Spring/Summer 2003    Vol. 11, Issue 1
Democracy, Good Health Remain Inextricably Linked
In April 2003, CECHE's vice chairman, Ambassador Mark Palmer, traveled to Qatar to meet with more than 100 Arab media, government and academic leaders, and to address a session on the role of the media and democracy in fulfilling the health and other needs of the Middle East. Echoing the United Nations Development Programme's 2002 Arab Human Development Report, a number of the leaders and session participants pointed to the gap in freedom, gender and knowledge as impeding the region's progress in health and other fields. Women from several Arab countries spoke out strongly about the need for reform. Meanwhile, the emir of Qatar introduced a new constitution that enables women to play a full role in his country, including voting in national elections.

Major change is in the air, and CECHE is active in the region, encouraging democracy through its Global Good Health Through Global Democracy by 2025 program. This project recognizes that key among the issues linking health and human rights are the universal and equal entitlements to good health and access to good health care -- rights that are often denied to citizens in certain nations.

The circumstances surrounding the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which spread outwards from China across the world in late 2002 and early 2003, is a stark reminder of the inextricable link between honest and clear communications, better health and a clean environment -- CECHE's founding objectives -- and the growth of democracy and human rights. It took four months for communist political leaders to permit public health officials in China to share information about the SARS outbreak in Guangdong province with the World Health Organization (WHO), and another month of heavy international publicity and pressure to allow visits and access to data. But even in mid-April 2003, the head of WHO's Beijing office noted that the international community did not trust China's statistics.

According to veteran New York Times China correspondent John Pomfret (himself married into a Chinese family), "From the start, China's reaction to the disease was textbook Chinese communism."

"The SARS epidemic is not just a 'misstep' by the leadership in Beijing, but an endemic problem of the regime… placing an obsessive view of power above the interests, and the very lives, of its people," agreed the oppressed traditional Chinese health and spiritual group Falun Gong. Conversely, one retired senior Chinese official said the government response to SARS "will create new expectations among the masses. The old equation, 'We rule and you have no rights,' is finished now." (Washington Post, April 22, 2003)

The interplay between health and the need for democracy is clear. A more transparent, democratic government which had to answer to a free press would have informed its own people and the world much earlier, thereby saving many lives in China and beyond. This phenomenon -- reluctance by nondemocratic countries to divulge accurate and timely information about health crises -- is not new. Tragically, we have witnessed it before in China in the case of AIDS when leading activist Wan Yanhai was jailed for "revealing state secrets" upon publicizing a government report that proved Henan province officials privately knew about the extent of HIV infections. (Washington Post, April 27, 2003)

Initiated in 1999, CECHE's first democracy and health venture involved conceiving, organizing and participating in history's first meetings of the world's democratic governments and democratic nongovernmental organizations. The move caught the attention of The Wall Street Journal, which heralded Ambassador Palmer as "one of the architects of the first global conference to promote worldwide democracy." That conference was held in Warsaw, Poland in June 2000. Recent democratic breakthroughs in Mexico, Yugoslavia and Kenya, and serious first-time discussions and movement towards democracy in the Middle East, encourage us to persevere.

The second meeting of the world's democracies and democrats took place in Seoul, South Korea in November 2002 and endorsed an action agenda emphasizing regional cooperation in Asia, Africa and the Middle East -- where the major challenges to democracy are located. The next meetings are scheduled for Chile, Mali and Portugal.

CECHE is at work on, and in, a number of key countries and regions. For example, we support the Falun Gong, which continues to be repressed by the Chinese leadership. Meanwhile, one of our first objectives -- formation of a democracy caucus at the United Nations -- is already a reality.

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© 2003 CECHE
Center for Communications, Health and the Environment
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