Bali Democracy Forum

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speaking at the Bali Democracy Forum on 8 December 2011, Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne commented that the Forum came at 'a seminal time for democracy'.

I am delighted and honoured to be here today to represent the United Kingdom at the fourth Bali Democracy Forum. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to address you all.

The range of participating countries and distinguished speakers here in Bali is a testament to the success of this initiative. It would not have been possible without the visionary leadership shown by President Yudhoyono, former Foreign Minister Wirajuda, and my friend and present Foreign Minister Natalegawa. And it is fitting that the Forum continues to be hosted in the beautiful setting of Bali, where there is a particular appreciation of the values of tolerance and diversity.

This year’s Forum comes at a seminal time for democracy. No-one sitting here a year ago could have predicted the eruption of democratic voices across the Arab world, all calling for the realisation of their legitimate rights and dignity. Those gathered in protests in Tunis, Bengazi, Cairo, and Homs did so for a multitude of reasons - corruption, lack of economic opportunity, police brutality, and poverty and many more. However, their message was the same: give us democracy.

That is because democracy listens to all voices. It is because democracy empowers people to choose for themselves how they are governed. It allows people to change their government without violence or fear of retribution. For this reason, the British government staunchly believes that democratic freedoms and long term stability and success go hand in hand.

Democracies are stable and peaceful. They give people a non-violent means of changing the way that they are governed. Transitions from one government to another are peaceful. It is also a remarkable observation that democracies have never gone to war against one another. Security is one of the most basic needs, and one that is upheld by democracy more than by any other form of government.

Democracies make well-considered decisions. By allowing people to openly discuss their interests, ideas are tested and challenged until only the strongest survive. As an elected politician, my ideas and the ideas of my party are constantly tested. And I have to answer to the scrutiny of people in my constituency, journalists, officials, and other politicians. I welcome these challenges, listen to them, and, I hope, improve my approach accordingly.

Democracies tend to be prosperous and spread wealth more evenly across their societies than autocracies. This is partly to do with good decision-making. Additionally, the freedom of thought encouraged in democracies breeds innovative ideas and economic opportunities. Those economic opportunities tend to be fairly distributed because no group in a democracy is marginalised.

Democracies best allow for individual freedom and dignity. They are founded on the fundamental principle of equality. One person, one vote. Everyone has an equal voice and can lead their lives in whatever way they see fit - so long as they do not harm others.

So democracy is not simply about elections. Yes, elections are important in allowing the people to choose who governs them and they are the signature of democracy. But they need to be held in an environment of transparency, respect for people’s rights and rule of law. They are meaningless unless citizens are able to make an informed choice at the ballot box.

To ensure this, elections must be accompanied by other features:

In order to ensure that equality is realised - the most fundamental principle of democracy - people’s rights must be legally and constitutionally guaranteed. As my Prime Minister told the Kuwaiti National Assembly: “Respect for human rights and dignity, including freedom of expression and equality of women, are universal values that must underlie all political systems - there are no justified exceptions.” Without formally embedded guarantees, procedural democracy can descend into tyranny of the majority.

Freedoms - freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of the press - are all vitally important for people to hold their government to account. A strong civil society and a vibrant, independent media are essential for transparency. They help people to discern what the government is doing, what the alternatives are, and what is in their own political interests. Furthermore, civil society, the media and the internet are essential to challenge the performance of the government and to help different interest groups mobilise - as was shown during the Arab Spring.

Strong institutions and rule of law are vital to underwriting the political process. They are key to ensuring that election results are not disputed, that the state does not abuse its power, and that everyone’s rights and freedoms are upheld in practice.

Having said this, there is no one-size-fits-all model for democracies. Indeed every democracy is different and evolves through the unique experiences of its people. Some democracies have a directly elected head of state, as is the case here in Indonesia; others have constitutional monarchs and prime ministers, as we do in the United Kingdom. Some democracies are highly centralised like in Japan, whereas others are federations of different states each with their own legislative body, as in Germany. The point is that in supporting democracy, foreign governments have no business trying to impose a particular local model. As my Foreign Secretary has stated: “Each country has the right to develop in its own way and in accordance with its own culture and traditions.”

But that is not to say that we in the international community cannot help and empower states to create the building blocks of democratic societies. We can provide support for states’ own civil society organisations and reformers. We have seen in recent months, within this region, the on-going struggle by those brave men and women who have worked tirelessly to advance personal freedoms, often in conditions of great isolation, such as Aung San Suu Kyi. We have also seen in this period the start of a meaningful dialogue in that country between government and opposition, which we welcome and hope will bear fruit. By providing political support for countless brave men and women who push for democratic change in the face of adversity, like Suu Kyi, we are able to help states democratise in an organic way.

Similarly, we must encourage free press, and uncensored access to the internet and social media. These help to hold governments to account, and expand the marketplace of ideas, test old ones and propose new ones.

From outside, we can scrutinise governments’ respect for human rights. In this regard, the establishment of ASEAN’s Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights is to be applauded. We can also offer expertise in upholding these important vales. The Memorandum of Understanding recently signed between the national human rights bodies of Indonesia and Timor-Leste, designed to foster more practical co-operation and experience sharing, is an excellent example.

And for countries seeking to embed democracy, we can offer assistance in strengthening their institutions. Monitoring elections, with which ASEAN has already been involved, helps to lend legitimacy to the results. Providing administrative assistance can help democratic governments to implement their mandates.

Foreign Minister, in the past it has been asserted that democracy is a cultural phenomenon, unique to the West and many have asserted that democracy was not possible in the Arab World. Over the course of this year, these assertions have been proved to be wrong. The protests that spontaneously erupted across the Arab world have come entirely from within. They affirm that political freedom and democratic government are the natural aspirations of all people everywhere. They remind all of us never to underestimate what can be achieved. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in my own continent, which I watched live on television over twenty years ago was a formative moment for me. The Arab Spring sits in the same Pantheon of events that have altered the course of history.

We are all here today because we believe in the importance of bolstering democracy. I hope that we can use this poignant time of change to empower reformers to push for change that guarantees their rights, freedoms and dignity in ways that respect and fit with their own cultures, experiences and desires.