As the world reeled from the Belarus kidnapping, the crackdown in Hong Kong and Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, I came across a poignant description not just of another tragedy but of an underlying factor in all such traumas. Looking back at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of demonstrators were killed for demanding democratic governance, the writer spoke bluntly about the corruption of absolute power which undermines democracy.
“It is the monopoly of power by the ruling party, which makes it impossible for people to check the abuses from which they suffer,” Chaohua Wang wrote towards the end of an essay of nearly 4,000 words in the London Review of Books of July 5, 2007. “Only democratic rights could make the holders of power accountable for their actions and release the popular energies needed to achieve all the things of which they are incapable.”
In short, no matter how legitimately political power is acquired, justice demands the balancing factor of an opposition. If there is none, then only the supervision of the law courts can prevent the tyranny of the majority and save the populace from elective absolutism. China had neither.
Ms Wang was an ardent activist and office-bearer in the Beijing Autonomous Association of College Students, which organised the 1989 movement. As a result, she was put on the Chinese government’s “21 Most Wanted Student Leaders” list and had to spend more than six months underground before escaping to the United States (where she still lives) in early 1990. What she wrote could apply to many other seemingly democratic countries, at times even to the nation whose official spokesmen as well as sycophantic TV anchors miss no opportunity of boasting that India is the world’s largest democracy. That undeniable numerical achievement makes for representative government but not necessarily a democracy, as Senator Adlai Stevenson once pointed out to me at a seminar in Chicago.
Belarus seems almost to have been choreographed for the latest outrage. The protests against last year’s election when President Alexander Lukashenko (often called “Europe’s Last Dictator”) claimed victory on August 9 for a sixth term in office had left behind a deeply unsettled country. Domestic discontent was matched by sharp differences abroad with the European Union, which imposed sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials accused of political repression and vote rigging. Belarus retaliated with symmetrical sanctions against an undisclosed number of EU officials. While the United Nations Human Rights Office cited more than 450 cases of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, as well as rape and other sexual abuse, the human rights centre in Minsk, Belarus’s capital, documented 1,000 testimonies of torture of victims.
What excites and outrages civilised opinion even more is the manner in which subterfuge was used to kidnap a young dissident Belarusian journalist, Roman Protasevich, while he was flying from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius in Lithuania on May 23. While in Belarusian airspace, the pilot of his commercial flight was ordered to divert from his course and land in Minsk. Mr Protasevich -- a prominent opponent of President Lukashenko -- and his girlfriend, a law student, Sofia Sapega, were arrested there.
No one thinks the Belarussian claim of being tipped off about Hamas planting a bomb on the aircraft at all plausible. Even if Belarus can show that it lawfully diverted the plane, under International Civil Aviation Organisation treaties, Flight FR4978 was under the jurisdiction of Poland where the plane was registered. No country has the right to detain suspects on a civil aircraft for crimes that were not committed on board that aircraft.
Of course, such things have happened down the ages. Lawlessness has always been man’s natural state. History records that in 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, sent his soldiers illegally into Switzerland to seize a 32-year-old Bourbon prince, the Duke of Enghien, and take him to France where he was shot after a parody of a rushed trial. In 1956, France forced a Moroccan charter plane to land in Algiers to jail four Algerian nationalists travelling to a diplomatic conference in Tunis. Four years later Israeli Mossad and Shin Bet intelligence agents captured the German Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and took him to Israel to be hanged.
Napoleon would not have become what he did if he had been at all finnicky about democratic norms. Republican France saw no reason to respect democratic niceties either in its determination to retain Algeria as a colony against the will of the Algerians. Despite -- perhaps because of -- the agony European Jews suffered, the State of Israel knows no rules save those it frames for its own survival and aggrandisement.
Whatever the outcome of the tortuous ministry-making in Tel Aviv (the only capital city to which Israel is entitled until it is prepared to share Jerusalem with Palestine), hardly any Israeli leader accepts the two-state solution this column had welcomed on May 25 (“Israel & Gaza: Use truce to find a lasting solution”).
Even Israel’s late President Shimon Peres, a dove among Zionist hawks, wrote that the two states already existed in Israel and Jordan, leaving no scope for a third. Hong Kong’s transition from a free (to the extent that a colony can be free) colony to a subservient one is perhaps the most tragic instance of democracy denied. Despite Beijing’s clampdown, small numbers of Hong Kongers turned up on June 4 with candles and glowing mobiles to honour those who perished in Tiananmen Square 32 years ago. “But what is remembered so powerfully in Hong Kong cannot even be mentioned on the other side of the border that separates the Special Administrative Region from the rest of the People’s Republic of China,” Ms Wang lamented.
The problem is as old as man. It suggests no quick fix solution. But if democracies don’t go to war against each other, as is said, they also have the capacity to address grievances and provide each citizen, however humble, the assurance that his or her voice will not be ignored. A vigorous Opposition and a vigilant judiciary can most effectively practise the eternal vigilance that Bagehot had famously called the price of liberty. They offer the only protection against a majoritarian abuse that is no less pernicious because it can claim voter legitimacy.