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Democracy inching onward

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NEW YORK — Democracy is becoming a dangerous business. That's why Guatemala's democracy defenders carefully watched last week's meeting between Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo and President Bush: Their survival is at stake, and when their own government doesn't — or can't — protect them, they want foreign governments to help.

Sad to say, Guatemala is not special. Although global rhetoric now regularly extols the virtues of democracy, reality tells a story of more and more governments failing to protect democracy advocates. According to the United Nations, human-rights workers around the world are increasingly attacked and intimidated. They brave death threats, break-ins at their homes and offices and harassment. Worse, the institutions entrusted to protect them — courts, police and, less formally, the press — are victimized as well.

From the post-communist states of the former Soviet Union to fragile democratic governments in North Africa and South Asia, push-me, pull-you politics are still the norm, and rights and democracy activists are paying dearly — and personally — for their efforts. Last winter, the United Nations cited the government of Tunisia for barring one of North Africa's most venerable rights organizations, the Tunisian League for Human Rights, from doing its job. The organization's leaders are now vulnerable to arrest. And five of the U.N. secretary-general's rights representatives criticized the government of Indonesia for detaining, torturing and executing rights defenders in Aceh for speaking out against injustice and campaigning for democracy. In countries where rights and democracy exist only at the peripheries — where the rough justice of unhindered power and the tumble of political contest outweigh neat policy — the practicalities of power seem inevitably to overtake democratic aspirations. We may have grown accustomed to this, but these situations remain insidious, not just where they occur, but for the extended political family that we call the international community.

Besides Guatemala, two other recent incidents highlight the problem. Kyrgyzstan's journalists, social workers, students and occasional political activists have gravitated to nongovernmental reform organizations keen to keep pluralism and tolerance alive in this tiny Central Asia country. As the state has increased its oppression, they have fought back with civility — leafleting, monitoring elections, building support for the idea of open politics even though two unfair elections last year have dampened immediate prospects for democracy. But one such reform organization, the NGO coalition for "Democracy and Civil Society," has become a target of official disdain. Its leader, Tolekan Ismailova, was physically attacked after she criticized government policies at a forum organized by international journalists last spring. The journalist group was then threatened, and its members were forced, albeit indirectly, to rethink their professional opportunities and obligations.

At the same time, Egypt's leading rights activist, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was arrested and ultimately convicted of abuses against the Egyptian state — ostensibly for fraud, more likely for speaking his mind. His Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies monitors elections, documents rights abuses and advocates a cosmopolitan idea of democracy, while Egypt's government chips away at citizens' rights. The government of Egypt insists that Ibrahim's conviction in a special court was legal and transparent. Rights activists believe that Ibrahim faces seven years in prison for upholding the right to hold opinions and that Egypt's democracy is dimmer as a result of his conviction.

Ismailova and Ibrahim could be one and the same person; they differ only in where they live. Their actions are the same. Rights violations in Central Asia rarely rate banner headlines: Harassing the media and bullying political opponents in places like Kyrgyzstan don't count in the man-bites-dog international press. Governments there count on silence to keep power, and willy-nilly, often get their way.

But Egypt, which considers foreign military aid a birthright and international attention a way of life, is a different story. Cairo considers Ibrahim irritating, dispensable and dangerous and acts as if disposing of him will protect Egypt's brittle state. But the image of a calm, internationally known scholar behind bars not only challenges Egyptian diplomacy, it also underscores the importance of other democracy activists, whose efforts are slowly building an international jurisprudence that enshrines democratic rights wherever they are endangered.

It is a truism in law and foreign policy that only national governments can protect internationally accepted standards. This is particularly so in the field of human rights: Annoying a government can land you in jail. But political habits are not immutable, and political space can expand. Some of the same nations that make life difficult for democracy defenders signed the 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and voted for a 1999 U.N. resolution to promote democracy.

Hypocrisy? Probably. Among the signatories are Guatemala, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia — rights abusers all. Contradiction? Perhaps not. The interesting thing about politics is that the diplomat's penchant for talking the talk sometimes forces the politician to walk the walk.

That's why Portillo's conversation with U.S. rights defenders last week was so important. Rather than deny reports of rights activists being intimidated back home and puff about state power, he acknowledged his difficulties protecting them and asked the United States to help investigate incidents of abuse. This is also why democracy defenders in Kyrgyzstan can take a little bit of heart in President Askar A. Akayev's public admission last spring that things aren't going terribly well in his third term. No outright promises for more democracy — but a small opening, nevertheless, into which Western interlocutors should step to aid Ismailova and her compatriots.

Democracy, we are slowly learning, is not a spectator sport, but the foundation on which the century's new politics will be built.

Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who works in countries in conflict.