Who's Afraid of PD?

Government should be supporting the most effective means of protecting human rights - through "political defiance"

By John Bacher | 2004-04-01 12:00:00

Much of the support for democratization around the world is provided by about 25 organizations, ranging from the Jean Jaurès Foundation (named after the heroic French socialist) to the Institute for an Open Society, created by the philanthropic capitalist George Soros. These diverse government agencies and private charities in democratic societies function as an international network, coordinating their efforts through such means as annual conferences and linked web sites. They have coined a new acronym: "PD." This is a code for an important political dynamic - "Political Defiance."

Retired Marine Colonel Robert Helvey, probably the most effective interpreter of Gene Sharp's methods of nonviolent resistance, proposed the terminology of Political Defiance - PD - during training sessions in the jungles of the Thai-Burma border. It is an approach toward overthrowing repressive dictatorships through nonviolent popular mobilizations.

PD, as a term, appeals to a popular desire for militant struggle - which unfortunately is usually manipulated by armed groups with harmful results. As a practicable alternative, Political Defiance was applied with spectacular success by the people-power revolt of November 2000 in Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), assisted by a $40 million grant from the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. Just recently, in December 2003, it was also used effectively in Georgia by peacefully ushering out of power the corrupt Shevardnadze government. PD-oriented democratic movements are functioning in Belarus, Cuba, and Zimbabwe; and the Tibetan government-in-exile has consulted at length with Gene Sharp about applying his methods.

PD is attractive to the poor of the developing world as a means of eradicating the authoritarian power of their oppressors. Although it is one of the most effective methods of democracy aid, PD is also the most confrontational. Its techniques involve dealing with the powerful, both at home and abroad, who collaborate with dictatorships.

PD is not regarded with much favor in the powerful political circles that shape Canadian foreign policy - or, paradoxically, by many of the (usually left-leaning) humanitarian groups that attempt to lobby government leaders. Instead, Canada has chosen to employ forms of democracy aid which are less challenging to business interests and to the many Canadians who desire to travel in repressive countries.

During the past two decades, democracy aid has been recognized as a cornerstone of any effective foreign assistance program. Increasingly, aid donors see that abolishing famines, securing national parks so they are not invaded by loggers and wildlife poachers, and downsizing corrupt military establishments, depend on the realization of basic human rights and democratic values.

The Canadian government is a partner with other countries, trade unions, human rights groups, and private charities around the world in aiding the spread of democracy. Like other states, it has done this through two basic approaches. One is to help governments in developing countries to create institutions that protect human rights, such as Human Rights Commissions. This is done through grants provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Rights And Democracy

Since 1990, a second approach, which is more controversial and less well funded, has been to fund grassroots civil society groups in repressive countries. This support is provided by the International Center for Human Rights and Democracy, which now commonly employs the name "Rights and Democracy."

In the public mind, Rights and Democracy is still associated with its founding Executive Director, Ed Broadbent, a former leader of the New Democratic Party. He guided the organization in its first years from 1989 to 1996, and is widely credited with giving it a strong intellectual grounding. His successor from 1997 to 2002 was another left-leaning former parliamentarian, former Liberal cabinet minister Warren Allmand. Although seen as less prone to use his position as a preaching platform than his predecessors, the current director, Jean-Louis Roy, is a respected, veteran champion of human rights in Quebec and a former secretary of the Francophonie.

Under all three directors, Rights and Democracy has struggled with a modest budget and slim staff, which hovers between 25 and 30. Its staff members serve as witnesses, organizers, grant-givers and publishers to those brave people who champion human rights and the poor in the developing world; many of those activists constantly face mortal dangers. Many of Rights and Democracy's other activities involve small but significant actions, such as placing an advertisement in a leading Guatemalan newspaper deploring threats against the lives of those who work for human rights.

The Winnipeg lawyer David Matas is a prominent human rights advocate who has twice served a three-year term on the board of Rights and Democracy. When I asked Matas whether, during his time on the board, Rights and Democracy had ever considered using the techniques of nonviolent popular mobilization detailed and promoted by Gene Sharp, he replied, "In my six years, I never saw such an application before our board."

When queried about the board's reaction to the nonviolent democratic revolution in Yugoslavia achieved through PD methods, he said, "Yugoslavia was considered part of the developed world and therefore, in terms of our governing statute, not part of our mandate." To my suggestion that Canada could develop a program using PD for Burma, based on the experience of Yugoslavia, Matas replied, "To suggest that an organization with a $5 million budget take on a $40 million budget to free Burma is a bit far-fetched."

During his years with Rights and Democracy, Matas found that the organization was highly regarded by the Canadian government officials responsible for approving its budget. However, funding essentially remained stagnant at its modest level. He said, "When I was there the government never expressed any disagreement with what we did. The objections were always put in terms of tight overall government funding."

Rights and Democracy has been essentially kept at the level of activity that Ed Broadbent was able to build up during his initial tenure. The focus of action also remained constant: to make an impact on certain countries where its aid programs have been concentrated: Afghanistan, Guatemala, Peru and Burma. Only in these countries has cumulative aid spending since 1990 exceeded $500,000.

Through its techniques of publicity and witness, Rights and Democracy has been able to see major democratization advances in Peru and Guatemala. No such success, however, has come from the $884,500 in aid given for democratization in Burma.

While Matas did not encounter any overt hostility to Rights and Democracy, it is clear that if his board had requested funding for PD in response to the failure of democratization in Burma, those in charge of its budget would have gone through the roof. Today in Ottawa, hostility to this form of democratic aid is more important than ever. Those who would promote such methods as those developed by Gene Sharp now find funding difficult to acquire.

Mika Levesque is Program Officer for Rights and Democracy with a responsibility for Burma. When asked about how the Canadian government views political defiance, she responded, "They are very scared of PD. They see it as feeding a revolution. Our organization has no skill in PD. Instead we help those who do this work by other means. Canada has a great reputation as a peacemaker, but we don't do very much to deserve it."

Colonel Robert Helvey trained the leaders of the Serbian youth movement Otpor, which succeeded in bringing down the dictator Slobodan Milosevic. He also developed the still-functioning PD Coordinating Committee, which operates underground in Burma in brave efforts to lead nonviolent resistance. Helvey agrees with Levesque's assessment of the Canadian government's hostility to the notion of funding PD. This is common, he said, in many democratic governments because of pressures from businesses that profit from deals with dictatorships.

Colonel Helvey explained, "Canada has a large mining investment in Burma. There is a major gold mining corporation there. This business community would not take kindly to being challenged. Most governments do not want to see their money going to open resistance." Helvey is concerned that many around the world, even democratic exiles, do not even know that a nonviolent democratic opposition exists within Burma. "Part of the problem," he told me, "is that although the opposition that functions within the country is united, the opposition outside is fragmented and unable to connect effectively with it."

Mika Levesque pointed out that Rights and Democracy does not give humanitarian aid, but it puts the two million Burmese refugees in Thailand in a better position to resist. She said,

"Many of the factors that support the dictatorship are connected. Take for example, narcotics, which has been a big source of revenue for the military rulers. Our center has worked to have the Canadian government not cooperate with the dictatorship in their alleged drug control programs, which are just another source of funding for the military. They are always coming up with tricks like this. Had we not got involved, the RCMP would be in Rangoon under this pretext....Instead of focusing on drug supply, we have targeted demand. Much of this demand is from Burmese refugee communities on the border with Thailand. Drug consumption has a terrible impact on their family life, since it is largely the men who get addicted. Curbing this problem helps families to survive. It also helps to foster resistance. You can't do PD if you are stoned."

While the powerful in Ottawa tremble at the thought of unleashing PD on the world's dictators coddled by their business allies, Levesque and Helvey did direct me to web sites in other countries, largely in left-wing Scandinavian social democracies, connected with such organizations as Sweden's Olof Palme Foundation.

Apparently these countries, unlike Canada, do have the courage to defy corporate lobbies by helping PD. For example, Democratic Voice of Burma, (DVB) a radio station based in Oslo, Norway, is largely funded by the Norwegian government through the Norwegian-Burma Committee.

Through a web search of democracy aid agencies, I found a document on PD by Helvey. In it he explained the close relationship between the democratic underground in Burma and DVB. He indicated that the PD coordinating committee is an underground umbrella for 12 pro-democracy and ethnic groups involved in nonviolent political conflict in Burma. It seeks to "use their contacts in Burma to distribute speakers, leaflets, and tapes on democracy and human rights. Its suggestions range from simply encouraging people to listen to the Democratic Voice of Burma or to read the underground press, to spray painting democracy symbols in public places or staging demonstrations."

Next I turned to the January 2004 DVB summary news reports and those web sites funded by democracy aid projects in countries other than Canada. I was stunned to discover the volume of nonviolent resistance going on in Burma and the sinister machinations of various business groups in North America and Europe, acting in concert with the country's military rulers. I came across lots of creative nonviolent activities that could have been taken right from the pages of a Gene Sharp training manual. These include:

The web sites funded by European social democracies provided astonishing details, not reported in the corporate press or CBC television, of the brave resistance to dictatorship in Burma. These web sites also gave extraordinary details about the collaboration between big business and the country's military rulers. One of most surprising is a grotesque bail-out of Burma by an obscure Singapore based company, the Swift Corporation.

Corporate Inhibitions

As a way of reprimanding the dictators, the US government banned trading in US dollars by the government of Burma. In response to this, Swift, true to its name, came to the rescue with European Union currency. Its interventions are especially disturbing because Swift is owned by big powerful companies which, unlike it, would be vulnerable to boycotts - JP Morgan, Citibank and Credit Swisse.

Despite the machinations that hold back the Canadian government from promoting PD, it became clear from talking to Levesque that business can influence Canadian foreign policy only because of the absence of counter-lobbying by left-wing, humanitarian agencies. Many have avoided lobbying the Canadian government for interventions such as PD, since their organizations, involved in international relief, want to do it in Burma, instead of in refugee camps. Levesque explained,

"I tell them that I am not neutral; I believe in democracy. Many people however, insist that they are neutral, that they are just concerned with helping people. They can do this in border areas. They do not have to go into Burma to help people. To get involved in PD work means that you can't have an open office in Rangoon. However, they want to travel into Burma."

As more people become aware of the potential of PD for democratization, the odd consensual collaboration in Canada between humanitarian tourism and business lobbies may fade away. Then greater awareness will encourage more effective and better-funded efforts to secure basic human rights.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2004, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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