australia, and the US, we can see the treatment of these groups is drastically better than in those nations that we can consider quasi-democracies. When talking about quasi-democracies we are referring to nations that claim to be democratic but the government is authoritative and the standards for free and fair elections is questionable, often leading to disputes about the outcomes of elected officials. In reference to new quasi-democracies, we are often referring to newer “democratically” established states of the past quarter century such as the Eastern European countries after the fall of the Soviet Union and Latin American countries. In newer established democracies, the rights of minority groups are typically an unaddressed issue or the groups hold very little political and civil capabilities.
In places such as Latin America, indigenous groups and ethnic minority groups continue to fight for equality and only in recent years has there been an increase in the ability of these groups to obtain some political power. In Latin American countries, those parties which run under non-ethnic pretenses do so on the basis that ethnic parties will “provoke ethnic polarization and conflict because their leaders have incentives to make incendiary communal appeals”.[vi] Many countries in Latin America claim to be democratic, but are very authoritative and the standard for free and fair elections fluctuates with each election. Indigenous and other ethnic minority groups are rarely consulted on national issues and typically are the most oppressed groups in the region. Indigenous parties explicitly seek to represent the interests of the long ignored and subordinated indigenous people who tend to threaten the controlling group’s power and these groups often spread fear that a party that runs for indigenous group rights will exacerbate ethnic conflict and destabilize democracy. “The indigenous parties that have performed best in elections in Latin America- MAS in Bolivia, Pachakutik in Ecuador, and Alianza Social Indigena in Columbia- have largely avoided incendiary rhetoric that could alienate member of other ethnic groups” actively seeking non-indigenous along with indigenous supporters.[vii] The ability of indigenous groups to come to power is a step in the right direction in creating a full democratic state; however, the ability of these groups to maintain influence in political spheres is essential for this democratization process to fully succeed.
Unfortunately, Latin America is not the only region where minority groups have their rights pushed aside or trampled on. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is notorious for oppressing the minority groups’ rights and their cruelty towards the groups. As Minority Rights Group International Explains,
China’s rapid economic transformation has exposed the intrinsic and historical problems of the government's policies towards ethnic minorities-The Mongols of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), the Tibetans of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Uyghurs of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).[Although these] minority groups inhabit under ‘autonomous’ control, within the People’s Republic of China (PRC), outsiders might expect that such a governance system would allow these groups to be able to shape their own lives. However, ethnic minority individuals continue to be excluded from real political participation, they have little say in the governance of their communities, and minority women fare even worse than minority men. Ethnic minorities such as the Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs face challenges on multiple fronts. Despite the autonomy system, minorities are bearing the disproportionate costs of development and are facing attacks on their cultural identities. Their lands are being exploited for gas and oil, and under the guise of the USA-led ‘war on terror’, increasingly militarized by the PRC government, as part of its response against perceived insurgency threats. Minority languages are largely being phased out of education in these autonomous regions, and minority individuals are often blatantly discriminated against in the job market.[viii]
Although China claims to be a form, if mutilated one, of democracy, when looking at how the minority groups are being treated it is clear that the PRC has a long way to go before the international community can call it a full-fledged democratic nation.
The rights of minority groups, their ability to regularly participate in the political realm, hold office and maintain some political power can be a very good indicator of how democratically stable a nation is. In established democratic states the rights of minorities is more clearly established and respected, as compared to states that are newly or quasi-democratic. However, there are inherent problems even in established democracies that can restrict minorities. As direct democracies tend to work based on voting and the majority rule, this often overshadows the needs and wants of the minority group(s). The difference in established democracies and newer democracies is how minorities are treated, even when outvoted. In established democracies although the minority group may be outvoted there are often programs in place to make sure the groups are not always overlooked and that their needs are met. When looking at how well established a democracy is in a nation, it is essential to not only look at how elections are run and their outcomes, but how minority and indigenous groups are treated by the government; the more the rights of minorities are protected the more democratic a nation tends to be.
[i] Lose, Win or Draw? A Reexamination of Direct Democracy and Minority Rights. Donald P Haider-Markel; Alana Querze; Kara Lindaman. Political Research Quarterly; Jun 2007; 60, 2; Research Library Core. pg. 304
[iii] Canada: Federal Government to Change Rules of Quebec Secession. 4 December 1999. World Socialist Website published by the International Committee of the Fourth International. http://www.wsws.org/articles/1999/dec1999/que-d04.shtml.
[iv] The Achilles Heel Of Canadian International Citizenship: Indigenous. P Whitney Lackenbauer, Andrew F Cooper, Canadian Foreign Policy, 2007; 13, 3; Social Science Module. pg. 99
[v] Australia: From Migrant Country To Multicultural Nation. J J Smolicz The International Migration Review; Spring 1997; 31, 1; Research Library Core. pg. 171
[vi] Indigenous Parties and Democracy in Latin America. Raul L. Madrid. Latin American Politics and Society. Winter 2005. Vol. 47. Iss. 4. Pg 161.
[vii] See endnote vi
[viii] China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions. 17 April 2007. Minority Rights Group International. http://www.minorityrights.org/1083/reports/china-minority-exclusion-marginalization-and-rising-tensions.html.
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