“Why Democratic Citizenship Education Now?”: Philosophy and lessons learned

Samson Salamat, Director Centre for Human Rights Education- Pakistan
(Presented at 2013 Seoul Democracy Forum- South Korea)


Emergence of Democracy in Asia and Democracy Movements
If we just look back at the last three decades of the region, we find only three democracies– India, Philippines and Japan. Japan was considered both democratic and prosperous of these three countries. India had yet to liberalize its economy and the Philippines had only emerged a year earlier from 20 years of dictatorship. The rest of the region was dominated by Communist, military, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s a lot of movements for democracy began to emerge in Asia including “People’s Power Movement” in the Philippines, which led to the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos and the re-introduction of democracy, Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1983 against the Dictatorship of Military Dictator Zia-ul-Haq, the Gwanju Democracy Movement in South Korea in 1987, democracy movement in Burma in1988; Tiananmen Square in China in 1989, People’s Movement in Nepal in 1990; Thailand’s popular uprising in 1992; and the emergence of democracy in Indonesia in 1997.

There are personalities to be remembered too who has made significant contributions to bring democratic rule in their counties- Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner for opposition to military rule, Benazir Bhutto, the first female President of Pakistan who helped to move country from the military dictatorship to democracy in 1988 and many other great leaders across Asia.

All these movements and personalities has contributed very significantly to strengthen the political culture and liberties in their countries and of course the effects by and large reached to the whole region.

Democracy Today
Today, according to Democracy Index 2012 of Freedom House, there are 117 elected democracies out of 195 countries across the globe which makes 60% and it is 19% higher than what was measured almost 25 years ago.

In the Asia- Pacific Region, 43% countries fall in the Category Free (45% of the Population) which means there  is open political  competition,  a  climate  of  respect  for  civil  liberties,  significant  independent civic life, and independent media.

36 % countries are Partly Free (15 % Population) means there is limited respect for political rights and civil liberties.  The Partly  Free  state frequently  suffer  from  an  environment  of  corruption,  weak  rule  of  law,  ethnic  and  religious strife, and a political landscape  in  which  a  single  party  enjoys  dominance despite a certain degree of pluralism.

While 21% countries are Not free (40 % population) means still basic political rights  are  absent,  and  basic  civil liberties  are  widely  and  systematically denied in these countries.

Civil Society Contribution
If we look at the contributions for strengthening democracy in the Asian Region during the last three decades, a very significant chunk of this contribution goes to the civil society through democracy education initiatives for the advancement of civil and political rights in most of the countries.

Even in the semi-authoritarian states, the civil society organizations has worked on the issues related to democracy, although they are often less accepted as compared to development or relief work  and often find a lot of difficulties and threats. But of course, the political parties/ activists, media and people in general have made their contributions also which needs to be recognized.

Democracy Education in Asia: Civil Society and Challenges
There is no doubt that still  there is a lot that needs to be done to enhance the scope of elected democracies in the region and there are many difficulties in this regard- for instance, the issue of transparency and credibility of the elections and for that matter independence of the Election Commissions and other state institutions involved for the electoral processes, interferences of the military establishments, which still remains as a potential threat- Pakistan and Burma may be considered as  good examples and of course interference of the international powers in the internal politics of many Asian Countries. All these issues and challenges are very serious which civil society needs to keep an eye on and address consistently.

One of the biggest problems which civil society needs to address through its democracy education initiatives is that democracy is not just the “Elections” and it needs to be coupled with the principles of democracy- equality, non-discrimination, the rule of law, civil and political rights and freedoms for the people.

It is important to ensure that the states must practice the principle of democratic i.e. equal citizenship irrespective of religion, caste, ethnicity and regional background. It must ensure equality of opportunities to all for the advancement in social, economic and political rights and guarantee security of life and property of its citizens- this is for me democratic citizenship education. Moreover, a greater realization among the people about their rights and about holding and questioning their governments about their rights and freedoms is important too. 

While it is easy for the rulers, political leaders and political parties to claim their commitment to these principles, however the real challenge lies in making them operational. The key question is how does one create and sustain institutions and processes that reflect the spirit of democracy and participatory governance?  A large number of states are unable to fulfill these conditions. The commitments of many rulers, leaders, and institutions to democracy are just equal to lip service or they view democracy as an instrument to achieve power and then implement a partisan non-democratic agenda. 

Others selectively employ some aspects of democracy to create a make-up faced scenario. They hold elections, establish elected legislative bodies and install elected governments but do not empower the institutions and the people holding the key positions in the system. Power is thus exercised by an elite group while a face of democracy is created to legitimize its rule. Therefore, these operational realities, which hinders the quality and substance of democracy needs a special attention and care by the civil society.

Addressing democracy along with its principles is not an easy thing to do in many countries of the region, if not all. But despite difficulties, the civil society or the human rights community has done a marvelous job for the advancement of Democratic Citizenship Education in conjunction with International Human Rights Standards.
In South Asia- Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, there are a lot of good examples where the civil society organizations has not only produced good research documents, worked with UN Human Rights Mechanisms, made effective networks both national and regional but has also launched very effective local campaigns on democracy to enhance the scope of civil and political rights. 

For example “Democracy Education Programs” launched by civil society organizations of Pakistan during the Musharaf’s Dictatorship, contributed significantly in generating the movement for the restoration of democracy and oust the military dictator despite a lot of limitations put on freedom of expression, movement and other freedoms. In Nepal also, the civil society’s role was very practical and significant in the recent movement to end monarchy and bring democracy.

Civil society organizations across Asia has used very innovative and interesting ways and means- social theatre, video documentaries, music has been used very nicely especially to attract common people, especially youth. And most recently social media has successfully been used to speak against the violations of human rights and to generate public support for rights and freedoms. They are not afraid to come on the roads despite strict bans put by the authoritarian rulers.   

But in some of the countries the challenges are much more than the others in the region. In the last 15 years while working with different civil and political rights programs, I have   observed that there is a serious lacking of conceptual clarity on democracy and for that matter its acceptance beyond elected democratic government has remained difficult.

Non-clarity and confusions on the concepts of human rights and democracy does not only prevail among the general public but also even among the activists e.g. terming human rights and democracy as a Western Agenda, and connecting it to a particular religion rather than focusing on international standards, are the common issues that come across.

Even during the recent elections, Pakistan has observed anti-democracy campaigns by some of the religious extremist and fundamental groups who term democracy as anti-Islam system and demand for theocratic mode of governance. The extremist and fundamentalist groups tried to stop people to participate in the elections through violent attacks, however the civil society, political parties, media and the people of Pakistan participated in the elections and gave their verdict in favour of democracy.   
In my country- you can talk about electoral democracy but if you will talk about non-discrimination and equal treatment of the Muslims and non-Muslims “In Pakistan, you  shall be branded as an enemy, agent or a traitor.

This is one of the reason that Pakistan is and has been a difficult place where the human rights defenders and democratic or progressive forces face severe threatening situation- they face sever threat calls, their whereabouts are being monitored, phones are tapped, fabricated cases are registered, there are forced disappearances, and many are ultimately killed- murder of Parveen Rehman (a social activist of Karachi), Salman Taseer (Governor of Punjab Province of Pakistan) and Shahbaz Bhatti (Minister of Minorities) are recent examples. The threat comes from state’s security agencies, religious extremists and other powerful entities including landlords, factory owners, outlaws.

What needs to be done for effective democracy and civic education in the region?
If we look at the Freedom House Assessment, over the past five years, the Asia-Pacific region has been the only one to record steady gains in political rights and civil liberties as measured by Freedom House. Although China, where over half the world’s Not Free population lives, and North Korea, the least free country in the world, a number of Asia-Pacific countries have made impressive gains in the institutions of electoral democracy—elections, political parties, pluralism—and in freedom of association. Nonetheless, problems persist regarding many fundamental rights.

Now! Undoubtedly there is a need to struggle for more elected democracies in the region but it is also much important to focus on the implementation on the principles of democracy- equality, non-discrimination, the rule of law, civil and political rights and freedoms for the people to make sure that the benefits of the democratic governance reaches to all citizens without any discrimination.

Yes, we rightly believe that democracy has emerged and it has proved as a better system of governance in our world but it is also true that if the democratically elected government do not deliver to guarantee the human rights of its citizens- including justice, economic empowerment, safety and security of their lives, and protection of their fundamental freedoms, then people may slowly get fed-up with this system. The authoritarian powers and the ruling elites may always be in favour of creating propaganda and doubts against democratic system because it may help prolonging their rule but it is in the best interest of those who support and advocate for democracy that we are able to convince people that failure of any elected democratic government in any particular country is not actually the failure of democracy and a democratic system. 

What Civil Society Needs to Focus on Now?
Yes, Democratic Citizenship Education is very important for civil society to continue but with some different approaches, modern techniques and much more commitment in the changing world.

  • Concrete extensive learning education programs are required at regional, and country level to enhance the conceptual clarity especially amongst the members of its own fraternity to equip them with the understanding and skills to deal with the challenges.
  • Centre for Human Rights Education- Pakistan at the beginning of the new decade in 2011 launched “Democracy Decade in Pakistan” and initiated democracy education programs including an extensive Training Program Called “Participatory Course on Democracy and Human Rights” which brings together human rights activists, university students, media persons, members of the minority communities and political parties at one platform with following objectives.
  • Provide in depth knowledge on democracy and human rights- overcome the confusions and enhance conceptual clarity.
  • Impart skill- research, planning, organizing, documentation, management, advocacy techniques, monitoring and evaluation.
  • Create/ encourage the second tier leadership with democratic thinking
  • Provide a proper opportunity “for putting learnings into practice” in a systematic way, facilitating the trainees in the designing and implementation of the programs  
  • Prepare human rights activists for a qualitative and result oriented research and advocacy initiatives for the advancement of democracy and human rights
  • Create and introduce new models with the human rights community who work with an institutional and democratic approach.

These training Programs are followed by research, advocacy and awareness raising initiatives at different levels. Centre for Human Right Education has observed transformation in the lives of the trainees, and betterment in their understanding.


  • Many civil society organizations launch research programs and surveys to gauge the performance of the elected governments- which is very important but educating people to hold their representatives and the governments accountable against their rights is much more to be focused in our education programs now. There is a need to enhance the realization among the people also that their role does not end by casting a vote in the elections but their role is also important to use their power, to question and claim their rights and freedoms.
  • Regular interaction and close collaborations with the political parties, especially with the young political leadership is very important in the struggle for democracy, because with the young cadre, civil society may find more space and there may be more chances of transformation and strengthening of democratic culture within the political parties.


  • Everyone knows that media has power and importance in today’s world and therefore civil society needs to use this power to maximize the benefits of its education programs.  But the first most important thing which needs to be focused is the training of media persons to enhance their understanding on democracy to win their support and space in the media. 


  • Youth, especially  the students in the colleges and universities needs to be targeted  for democracy education, not only to enhance their understanding on democracy and its principles but also to prepare them to play their role as active citizens to defend democracy and promote its values.


  • Human rights and democracy needs to incorporated in the school curriculum which can help transform the society in a more sustainable way.    

Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy. The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic system are simple. They are: Equality of opportunity for youth and others; Jobs for those who can work; Security for those who need it; The ending of the special privileges for the few; The preservation of civil liberties for all;