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24 Jun, 2012

As democracies become dictatorships, what future for democracy?

Originally Published:  24 June 2012

One of the most important geopolitical trends in the emerging world order is the slow conversion of democracies into dictatorships, even while they pretend to be defenders of democracy or, still worse, delude themselves into thinking they are defending democracy.

As the U.S. government, the self-appointed curator and exporter of global “freedom and democracy,” is rapidly losing credibility, the question of defining what “democracy” actually means is assuming extraordinary significance.

Countries that torture, hold people without trial, conduct extra-judicial killings, stifle dissent, stave off transparency and accountability, thwart attempts to expose the truth about the casualties of military conflict, create legions of “embedded” journalists, spy on and racially profile citizens and work with think-tanks, educational institutions and mega-corporations to brainwash the global public can no longer qualify to be called “democracies.”

As Julian Assange, the most famous whistleblower of this century, is finding out, trying to make the “democracies” accountable can be a very dangerous proposition.

When chasing terrorists, “democratic” governments say the only ones who have anything to fear are those with something to hide. The same could apply to “democratic” governments, especially those which profess a great fondness for the “rule of law.”

Indeed, it is no longer about the “rule of law” but how to interpret the law in order to justify violating the “rule of law.” Invoking “national security” usually does it. Whether it’s “combatting terrorism” or “responsibility to protect,” a loophole can always be found to allow “democratic” countries to act like dictators.

Those who are neither brainwashed nor brain-dead clearly can see the death of democracy under way. For example:

In September 2011, a drone strike by the U.S. military in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen described as “a radical Muslim cleric.” On June 18, 2012, a group of 27 U.S. civil liberties organisations wrote to U.S. Attorney-General, Mr. Eric H. Holder, Jr. seeking the release of the memorandum drafted by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel justifying the killing.

The letter said, “One of the greatest strengths of our democracy lies in our country’s ability to engage in public debate on some of the most controversial issues of our time. The national soul searching that often accompanies such discussions strengthens our government and its decision-making processes.

“This occurred when President Barack Obama authorized the disclosure of memoranda issued by the OLC justifying the use of certain forms of torture on detainees, the so-called “torture memos.” Unquestionably the president made the right decision by releasing those memos — helping to restore confidence in our government — even if many citizens disagree with the policy authorized by the memos.”

The letter added, “Today, we face yet another test of our democracy as questions are raised about the wisdom and legality of the U.S. government conducting targeted killings on foreign soil. Newspaper articles have revealed that the OLC issued a memorandum justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, though it may apply to others as well.

“Nevertheless, despite numerous calls for its disclosure by members of Congress and several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the Department of Justice has refused to release this memo.

“As during the last administration, by withholding such a critical document from the American people, the DoJ appears to be attempting to evade the accountability that stems from transparency.”

The letter noted that on his first full day in office, President Obama had “issued a memorandum hailing the critical role transparency plays in our democracy and heralding the FOIA as “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.”

“The refusal to release the OLC memo stands in stark contrast to this declared principle. As President Obama stated when he ordered the release of the torture memos, “withholding these memos would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time. This could contribute to an inaccurate accounting of the past, and fuel erroneous and inflammatory assumptions about actions taken by the United States.”

“While the length of time the public has been aware of the existence of OLC’s targeted killing memo is undoubtedly shorter, the need for release of the information is no less great.”

On June 21, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, just before a midnight deadline, the Obama administration filed a 50-page brief denying the request.

It said, “This matter involves the government’s significant efforts to be open and transparent on the one hand, and to protect against the release of information harmful to national security on the other hand. The FOIA represents a balance struck by Congress between the right of the public to know and the need of the government to keep sensitive information in confidence.

“Thus, while FOIA generally requires disclosure of agency records, the statute recognizes that public disclosure is not in the public interest when disclosing the requested records – or even revealing whether such documents exist – would disclose classified information or reveal intelligence sources and methods. In that instance, disclosure is not required.”

Responded Jameel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the ACLU: “The notion that the CIA’s targeted killing program is still a secret is beyond absurd. Senior officials have discussed it, both on the record and off. They have taken credit for its putative successes, professed it to be legal, and dismissed concerns about civilian casualties. If they can make these claims to the media, they can answer requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The public is entitled to know more about the legal authority the administration is claiming and the way that the administration is using it. The administration should release the legal memos that purportedly justify the targeted killing program, and it should release more information about the process by which individuals, including American citizens, are added to government kill lists. It should also release the evidence that led the administration to kill three Americans, including a 16-year-old boy, last year.”

“We continue to have profound concerns with the power the administration is claiming and with the proposition that the President should be permitted to exercise this power without oversight by the courts. That the administration believes a power so sweeping should be exercised in secret is astounding.”

So much for that.

In real democracies, even killers like Anders Behring Breivik get their day in court. In dying democracies, they just dispatch the drones. If “democratic” governments can kill in the interests of national security, so can non-democratic governments.

What future, then, for the entire concept of democracy?