ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Detention in Democracies


The year 2019 witnessed a number of significant mass protests in almost 20 countries of the world. The protests erupted when there was lack of democracy, rigidity in the system, and corruption that forced people to come out on the streets. The protestors have faced physical force like beating, injury as well as death. The question arises as to why such protests are happening and if these protests are part and parcel of a democracy.

The term democracy means different things to different people depending on the exponent’s philosophical, ideological, political, cultural, social and economic perspectives. The Vienna Declaration on Human Rights states that democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. The United Nations General Assembly Report, 1995 states that

Democracy is not a model to be copied from certain states, but a goal to be attained by all peoples and embraced by all cultures. It may take many forms depending upon the characteristics and circumstances of societies.

The basic rights in a democracy are life, liberty, freedom of expression, equality before the law, judicial access and review and non-discrimination. These rights are contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Democracy and its pluralist characters involve accountability to the electorate, the obligation of public authorities to obey the law and justice to be administered impartially. In a democracy, no one will be subjected to arbitrary detention, torture or other cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In the 19th century, European countries once again continued the use of detention against political opponents and criminal suspects. However, in the 20th century, detention was widely used not only in Europe, but throughout the world. In Europe, the practice of detention increased greatly with the rise of communism, Nazism and fascism. The fascist regime of Italy and the Nazi regime of Germany used methods of detention and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatments or punishment against political opponents, prisoners of war, and populations of the occupied territories and Jews. The communist and non-communist states in Asia, Africa and West Asia used detention widely against political opponents and insurgents who gained power during that time. With this, the practice of detaining people seems to have increased to a great extent in the 20th century, with the rise of nationalist and communist
independence movements.

In the present times, detention is widely practised by democratic countries against their own citizens if they are coming out against the government. The democratic countries justify it to maintain law and order in the country. Detention has become the legal principle around the world. The purpose of its use is to protect the state from persons who are doing wrong against it. Countries, whether democratic or undemocratic, have different methods of detention in order to control dissent and political threats. There are examples from all over the globe, where people came out against their government for several reasons. In the countries where such protests occurred, the people had to face either police brutalities, detention or were killed.

Venezuela created history by coming out to fight corruption and dictatorship. In other words, it was a struggle between an authoritarian left and an oligarchic right, which saw both sides mobilising large crowds and both claiming to be representing the democratically legitimate government. Venezuela has been under economic distress for a number of years under the leadership of Nicolás Maduro, who assumed office in 2013. The protestors wanted Juan Guaidó in power rather than Maduro. The opposition claimed that Maduro was sworn in as the President in the second term despite international criticism, and the election was illegitimate. It has been argued that Maduro arbitrarily detained political opponents and forced some to flee the country. The Supreme Court Judge Christian Zerpa also fled from the country in protest arguing that the elections were not fair and free. While investigating the matter, the United States (US) mission to the UN also called the election as an insult to democracy.

In Haiti, the protests began against the government. The protestors demanded the resignation of the President, the eradication of corruption and the provision of social programmes to deal with the country’s endemic poverty. In Serbia, there was a widespread campaign calling for democracy and denouncing alleged persecution of government opponents. In Ecuador, there were protests when the government adopted a reform package of the International Monetary Fund that included the removal of fuel subsidies and other increases in the cost of living. However, these protests ended soon as the government backed down and withdrew the reforms. In Chile, there were demonstrations when the government increased train fare and brought about privatisation of the pension system. In Azerbaijan, there were protests against growing unemployment and inequality and to call for the release of political prisoners and for free and fair elections. Similarly, protests erupted in Iran on 15 November 2019, hours after the government raised gasoline prices by 200%. The country, which was already under the burden of economic sanctions imposed by the US, took out protests against the government against the rising prices of commodities. India, which is considered to be the world’s largest democracy, also faces protests against the Citizen (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Both these laws are against the Constitution because the laws affect one section of the society mostly. However, the people of India irrespective of religion, region and caste came out against these laws. The state used force against these protestors. More than 21,000 people have been booked under 15 first information reports in Kanpur. If dissent is considered as part and parcel of democracy, then why is there room for brutality and detention in the world? Why governments all over the world consider protests as a threat? If there is no space for dissent in these countries, then it is wrong to call such countries democratic.

Inamul Haq, Beryl Anand


Updated On : 14th Aug, 2020
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