Prof. Dr Anja Mihr (Associate Professor, Netherlands Institute of Human Rights; The Netherlands)

04.10.2010 - Interview conducted by Rachel Taylor

Q1. Countries in transition towards becoming a democracy who have a poor human rights record may hold fair elections, but struggle to improve other basic human rights.  For example, Turkey is considered a fundamentally democratic state, yet by some estimates their records on human rights are considered lacking despite progress made in recent years.  What effect do you think this will have on Turkey’s potential membership into the EU?

Well first of all, I think we should refer to Turkey, like many other countries in transition, as a “formal democracy”. This is the correct term with regards to democracy and democracy theories.  So, bearing in mind this is a formal democracy, they have made a clear commitment to democracy – this is very important for accession into any organisation, in this case the European Union, and I think what will be pivotal for Turkey’s acceptance into the EU: not only doing your homework on paper, but also showing a very strong commitment.  For example, we can see Turkey at the moment is trying to limit the power of the military to bring human rights perpetrators and violators to justice.  If you see there are efforts taken, even just in one case out of a hundred, I think that is a criterion that will be very positively evaluated for a country in transition, which has a chance to become a member of, in this case, the European Union.

Q2. In your talk you used Saudi Arabia as an example, so with regard to the Chinese government, how long can the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continue to drip-feed non-impacting democracy in the form of elections to appease disgruntled groups?  How long do you think it will be before the growing middle class or someone else speaks out?

The next 10 to 15 years, however I might be completely wrong, and it may be even sooner. There’s going to be a moment when the government can let go – I use the example of Gorbachev.  Gorbachev was the one who let go at the right time,  and the transition was not always peaceful and led to a lot of separation, but the Chinese know precisely the story of Gorbachev. Hu Jintao knows that he could be the next Gorbachev; he could let go and open China up, meaning his resignation and the resignation of his Communist Party.  Allowing other parties and participation of democracy because there is already a demand on the ground, if this moment in development occurs, it will only be a one or two year window where he has to decide to let go or keep hold of communism.  At this moment in time, they have started to put a break on development, and all the democratic efforts in China over the past 10 - 15 years, which to some extent have been quite successful and acknowledged, now have the potential to regress because the middle class is demanding, and the government is unresponsive.  Within the CCP, the conservative communist voices currently have the majority, although there are younger ones within the party who want change.  I’m very sceptical and always tell my Chinese colleagues I hope I’m wrong, but I think there will be a civil war in the centre of China.  There will be separatist movements and a lot of terrorism, but I hope I’m completely wrong.

Q3. Your doctoral thesis was on the impact of Amnesty International on human rights in the DDR.  How would you characterise the effectiveness of international NGOs over the past 20 years? Do you think cultural diplomacy – the exchange of art, culture and ideas to build a deeper understanding between nations – is an important tool used by NGOs?

I would say yes, cultural diplomacy does play a great role.  Art, theatre and so on can work with symbols that are not very offensive to the ruling powers, but that everybody understands.  Saying that, the ruling party generally knows what the symbols mean as well, but it’s to do with compromise and give and take, particularly in Asia where it’s very important to play with these symbols.  Cultural diplomacy does play a big role, a lot of NGOs promote that, but this is very different from the study that I did, with reference to the second part of your question.  It’s not NGOs that have overestimated their impact over the past 20 to 30 years; it is society that has overestimated.  During the Cold War when just Amnesty International and a couple of other organisations were around, they were very realistic; they never intended to tear down the Berlin Wall or change the regime, they never said “you have to be more democratic” because it wasn’t on their agenda.  They wanted to make a difference to individuals, and they did – if they made a difference to one out of ten, then they were happy, they could say, “yes, we made a difference, we achieved our goals”.  The unrealistic part only came in the past 20 years.  In the 1990s when there was this boom of NGOs and when this donor community came in, the expectations were different due to accountability.  You always had to show what changes you made, even if you were just project driven for 2 years, you were still expected to make huge regime changes, and it’s just not possible. The organisations themselves however, are quite realistic of whether they can do it or not.  NGOs are not governments; they cannot make laws, they cannot put on sanctions, they cannot send police forces.  They can empower, they can raise awareness, they can lobby, they can write nice reports, they can try to motivate and campaign to animate society to a social movement that impacts the decision makers, but that’s it.  However, they often fail, but that’s part of the work, you cannot always be successful but we have to be more realistic about NGOs, not the NGOs about themselves.

Q4. Lastly, in your speech you talked about the lack of civic and social trust and how a corrupt police force and such can undermine the quality of democracy.  How do you think it is best to combat this?  Are there any key transferable qualities or is each country case-specific?

In terms of quality and civil trust, currently the best method we have is a country-by-country assessment.  As I mentioned this morning, there are a number of criteria to define the quality of a democracy.  Just because you’re brilliant and won an election, it doesn’t make you a democracy.  Plus, it’s a very sophisticated measurement mechanism when you’re comparing 100 to 150 countries, where you usually have to take into account their population and socio-economic background.  For example, its much more difficult to govern China with 1.3 billion people than to govern Luxembourg with 100,000, it would be very unfair to put them on the same level, and that should all be taken into account.  For the moment, I wouldn’t know another, better way apart from assessing each country on a country-by-country basis.  But there’s a tendency with the EU nation states for it to be less and less important to have a democratic structure, as being international plays an increasingly important role.  If it was 20 years ago, others nations were about 10% international while others were at 20 to 30 percent; we in the EU are at 40 to 50 prcent and even more of the decisions of the nation states are taken in Brussels, but that’s for the European Union, its not for the other regions.  So measuring them becomes a lot more difficult - you maybe have to bring in a regional component and measure the European Union, now with the Lisbon Treaty.  So for the moment, the best mechanism for empirical research is a country-by-country assessment.

Thank you very much for your time.