COMMENTARY: Recovering America’s battered democracy and authority
Recent events in Washington, the revered capital of the United States of America, have shaken the moral authority of that country to lecture, threaten and coerce other countries in the name of democracy, rule of law and human rights.
The disgraceful scenes of Americans storming their own sacred Capitol Building – the long-claimed sanctuary for democracy – was bad enough, but what preceded it was worse. A mob, mobilised to be lawless and violent, was deplorable. What was despicable were the actions of Republican Congresspersons, who do know better, to wilfully and shamelessly try to overturn the will of the people to change the government through a democratic process that was confirmed by state and federal courts and by the Supreme Court itself.
A sitting President of the United States, Donald Trump, openly encouraged a mob to be lawless and to do precisely what they did – attack the bastion of the country’s law-making body in a determined attempt to carry out what was no less than a coup d’etat.
The mob – nothing less than terrorists – were intent upon overturning the results of a legitimate Presidential election in which both the popular vote and the votes of the Electoral College confirmed that Joseph Biden Jr had been elected as President of the United States. In the course of it, within the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill, blood was shed. Not the proverbial blood resulting from heated debate and bruised egos, but real blood as Americans shot at Americans and five people were killed.
When similar events occurred in other parts of the world, especially developing countries, except those countries where the US government favours the regimes in power, the US has been swift to act with threats, sanctions, condemnation and by promoting censure in bodies such as the Organisation of American States (OAS). Other governments that hang-on to the coat tails of the US have been quick to support their actions.
Yet, even as the horrors at Capitol Hill were unfolding live on television screens worldwide, the OAS Secretary-General was silent until pushed publicly to speak. Hangers-on governments issued tame statements – none of them belled the cat by calling the name of the person solely responsible for bringing the US to this sorry pass in the eyes of the international community.
It took the leader of the minority NDP in Canada, Jagmeet Singh, to publicly identify the culprit. In a tweet, Singh declared, “The horror unfolding in Washington is frightening and it was incited by Donald Trump. He can end it now but refuses to. Democracy must not be intimidated. The violence must end.”
On the same day, the Miami Herald interviewed me for a story entitled, “Across Latin America and in Miami, storming of US Capitol recalls chaos at home”. The focus was on the parallels between the assault on democracy and the rule of law in the US and the US action in Guyana during five months in 2020 when the US government acted to end the stealing of the government against the will of the electorate in the March 2020 general and regional elections. I reproduce below a section of the Miami Herald story.
“What’s happening in the United States is a complete violation of every democratic norm and also of the rule of law (by Donald Trump and elements of the Republican Party) in a flagrant attempt to remain in power,” Sanders said. “Had that occurred in any developing country, indeed in any country of the world, the United States would have been the first to roundly condemn those people, to apply sanctions against those countries and to take action in the name of human rights, democracy and civil rights”.
Last year, Sanders noted, the Trump administration issued visa sanctions against members of the Guyana government when the country’s then-president David Granger refused to accept the outcome of the South American nation’s presidential elections and used the court system to try and overturn the vote.
“The circumstances are almost identical,” he said. “The United States government applied sanctions, applied threats and claimed democracy was at risk and demanded adherence by parties in Guyana, all of which were right.
“I think all of those things were necessary, but you cannot apply it to other countries and not apply it to yourself. If you apply a double standard, you lose the authority to tell anybody anything when they do wrong.”
That is the consequence of Donald Trump’s rejection of the will of the majority of the American people that he should not return to the White House. It is also a consequence of the demeaning of the sanctity and authority of the US Congress that he organised and promoted for his selfish ends. And it is a consequence of the ready acquiescence of Republicans in Congress and of hanger-on governments, including in the Caribbean, who remained silent, and complicit, as Trump’s government forced its will in bodies such as the OAS, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Trade Organisation and elsewhere, eroding international law, norms and practices.
Thankfully, the institutions of democracy and the rule of law remained strong and resilient in the US itself. Were it not for the belief and commitment of Americans themselves – including, in the end, Vice President Mike Pence – America and the world would have been facing an unstable and disastrous future.
The world was brought to the brink of disaster on January 6 – a date described by senate minority leader, Democrat, Chuck Schumer, as “as one of the darkest days in recent American history”.
It is to be hoped that Americans have learned a salutary lesson for democracy and the rule of law in their own country, and about the importance of retaining and nurturing respect, not fear, globally.
Hopefully, hangers-on governments around the world, will also have learned that standing-up for principle is far more valuable than alliances with bullies with feet of clay.