Strengthening Democracy in Asia, Conference Report page – 1

Strengthening Democracy in Asia, Conference Report

October 6, 2006

Acknowledgements

Rights & Democracy would like to thank all speakers and chairpersons who contributed their time and expertise to this conference. We also would like to thank the Conference Organizing Committee at Rights & Democracy who ensured the success of this conference.

Rights & Democracy’s annual international conference was held in Toronto, Canada this year, on June 14 and 15, 2006. Some 250 people attended the conference – policy makers, scholars, activists, journalists, government and embassy officials. The speakers came from over 13 different countries.

 

The conference was preceded by a day-long Student Forum, focussing on the role of student movements in the promotion of human rights and democracy in Asia and Canada. “Strengthening Democracy in Asia” was the overall theme of the conference, and it was the prism through which Rights & Democracy analyzed the issues facing Asia.

Democratic principles based on universal values of human dignity, justice and rights helped us in identifying and addressing fundamental problems. The subtitle of the conference, “New Networks and Partnerships for Human Rights and the Rule of Law,” suggested mechanisms that enable us to move ahead. Networks and partnerships are central – be they in the economic realm or in the realms of democratic development and human rights.

Civil society linkages, institution building and the evolution of regional mechanisms all depend on truepartnerships and successful networks. The Asian “tigers” and the “giants” have come of age – at least in  the economic realm – and have a direct impact on the lives of many people far away from Asia.

For example, the China-Africa trade and investment partnership has become one of the largest in the world, India’s input in the global software industry is indispensable, and South Korea, Singapore and Thailand, along  with some of their neighbours, are major regional economies with far-reaching networks. This, however, is only half of the story.

Economic development is uneven at best and, importantly, political dynamics – especially when it comes to democratization and human rights – are often quite problematic. The world’s largest democracy, India, shares a border with Burma, one of the worst human rights abusers, while the free-market economy of China coexists with an authoritarian political environment. Indonesia grapples with the challenges of economic development compounded by the devastation of the tsunami and earthquake while, simultaneously, addressing problems of democratic transition – such as institution building, security sector reform or ongoing abuses of human rights in certain regions.

In short, Asia is going through major changes with global consequences. The world needs a prosperous, stable and democratic Asia. Without the latter, neither prosperity nor stability will be long lasting. It is impossible to generalize about “Asia.” But it is also imperative to discuss Asia, as a region and as a global actor (or set of actors). The geographic areas this conference mostly concentrated on are Northeast and Southeast Asia, with a particular focus on certain countries facing democratic and human rights challenges. What follows is the summary of the conference proceedings. While we have made every effort to reflect the views of the conference participants as accurately as possible, there might be instances where nuances and details are lost in the process of summarizing. Rights & Democracy assumes full responsibility for such omissions and possible errors.

Razmik Panossian

Director of Policy, Programmes and Planning