REFORMING POLITICAL INSTITUTIONSWhile democracies are not free from internal conflict, democratic institutions do provide peaceful mechanisms for conflict resolution, which can reduce tensions without resulting in violence. The democratization of political institutions is important for post-conflict rebuilding because political institutions shape the expectations, mentality and behaviour of politicians and of the public. While the design of democratic institutions differs according to each country’s unique history and culture, there are certain basic principles common to all democracies.
A fundamental democratic feature is free and fair elections. Allowing all segments of society that are of eligible age the right to vote and run for political office grants political legitimacy to the elected government. At the same time, elections empower citizens to exercise their right to choose their leaders. Often, independent international observers monitor the election so that citizens are not intimidated from voting for a particular candidate or from abstaining from voting altogether. Elections are not a one-time occurrence, but the beginning of a process of democratic participation and governance. For this reason, a state is generally not considered to be a stable democracy until three democratic elections have been held.
Rule of Law
The rule of law is a fundamental feature of a democratic society because it protects citizens’ rights while ensuring that those who abuse their freedom will be brought to justice. When a country functions by the rule of law, no citizen of the state, regardless of their political or socioeconomic status, is above the law. Democracies must have a strong, independent and impartial judiciary and laws that protect civil liberties. Since the laws of a democratic state are drafted and passed by publicly elected officials, citizens are usually willing to obey them. By providing citizens with the legal infrastructure to address their grievances, and by establishing a culture of order and stability, the potential for violent conflict is decreased.
Civil Liberties and Minority Rights
Civil liberties include freedom of speech, of religion, of the press, of assembly and of political organization. Since democracies function through the will of the majority, it is important that the rights of minorities be protected in order to prevent the escalation of grievances and tensions into conflict and to avoid the oppression of minorities. In addition to the civil liberties guaranteed to the population at large, minorities must have the right to uphold their social, religious and cultural practices.
The case of Uganda illustrates the challenges of instituting democratic reform and introducing stability in a country which has experienced, and is still experiencing, civil conflict. Under President Museveni, who came to power in 1986, Uganda has begun to implement democratic reforms in all sectors of public life, most notably in the army and the police. Civil society began to flourish with the increased freedom and independence of the media, which are often openly critical of Museveni’s government. During the 1990s, the introduction of economic reforms led to an increase in economic growth and in 1996, the first presidential elections resulted in a win for Museveni. However, the country was often referred to as a “no-party” democracy because only individuals, and not political parties, have been allowed to contest elections. A recent referendum in Uganda saw voters voting in favour of a multi-party system, establishing the foundation for a multi-party system for the first time in twenty years.
One of the most important areas of democratic reform is the protection of legal rights and the provision of legal aid to the most vulnerable members of society. War Child Canada’s Legal Aid Project in Northern Uganda aims to defend the legal rights and promote the best interests and well being of children and young people in northern Uganda by providing previously unavailable direct and effective legal aid for children and youth. In order to create sustainable change in the country’s legal infrastructure, War Child Canada works with local legal organizations, human rights groups and war-affected communities to provide direct legal representation, support and advocacy to children and youth in northern Uganda.
Providing northern Ugandan children with direct legal representation and advocacy services will have a lasting impact on the lives of the project beneficiaries, their families and their communities. Local communities are encouraged to work together to create sustainable solutions to improve the legal rights of children and youth within their communities. Support from this project also helps re-integrate former child combatants, victims of gender violence, refugees and internally displaced children into their communities.
War Child Projects that Make a Difference:
To learn about what War Child Canada is doing in Uganda, visit our international projects page here: http://www.getloud.ca/en/gpi_project.asp
Want to Learn More?
1. United Nations Development Program: Democratic Governance
2. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance
3. World Movement for Democracy: