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Democracy Conference Opens in S. Africa - 2004-02-02


Pro-democracy activists from more than 100 countries are gathering in South Africa for an international democracy conference. They will spend four days sharing ideas and trying to find practical solutions to the challenges facing both fledgling democracies and well-established ones.

It is the third assembly of the World Movement for Democracy, a network of activists from every region of the globe who share a vision of a more democratic future. The group formed in 1999 with a goal of strengthening democracy in countries where it already exists, and encouraging it in places it does not.

At the opening session, Bulgarian political analyst Ivan Krastev said it can be hard for activists from different parts of the world to see beyond their own personal experiences with democracy. The challenge, he said, is to find lessons from those personal experiences that can be relevant to everyone. "Because I do believe we are living in a time when many countries and many regimes simply want to be called democracies. But perceived through the eyes of their own citizens, they are not providing more freedom. And democracy is about freedom," he said.

The assembly will not produce grand resolutions or issue sweeping statements about the state of democracy in the world or in individual countries. The meeting is to give activists from different nations a chance to share ideas and learn from each others' experiences.

The meeting is being held in South Africa just months before the country celebrates the 10th anniversary of its first all-race elections and the death of the apartheid system in 1994. Scores of South African delegates are prepared to share lessons from their democratic transition.

But the rest of Africa is well-represented too, and there are representatives from other African countries where democracies are either nonexistent or struggling. Many, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and Burundi, are still emerging from damaging civil wars. Others, such as Nigeria, are struggling with the legacy of military dictatorships.

Sierra Leone democracy activist Zainab Bangura said many of Africa's most debilitating problems - war, poverty, hunger and disease - can be traced back, in part, to a lack of democracy. "The core problem obstructing our development, my sisters and brothers here tonight, is not lack of resources, although this is a serious constraint in many countries. It is not long years of colonialism, that was more than 40-years ago, but a lack of democratic states with truly democratic leaders. Our greatest tragedy in sub-Saharan Africa unfortunately is that we have suffered from misguided dictatorships and autocratic rule for far too long," he said.

Some of the other activists participating in the conference come from relatively new democracies still in transition, such as the nations of the former Soviet Union and the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. Others, like Burma or Cuba, are societies so closed that only democracy activists living in exile have been able to attend the Durban meeting.

But one delegation will be putting their democracy lessons to use perhaps more quickly and urgently than most. There is a large group attending the meeting from Iraq, where the U.S. led coalition and the Iraqi Governing Council are still in the process of deciding what kind of sovereign government will take over at the end of June, and how it will be chosen.

This meeting of the World Movement for Democracy was supposed to take place last year, but was postponed because the war in Iraq was looming on the horizon. A year later, the assembled activists will be trying to help Iraqi delegates find their own path toward democracy.