FOR many of us, democracy means ‘one person one vote’; this, however, is a naïve assessment of this form of government. Democracy is not just about representation and participatory elections, it is also about running a government that protects civil and political rights, achieves freedom from want, and attains cultural and social autonomy. Realising this type of a political order requires the establishment of accountable and effective governmental institutions that check and balance one another against the abuse of authority.
In other words, a constitutional democracy requires the separation of power between the three branches of government. This trichotomy of power keeps any one dysfunctional office from overreaching its inherent powers. Such is the current political climate in the US, with President Trump passing a series of executive orders — including one that unconstitutionally bars the entry of refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.
Several US states sued the federal government for what they argued was the exercise of unconstitutional presidential powers that undermine vested state interests and violate their residents’ constitutional rights. The order has since been suspended by the US federal judiciary for potentially violating the establishment, equal protection and due process clauses of the constitution.
The decisive factor that led to Trump winning the presidential elections was the white working-class, which came out in large numbers seeking to change the exploitative monetarist policies that had resulted in widespread income inequality. Since he took office, US civil society has gone into high gear trying to force his administration to abandon its exclusionary policies on immigration, formulated as they are under neo-conservatism and driven by bigotry and fascist forces strengthened by the failure of neo-liberalism.
We share the US’ chequered history of treating refugees and immigrants unfairly.
In the same vein, the CEOs of 127 global tech giants based in the US (including Apple, Facebook and Twitter) all of which heavily value and rely on a diverse workforce, have strongly condemned such policies by signing the legal amicus brief opposing the executive order.
Fortunately, the strength and resilience of the country’s democratic structures is now beginning to show. Congressmen, state attorneys general and scores of city mayors across the US have strongly condemned the discriminatory immigration executive orders. For example, the mayor of Bloomington (in the conservative Republican state of Indiana) recently issued a press release condemning and opposing the executive orders, calling them “unwise, shameful, and unconstitutional”. Although it is uncontroverted that the nation’s constitutional framework is being seriously tested, its democratic institutional machinery is robust as is becoming increasingly evident at the local, regional and national levels of government.
Recently, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei cynically thanked the new US leader for revealing America’s “true face”. But one needs to put one’s own house in order before making generalisations about another nation of people. Indeed, Trump makes the same mistakes, but states like Iran and Pakistan have a long and chequered history of unfairly treating and summarily deporting Afghan refugees, including those born within these states, in violation of international law. Also, in the last four months alone Saudi Arabia has summarily deported 39,000 Pakistanis on the pretext of complicity in terrorism or for violating residency and work rules.
Under Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion … birth … [and] no distinction is allowed on the basis of national or social origin or the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs”. Under international refugee law, no state can expel or return a refugee to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Further, under Articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR, the right to equality and non-discrimination are unequivocally protected.
Thus, global and domestic criticism of the US’ Muslim and refugee ban, and the deportation of Mexican immigrants, is indeed in order. All states, including Muslim-majority ones, should strongly criticise the US’ violations of its international human rights obligations by promulgating these executive orders and attempting to implement them. But Muslim nations cannot have double standards and must use the same universal lens of human rights to criticise each other and meet their own obligations. Refugees, immigrants and religious minorities have to been treated with human dignity, regardless of their country of origin.
The writer is former legal adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2017