Opening Remarks by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael, Chairman of the Permanent Council at the Special Session of the Permanent Council of the OAS on the Promotion of Democracy
Washington DC, 29 April 2003

Posted April 30th. 2003

Ambassadors, Assistant Secretary General, Former President of Costa Rica, Members of Delegations, Observers, Ladies and Gentlemen. . . .

One week ago here at the OAS we launched the book, Inter-American Democratic Charter -- Documents and Interpretations. On that occasion we heard most profound statements on the significance, interpretation and challenges of the Inter-American Democratic Charter from the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Peru, Ambassador Manuel Rodriguez Cuadros, the editor of the book, Ambassador Humberto de la Calle of Colombia, and the Secretary General of the OAS, Dr. Cesar Gaviria.

Today at this special session of the Permanent Council on the issue of the promotion of democracy, we will hear a presentation from our invited guest, former President of Costa Rica Miguel Angel Rodriguez Echeverria, and also views from representatives of regional groups, and the Assistant Secretary General. I am sure that their remarks will not only help to shape the ongoing definition of democracy in our Hemisphere but also add a new dimension to the philosophical outlook of democracy and its impact on all our citizens.

I believe that while we work to build and strengthen democracy, we also have to ensure that the democratic future of our people is firmly shaped. I am therefore of the opinion that our young people, especially those who are now being educated in our school systems, should be prepared for the challenges that an evolving democracy will place on them.

The great American Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be."

He added: "People may be born with an appetite for personal freedom, but they are not born with knowledge about the social and political arrangements that make freedom possible over time for themselves and their children. . . . Such things must be acquired. They must be learned."

I see a clear and meaningful relationship between education and democracy. For it is through the process of teaching and learning that we acquire the tools to control and guide our lives. We have to educate our people about their basic freedoms; we have to provide them with learning and skills to shape their lives; we have to enable them to develop the critical eye to discern the choices needed in public life. Failure to do these can be very damaging to our democracies.

We must keep our people informed, for it is a people educated about freedom with a critical eye who will be able to avoid the hazards that arise out of such set-backs.

We constantly promote the development of a democratic culture in our societies to allow the growth of democracy. A democratic culture is formed by the behaviors, practices, and norms that define the competence of a people to govern themselves.

But I emphasize that we have also to develop a culture of democracy which will inspire a determination in our citizens to want to defend democracy. Nearly twenty-four hundred years ago, Aristotle in his Politics defined the democratic citizen as one "who has a share in judgment and office". Through the development of a culture of democracy we will develop the democratic citizen who will want to participate in the day to day affairs of his community, a situation which is today more and more desirable in many of our societies.

We certainly see a decline in the turnout at elections in many countries. This form of apathy, which seems to be affecting the political process, may be damaging to the advance of democracy, since too often bad officials are elected by good people who do not vote.

In these days as we examine the process of democracy and observe its advantages, and sometimes its weaknesses, we often examine the patterns and practices of democracy in the course of history. It may be of interest to note that about seventeen hundred years ago the citizens of Athens carried out the democratic practice of ostracism -- from a Greek word literally meaning pottery. It was a reverse election by which the citizens decided which leading politician should be sent into exile for ten years. In this process, the voters scratched or painted the name of their preferred politician to be banished on a piece of broken pottery. If less than 6,000 citizens "voted", the ostracism was not valid, but this was an "election" which always had a popular turnout. Ostracism fulfilled its objective for almost a hundred years and it helped to prevent serious civil unrest and even civil war. However, at the end of the fifth century of the Christian era, it was replaced by a legal procedure managed by the people's courts. This replacement procedure adopted by Athens in dealing with corrupt officials has some influence on legal systems operating today.

By no means am I recommending that the practice of ostracism should be applied today. I have made reference to it so that we can at least see an illustration as to how democracy has evolved from centuries ago.

In our Hemisphere, different patterns of democracy exist. Where the experience of democracy is still relatively new, problems continue to surface as forces that thrived under the anti-democratic process still remain very strong. In some of our countries, serious efforts are being made at peaceful engagement, with the assistance of civil society, to involve all these forces in the democratic process. It is an onerous task, but it has to be done, and these newer democracies need the support of their partners in the OAS to help them keep democracy on its tracks. An expanded engagement of a similar nature can help to strengthen democracy throughout this entire Hemisphere.

As we know, a democracy is ideally governed by the freely elected majority and protects the rights of the minority, with checks and balances firmly entrenched. For a democracy to show success, it should support competing ideas, part of an evolving process marked by the advance of technology. It must also support freedom of speech, guarantee human rights, and allow citizens to be critical of the ruling authority without fear of victimization.

As democracy evolves in our Hemisphere, it must continue to have as its objectives "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". For these objectives to be fulfilled, the weakest in the society must be offered protection. Mahatma Gandhi wrote in 1948: "My notion of democracy is that under it, the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. This can never happen except through non-violence." As a strong believer in Mahatma Gandhi's principles, I firmly support this view.

The objectives of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can only be ensured when democracy is all embracing - when it expands from representative democracy to include consultative and participatory democracy. This expansion will provide for an expanded role for all sections of the society, particularly women, and will ensure the realization of not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights.

But what is most important to understand is that democracy will take firm roots only when the economic and social empowerment of the people moves hand in hand with political empowerment. We therefore have to ensure that political democracy results in economic and social democracy. This will help all our people to live a full, enriched and satisfied life.

Return to Speeches