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'Unalienable rights'
A sartorial message of peace, unity and democracy. Picture credit: Panos
A sartorial message of peace, unity and democracy.

'Unalienable rights'


We're all born free - but what does freedom mean when we live such different lives? Robin Lustig ponders the realities of how we live in our so-called free world

Consider these words: democracy, freedom, reform. No politician?s speech these days seems to be complete without them; they are words that create a nice warm feeling inside, encompassing what are held to be universal aspirations that bind together the villager in Uganda with the peasant in Cambodia, the computer software designer in California with the coal-miner in Ukraine.

But do they mean any more than that? Is what we mean by democracy even close to what the citizen-scholars of ancient Greece meant when they first used the word? They meant that every single citizen should take part in decision-making, not that fewer than half of them should turn out to choose representatives to do the job for them.

And what about 'freedom'? Free from what, free to do what? Is freedom from hunger more important than freedom of expression? And then, of course, there's that all-purpose notion of 'reform'. What is it, other than any change of which we approve? Your reformist in Ukraine could be my fundamentalist in Saudi Arabia.

So how free are we in this complex, frightening 21st-century world? Are democracy and freedom the same thing? Who's really in charge of the way we live?

And there's another crucial question: if some of us enjoy more of these freedoms than others - if in some countries we have thrown off our chains whereas in others they have not - then can the free help to unshackle the unfree? In an era of globalisation and of free trade is freedom exportable, like digital cameras and cheap cotton T-shirts? Can democracy be transplanted?

By and large, people yearn for the same things - a roof over their heads, food for their family, education for their children
After 35 years of journalistic globe-trotting, I have concluded that, by and large, people yearn for the same things wherever they are. They want a roof over their heads, food for their family and an education for their children.

And if they can have all that, they want that other, more intangible, thing that we know as freedom.

So who really runs this world of ours? Is it governments, corporations or powerful lobby groups, interested only in furthering their own interests?

Or is it a complex web of interlocking players who sometimes share power and sometimes struggle for it, leaving us, as citizens, feeling powerless to influence the decisions they take?

Regarding democracy, we?re back to the age-old question: what happens if the wrong lot wins? One man, one vote, once.

How tolerant should a democracy be of those who preach intolerance? How does an imperfect democracy deal with incompetence, venality or worse?

Was Pakistan better off under its corrupt elected civilian leaders than under a semi-elected military leader? Ask an unemployed Russian miner what good democracy has done him, and don?t expect a hymn of praise to the glories of 'constitutional liberalism.'

I was in Nigeria in 1999 when Olusegun Obasanjo was elected president after 16 years of appallingly brutal and corrupt military rule. What did voters want from him? An end to petrol queues and a functioning telephone system.

A year later, I was in Iran as voters trooped to the polls to elect an overwhelmingly reform-minded parliament. What did they want? Freedom: freedom from the stifling edicts of conservative Islamic clerics trying to hold back the tide of modernism.

It may well be true, as Churchill observed back in 1947, that "democracy is the worst form of Government, except all those other forms."

But when the Martian knocks on our door and asks to be taken to our leader, where should we go? Who really runs our world?
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