There’s no form of governance more effective in protecting rights and maintaining the rule of law by consent than democracy. However, despite what is often claimed, there is at times tensions between universal rights and the particularities of democratic sovereignty.
As Zambia co-hosts this week’s second U.S. Summit for Democracy, it is important to underscore the fact that guaranteed rights vary from democracy to democracy. Of course, restrictions on rights often accompany democratic regression and some civil liberties appear integral to a democratic system itself such as freedom of expression. Yet it does not follow that rights and democracy are always mutually-reinforcing.
For instance, freedom of speech is rarely absolute. When violence is invoked, it can impinge on others’ right to life and security of person. In most democracies, freedom of speech does not extend to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre.
Across every democratic country’s spectrum of rights there are endless value conflicts like these. It boils down to which rights should be prioritized over others and where the parameters should lie. Only a democracy can legislate where one set of rights should end, and another begin, in a way that maintains legitimacy, public participation, and buy-in because it is by democratic consent that legislation is enacted. Equally, the chance for elected legislators to rebalance those rights when they fall out of step with public opinion reinforces the democratic process.
In Zambia, this interplay between rights and democracy is young. Our journey has not been one of linear progress. Zambians held their first true multi-party election in 1991, the same time that a similar, seemingly irreversible democratic wave was overtaking the one-party states of eastern Europe. With the political space wrenched open, the opposition party won overwhelmingly. Rights began to flood the public space.
However, since the 2010s, administrations have followed the well-trodden trajectory of a failing government resorting to restrictions on rights such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Democracy eventually corrected the course in 2021 when, under difficult circumstances, the citizens of our great country turned out to vote in great numbers to secure their rights with energy and passion.
Since then, my government has set out to restore the foundation stones of our democratic system. Anti-defamation laws used to clamp down on dissent have been removed from the statute books and the death penalty abolished. Others are underway, such as the repeal and replacement of the Public Order Act, which sets strenuous conditions on rights of assembly. But beyond these obvious starting points, there is still much room for genuine disagreement over the balance of rights in the nation.
My party has its own political positions and vision of the future. But where the country will end up will be tempered by deliberative debate in parliament from parties representing a spectrum of views across Zambian society. The conclusions reached will be different to other nations across the world, precisely because every nation is different. There is no final value-laden destination to which the democratic process inevitably delivers every country in precise measure. We know cultures are not the same. So why should we expect that once their people have an equal say in the direction of their country via the ballot box that will deliver nations of identikit-value across the world?
Some international democracy promotion efforts of the past suffered from precisely such illogical prescriptiveness. They have worked from the presumption that by instilling democratic governance liberal internationalist values and rights will be instituted in a country. The world has more than enough examples of government by democracy that do not instill or institute liberal internationalist policies to know by now this is not the case.
Zambia may have a more liberal tilt than others in Africa. Some of our continental democratic partners are more conservative. When their balance of rights is the product of genuine democratic exercise, should they be so chided when they fall outside the liberal international consensus? Too often, the best of intentions has created the impression that the West is lecturing on values, reducing its credibility when it needs to speak out against genuine threats to democracy on the continent. International NGOs and multilateral organizations too have made important contributions to human rights and their application. But theirs should not be the only or final word.
There is always the danger that if values are seen as imposed from without, with first little domestic public support from within, they can be perceived as undermining sovereign democracy. Attitudes may harden against whatever was seen as a foreign import, potentially opening the door to greater acceptance of its opposite.
There is no single blueprint for building a healthy democracy. As we gather for the Summit for Democracy we should remind ourselves that this should be cause more for celebration than concern. For when the rights citizens enjoy are delivered through a democratically elected government, they come with a level of legitimacy and acceptance only possible through consent.
Hakainde Hichilema is the seventh and current president of the Republic of Zambia. His Twitter is @HHichilema.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.