Thursday 5 December 2013

Citizens: Democracy in the 21st Century

2013 has hosted protests in Ukraine, Brazil, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt. The list will grow in 2014. Why are protests so widespread, and so global? Following my blog on the New Citizens Movement, it is our duty as citizens to react – to show approval and to show dissent. With only the vote as our weapon, we are weak. The government chooses when to hold elections, and it ultimately chooses who is eligible to run for office. This may seem somewhat limiting for the electorate, yet citizens are expected to trust (and love) the state. 

However, in the 21st century, citizens are exploring their democratic role. Across the world, a new movement of citizenship grows as the language of rights proliferates the constitutions and embeds itself in laws. 21st century media and technology have almost guaranteed communication between citizens within and beyond their own state. The 'Arab Spring' demonstrates the significance of democracy and civil and political rights to the 21st century citizen.

As liberal democracies argue today in closed-circuit courtrooms for avant-garde interpretations of human rights legislation, the majority of the world's population does not enjoy even the most basic protections. Human rights law engages in a process of deconstructing traditional and out-dated notions of social and political status, and advocates for the protection of the individual. There are some limitations on rights, whereby an personal freedoms can be restricted based on “public interest”, “national security”, etc. If a person’s behaviour does not threaten anyone else, there can be no legitimate restriction.

Of course, democracy is not the only form of governance, just as the idea of human rights is not inevitable or divine. They are products of a human philosophy. ‘Human rights’ is merely a conception of the citizens’ relationship to government. In the UK and Ireland, rights have attained legal status. Despite legally-binding international human rights treaties, the politics of diplomacy prevent any practicable action to enforce fundamental liberties in many states in the 21st century.

Citizens in democratic states have a duty to make demands of their governments, but ironically they must do so within the terms set by the government; they can protest only as much as the government permits them to do so. Thus, we see the significance of the doctrine of national security to quell “subversive” behaviour, labelling as terrorism that which is not in the ‘interests’ of the state. In the context of civil liberties, the legal definitions of these terms is all-important.

Without challenge, state power is absolute. Democratic citizens are reacting to this, using the 21st century technology to their advantage.

Citizens: The New Citizens Movement of China

Xu Zhiyong is on trial in China for public disorder after assembling a protest relating to the Chinese constitution and transparency in government. He is a founder member of the New Citizens Movement, which is a network of activists campaigning on various social and legal issues, notably challenging Communist party politicians to declare their assets. Chinese authorities have targeted the New Citizens Movement dissidents with public order legislation.

Why are these individuals putting themselves at risk to challenge the Chinese government? What have they to gain; and, importantly, is it worth it?

The power of citizenship is an electoral power. The franchisement of the masses is the most important demonstration of citizen power in the history of democracy. Once elections take place, elected representatives in the Executive and Parliament have the power to govern. Given this inherited sovereignty, it is then the citizens’ role to monitor governance.

The only tangible power maintained by the citizens is retrospective. The default position is that the government’s power is absolute until challenged; the state has an automatic mandate to govern as it sees fit. Given that most democratic governments act within the protection of the law – which the government both interprets and implements – it is only in retrospect that its decisions can be challenged and deemed unlawful. Without the capacity to challenge, citizens are mere subjects of power. Democracy depends on the reaction of citizens. It is not merely enough to vote, obey the law, and pay taxes. More is required to balance the democratic structure of power.

The New Citizens Movement of China seeks to challenge the government and is criminalised as a result. Is democracy worth it?