The 2012 Africa-Korea Forum: What about Human Rights? By Geletaw Zeleke

December 12th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

The 3rd Korea-Africa forum was held this year from October 16th to 18th in Seoul, South Korea. The forum discussed three themes in particular development cooperation, trade and investment and peace and security. These issues will be the major guiding principles of Africa-Korea bilateral relationships for the coming 3 years. Though the themes are important for the bilateral relationships of both parties another relevant issue which is human rights and democracy did not receive adequate emphasis at the forum.

The quest for human rights and democracy cannot be bundled up with other issues; it is a separate issue, especially when it comes to the nature of Africa and its current contexts. It is apparent that for many African countries the low status of human rights and lack of political freedom is playing a negative role in overall development. No matter how well these countries equip themselves with outstanding development plans and policies they still have problems implementing them due to such poor politic climates.

Africans expect Koreans to play out their roles in human rights, good governance and democracy issues in relation to bilateral cooperation. Notably, although Korea’s ODA is growing when we look at it year by year, its effectiveness through time is also important to reconsider.

In African countries, such as Ethiopia, we see that the quest for democracy and justice is hot in people’s hearts and minds. One indicator to this is that many civic movements and political parties are found upon democratic ideals or human rights and justice issues. This implies that people are interested in safeguarding freedoms. Human rights and democracy issues are quicker in people’s hearts because they believe for all socio political and socio economic problems the low status of human rights and lack of good governance are the main sources of their complicated problems. They associate their overall problems with these political and human rights problems. Their beliefs emulate a fundamental human truth.

Below let us examine why; and especially, why so in Africa, should human rights and democracy be a focus for bilateral and multilateral cooperation with other parties.

1.The Nature of Africa

Almost all African countries are characterized as multi ethnic countries. Some of the African countries like Nigeria for instance have hundreds of ethnic groups. Ethiopia has more than 82 linguistic groups. Cameroon, Ghana and even the smaller country of Gabon and more, are made up of multi cultural groups. In fact, this diverse nature is a potential quality for development and one of the most valuable strengths of African countries. It can also, however, be a source for potential civil conflict when not harmonized with democracy, justice and valuing human rights. Africa’s nature incurs democracy more so than any other thing; in order to accommodate itself and to survive as both a continent and independent countries.

When differing cultural groups come together in an environment shaped by democracy which, grows common values and strengthens unity their security relies very much so on democracy. Whenever Africans lose the conditional support of democracy it usually forces them to politicize their cultural groups and then to rebel over their existing government. As a result, development in addition to peace and security issues will always be in a state of insecurity. This is one of the rationales for the question of why Africans desperately need protection of human rights and freedom.

Any bilateral development and peace cooperation agreement, without prioritizing the quest for human rights, will not bear fruit nor will it be sustainable.

Africans can learn from Korea’s democratic growth. Although some seem to believe that democracy did not play a significant role in Korea’s economic growth, Korea is a country which has benefited markedly by democracy.

When we take a look at Koreas economic growth between the years of popular democracy we can see how well a truly democratic environment accelerates economic growth.

Rapid Economic Development: 1960-2010
1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
GNP per capita (dollars) 79 254 1,645 6,147 10,841 20,265
GNP (billions dollars) 2.0 8.1 63.8 263.7 511.8 986.3
Source: The World Bank database

When we compare the 1960 economic state when Korea was one of the poorest countries on earth and where the GNP per capita income was only 79 dollars, we see the growth between 1960 and 1980 multiply 21 times. This may have been a time while was Korea was still under dictatorial style rule, however, the aggressive development strategy worked not because dictatorship helped them but because Saemaul Undong (New village movement) was leading the economic development movement while Koreans struggled hand over fist for democracy. Once the people won concord and were able to oust the dictatorial regime Korea was rapidly transformed to an exemplarily functioning democratic country.
When we compare the growth of Korea from 1960 to that of 2010 we see the miracle. Korean GNP per capita income has grown about 257 times compared to that of the 1960s. Korea was lifted to the rank of one of the world’s most developed countries by the help of democracy. Beginning in 1989 Korea would fully transform to a democratic country.

Those who believe that democracy did not play a great role in Korea’s development history mention the notorious Korean development plan, the Saemaul Undong movement. For them, since the Saemaul Undong (the New Village Movement of the 1970s) was established during a dictatorial regime and their economy was boosted during that time, they believe we cannot say that democracy played a catalytic role in Korea’s economic growth. It seems that Saemaul Undong can then be characterized as a dictatorial type institution. This argument can easily be turned upside down to say that since Saemaul Undong was established under a dictatorial regime then having a dictator will boost your economy.

In this inept interpretation of Saemaul Undong it seems some truth has been lost. First of all, Saemaul Undong was not a politically motivated institution. It was an aggressive developmental institution. As an organization it was not a political institution rather it was the manifestation of a Korean need for social change. Whosoever established it, Saemaul Undong remains the result of a social transformation era of the Korean people and not the reverse. Above all the institution was not dictatorial in and of itself since when we look at its grass roots we see that village leaders themselves were not politicians. The village leaders were those who held high social status and were respected or had influence in the society. Some of the village leaders were not even paid for their leadership role. Saemaul Undong was neither a political nor a dictatorial institution in its nature.

This does not mean that the movement did not face any political or government interference. There was interference. However, since its motive was a movement of growth it could win all its temptations and it is still working and it still exists. If it was the institution of a dictatorial regime it would have been dismantled in the process of Korean social and political changes like other dictatorial institutions. So the logic can not be that since Saemaul Undong was established in an era of dictatorship and Korea registered better economic growth under Saemaul Undong that being under rule of a dictatorial government helped boost Korean economic growth. Africans can not take this kind of unfounded example from Korea and also dictators cannot use this headstand argument as escapisms for the quest of human rights and respect.

2.To Build Trust

African nations need democracy to maintain trust for building social networks. As mentioned earlier, since their nature is characterized by the multi ethnic country, Africans need to build trust from within their social and economic systems. One of the tools to building trust for African countries is that of building democratic institutions. Within these institutions is where their trust lies. In many African countries we see low levels of trust when relying upon institutions. This shows that the level of confidence between the government and the people is low. There is no question that this problem hurts the overall developmental processes of Africa; without trust planning for sustainable development and peace cannot be fruitful.

African nations want Korea and other parties to focus on the causes of their problems, in order to boost their security. To bring about sustainable development in African countries and the African continent any bilateral relationships and development aids have to be prerequisite to the status of human rights. This trend can push Africa forward in the process of developing trust and democracy within, throughout and outside of the continent.

3.The Quest for Human Rights Is Not a Solely Internal Issue

The human rights issues of the 21st century have to be seen as the crown jewel of all cultures and polities. There is no need to justify this truth with philosophical prejudices. Human rights in and of itself is a practical call to action for human beings. It is self justified. What is more, it is an independent issue that stands on its own. Requesting to justify the quest for human rights with other developmental issues seems wrong.

Africans need their human rights to be addressed and respected so that they can solve their problems righteously. Africans want and deserve a society where researchers research without any frustration, writers express their opinions without any anxiety, and teachers teach without any fear. In this regard, I think that Africans expect Korea to play a greater role in the development of human rights in Africa.

Generally speaking, development peace and, security and trade are the results of conducive political conditions. These issues need a fertile place to grow in order to bear fruit, as it ought to be. Any bilateral aid without prerequisite human rights stipulations has two potential problems. One reason for problems to arise is that democratic institutions functioning under weaker conditions, or without trust, will not give aid effectively to the program it is meant for. Some oligarchic type leaders even use aid to strengthen their security when it was meant specifically to be spent on non-military developmental issues.

A second reason for problems to arise is that, any aid given can become the victim of illicit outflows. According to the Global Financial Integrity Report 2011 Africa has lost 854 billion dollars over 39 years to illicit financial outflows. Recently over the 9 years from 2000-2008 Africa has lost a shocking 437 billion of dollars in cumulative illicit outflow. A more alarming problem is that capital flight is increasing when we compare it to 30 years ago.

These realities make the issue of democracy and human rights of primary importance in Africa. This huge portion of money grew wings and learned to fly at the hands of weak of democratic institutions in Africa; money that otherwise could have been being used at this very minute in universities, at hospitals and in schools on and around the African continent. If aid were spent on democracy and development the Africa we would be viewing could have a totally different image. Generally, the facts show that aid with tort pockets does not bring about the desired change.

The Africa-Korea bilateral cooperation seems need to focus on human rights development in its package to boost the benefit of both parties. Since Korea’s trade dependency rate hit about 90 percent Korea will be the beneficiary of growth supported by developing democracy and human rights movements in Africa. The market of the 21st century creates interdependence wherein demand and supply have to be harmonized while parallel growth is sharpened and maintained, in order to fully sustain both parties’ benefit. The forum slogan “share today, shine tomorrow” will be real when Korea and Africa work together to lift up the status of human rights.

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