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The Right To Real Political Participation

Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

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Unless every group in society is able to participate fully in the political process, real democracy is not possible. And one of the greatest impediments to this is discrimination against minorities.

Groups like the Turks in Bulgaria, the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey and Travellers in Europe regard themselves and are regarded by others as different to mainstream society. Because they maintain their own identity and cultural practices, they are often seen as a threat to the unified nation state which seeks uniformity of culture and iangusg. Such groups are frequently subject to violent repression or denied access to cultural, social or economic rights.



One of the many profound changes in the former Soviet Union in the last few years has been a great improvement in official toleration of a whole range of minorities, especially religious and ethnic groups who were vigorously repressed before.

The new political freedoms have gone so far that, ironically, minorities may end up suffering as a result of the resurgence of nationalism and ethnic identity. Nevertheless, there is at the moment a degree of political pluralism in what was once a monolithic state and governments across the former empire have been forced to hear and respond to the will of their people.

Bulgaria wins the silver medal for reversing policies oppressive to minority groups (see article).

Political participation has received a major boost in Yemen since the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (the South) and the Yemen Arab Republic (the North) were united in May 1990. All political prisoners have been released and the country now has a new constitution which guarantees civil and political rights and bans 'inhuman methods' of punishment. Parliament has begun discussing new laws related to press freedom and the legal system. Although the situation is far from perfect, it has incomparably improved.



Political participation in Kenya has become much more difficult in the past year. The Government has arrested and tortured advocates of human rights and multi-party democracy. President Daniel arap Moi threatened to root out those supporting the multi-party system 'like rats': Government ministers and high-ranking officials exhorted followers to attack would-be political reformers: one minister incited people to chop off the fingers of anyone who stuck up two fingers in support of a two-party system.

The Government accused Kenya's largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, of supporting multi-party democracy for their own political ends. And in 1989 it started requiring that all Kenyans of ethnic Somali origin and Somali nationals living in Kenya carry identity cards, without which they could not obtain state-supplied services or permission to travel.

Last year, President arap Moi announced that refugees from Rwanda and Uganda must leave the country. This breached the Kenyan Government's responsibilities under a United Nations Convention which bans forcible repatriation except when a refugee has been found guilty of a serious crime.

In Turkey too, minorities experience daily abuses of their right to political participation. More than 20 associations, ranging from the Turkish Farmers Association to the Nurses Association, reported harassment in 1990, including raids on offices and the banning of political gatherings. Several political parties which were prohibited after the 1980 coup are still forbidden.

Kurdish people are forbidden to utter their native language at formal events, unable to call their children by Kurdish names, to observe Kurdish holidays or dance in the traditional fashion. Lawyers cannot even speak Kurdish if their clients do not understand Turkish.

Thousands of political prisoners were detained in 1990, many of whom were condemned to death after unfair trials. Torture is used extensively.

Iraq has appallingly treated thousands of political prisoners who were detained without charge or trial in 1990, including Iraqi exiles, foreigners, political opponents and their relatives, and Kuwaitis. Again torture is routine.

The Kurds have suffered especially in recent years, culminating in their escape from Saddam Hussein's army towards the end of the Gulf War. In 1985 the Government tried to end the rebellions in the north-east by forcibly resettling the Kurds. By the end of 1990 about half a million Kurds had been transferred, while hundreds of Kurdish settlements had been eradicated. And twice between 1987 and 1988 dozens of Kurdish villages were destroyed by chemical weapons dropped on them from above.

Sources: Human Rights Watch World Report, 1990; World Directory of Minorities, Minority Rights Group, Longman; Information, Freedom and censorship, Article 19, 1991; Third World Guide 1989-90 & 1991-2; Amnesty International Report 1991; consultations with experts in the field.

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