13 february 2008

David Miliband gives Aung San Suu Kyi lecture

Foreign Secretary David Miliband delivers the third Aung San Suu Kyi Lecture on 'The Democratic Imperative' at St Hugh's College in Oxford, 12 February 2008.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband taking questions from the audience after the lecture

Mistakes that were made in Iraq and Afghanistan should not ‘obscure our national interest … in supporting movements for democracy’ pleaded the Foreign Secretary, the Rt Hon David Miliband MP on Tuesday 12 February 2008, when he delivered the Aung San Suu Kyi lecture at St Hugh’s College, on ‘The democratic imperative’.

He noted the pertinence of delivering his lecture only months after the ‘civilian surge’ that saw Burmese people coming out onto the streets of Rangoon to demonstrate for ‘a better and freer life’.

He argued that ‘we should back demands among citizens for more freedom and power over their lives – whether that is reforming established democracies, or supporting transitions to democracy. We should be on the side of the civilian surge.’

In extreme cases the failure of states to exercise their responsibility to protect their own civilians from genocide or ethnic cleansing warrants military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

David Miliband MP

Expressing his concern that ‘we should not let the genuine debate about the ‘how’ of foreign policy obscure the clarity about the ‘what’ – he set out how supporting democracy around the world should be approached.

Creating and supporting free media was an important element in this goal. ‘The civilian surge is being driven by more literate, better educated people, able to access information and communicate with others’, he said, noting the importance of channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyya, and the influence of bloggers in Iran and Kuwait.     

Financial and economic links were another means of furthering the goal of democracy, citing China as an example. ‘Arguably more people in China are freer today that they have been at any previous time in Chinese history’, he said, ‘but people inside China and outside are rightly concerned about the next stages in political development.’

He cited Britain’s role as a world leader in aid, which was equally vital to support democracy and good governance.An attraction of becoming club members, such as the European Union, the World Trade Organisation, and NATO, could also act as a powerful way of establishing democratic norms. He quoted Vaclav Havel who said in December 2002, that ‘the vision of becoming part of the EU was… the engine that drove the democratisation and transformation of” Central and Eastern Europe.’

His last point – perhaps the most controversial and the one that has caused most rift in discussions over how to help establish democracy – related to direct action in the form of ‘targeted sanctions, international criminal proceedings, security guarantees and military intervention’.He was adamant that ‘in extreme cases the failure of states to exercise their responsibility to protect their own civilians from genocide or ethnic cleansing warrants military intervention on humanitarian grounds.’

He acknowledged that there was no single blueprint for consolidating democracy in fledgling democratic states. ‘We must strengthen the capacity of the state to enforce the rule of law, while extending accountability to citizens’, he said. To do this, it was necessary that governments ensured the distribution of power, with checks and balances between the executive, judiciary and legislature; and that they were able to build the capacity of local as well as national institutions.  

He concluded: ‘I believe democracy can take root in all societies. I hope and believe that, in time, it will.