Threats to Democracy

Assault on the Judiciary in Poland

Two powerful aspects of our modern era, above all others, have proven themselves to be bulwarks against what might otherwise become immeasurable human suffering: stable democracies and stable economies. When a nation establishes itself as a reasonably transparent collective of leaders who are chosen by the citizenry, stability and predictability tend to follow. This stability supports the growth and regulation of a financial system that accounts for the needs and the productive capacity of the nation’s people and its natural resources. There are no real surprises here: Democracy is good for people, good for nations, and beneficial for the neighbors of both individuals and democratic states.

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But as we know, democracy is fragile. Some systems are self-sustaining, and once put into motion, they reinforce themselves as time goes by. But others are not self-sustaining, and they require continual pressure from inside and out in order to stand firm against the pull of entropy.

Unfortunately, democratic systems of government—our best protection against hunger, disease, injustice and civil chaos—fall into the second category.  Democracy works. But it does not work without the constant application of pressure and participation from every direction. And as we’ve learned over time, a few common signals indicate cracks and signs of trouble that must be addressed if democratic systems are to survive. These include authoritarian assaults on 1) the media and free press, 2) justice for political dissidents, 3) separation of religious institutions from state institutions, and 4) the independence of the judiciary.

Right now in Poland, a full scale attack on judicial independence is underway.

On Tuesday night at midnight, a law went into effect mandating that all Supreme Court Justices over age 65 must retire immediately. This effectively removes 27 of the country’s 72 judges from the bench. The government, led by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, asserts that these measures are necessary.

Speaking to the parliament of the European Union on Wednesday, Morawieki insisted that the Polish government (and all governments of EU member nations) have the “right to shape their legal systems according to their own traditions”. But many have identified this move as a straightforward attempt by the ruling party to gain control over the judiciary.

On Wednesday morning, all 27 purged justices showed up for work. They were not prevented from entering the building.

"This is a watershed moment for the Polish judiciary and indeed for the whole political system," said Piotr Buras, head of a think tank called the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). "It may have some very far-reaching consequences and implications for further political development in Poland."

On Wednesday morning and into Thursday of last week, chaos seemed to prevail as supporters cheered the defiant justices.

We will be watching developments in Poland over the next few weeks with our attention fixed, as always, on democratic principles and applications unfolding in real time. Only by learning from history can we avoid repeating it, and we learn by staying alert as our lessons become available.

A Summary of Our Current Projects

When democracy faces threats, the circle of concern doesn’t stop at the limits of Capitol Hill. It’s true that a functional society begins with a sound and well-reasoned approach to lawmaking, and ideally, a democratic system ensures that those affected by the laws of the land will have a hand in their creation. But while the halls of congress represent the most visible pillars of democracy, threats to those pillars quickly become threats to systems of enforcement and justice, fair distributions of opportunity, and fair access to resources. When democratic governance starts to crumble, other stable systems that we rely on in a just society begin to crumble as well.

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As we mentioned in the previous post, our mission is defined by these threats. Here at JAI, we recognize that protecting the rights of the many from the will of the powerful few demands constant vigilance. And we recognize that the same vigilance is necessary if we hope to protect the environment and maintain sustainability and equal access to natural resources. Our goal is to use the most effective tool available to us—the rule of law—to keep these threats at bay and bring accountability to those who seek to personally profit at the expense of justice, peace, and global stability for everyone else.

Here’s a quick overview of some of our recent and ongoing efforts.

Seeking Accountability for the Crime of Aggression

For the first time in history, the Nuremberg Trials established an early draft of what would later found a system of international law and international criminal justice. As part of this effort, acts of criminal behavior had to be defined in a way that transcended all cultures, regions, languages and systems of law and order. One of the crimes named and identified during this process was the crime of “aggression”, an unjust and unsanctioned war launched by one nation against another without the support of the international community. War is humanity’s greatest horror, and during the Nuremberg Trials, aggression was specifically identified as a “supreme international crime.” But six decades later, high ranking members of the Bush Administration launched the war in Iraq in clear violation of the will of the United Nations. So far, none of these officials have been held accountable for their actions. We’re working to change that. By pursuing accountability, we hope to strengthen and uphold the principles of international law, and we also hope to prevent future acts of aggression and unilateral warmongering.

Climate Change and Human Hardship

As a result of human activity, the planet is warming and the climate is changing. Ecosystems are experiencing unprecedented and unpredictable shifts, and these shifts will be followed by unprecedented and unpredictable forms of human hardship. The entire planet will likely be impacted by these waves of change and ensuing waves of difficulty, which may include massive migrations, displacements, and upsets in food and water distribution. We’re working on several fronts to anticipate and mitigate these problems. Our efforts include the creation of a comprehensive international legal guide related to climate change, and also a set of comprehensive guidelines for policy makers that will help them anticipate and respond to an expected refugee crisis.

Click here to learn more about the actions we’re taking on these issues and others, and please contact us if you’d like to contribute to our efforts.

Protecting Democracy Through Legal Pathways: Let’s Talk About Our Core Mission

A functional democratic system of government protects all those who live under the influence of that system. This is a hard-earned lesson that has sustained peaceful and prosperous nations for several centuries, since the slow rise of democratic social systems began exerting its influence over global commerce, agriculture, justice, education, and all aspects of the way we live in modern self-governing societies. When the people choose their elected leaders, they maintain control over the drafting and enforcement of the laws that mark their path through life, and as long as this control stays in the hands of the people, the institutions that protect, feed, nurture, and sustain us can serve the needs of the many rather than exploiting the many to serve the few.

Self-governance has proven its value over time, but as we’ve come to rely on central democratic principles to sustain functional societies, we’ve learned another important lesson: democracy is fragile. It’s easy to take for granted, and it’s constantly under threat. The will of the few and powerful will always exert itself over the needs of the many, and might will always search for ways to undermine right. Democracy cannot thrive when it goes unprotected. And in our current era, threats to systems of democratic governance are virulent and on the rise.

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When democracy begins to struggle or fail, injustice, resource distribution problems, and the cruelty of war begin to gain a foothold. Chaos creates avenues of opportunity for the powerful few, and human suffering begins to increase. In the 21st century, the greatest challenges to democracy and human well-being appear to be falling into two distinct categories: global warfare and climate change.

A healthy democracy 1) adheres to the rule of law, 2) protects human rights, 3) resolves international disputes through peaceful means, and 4) promotes an economic structure that grants sustainable and equal opportunities for all who live within its bounds. When a functional society supported by these four pillars comes under threat, protective action can be taken through a wide range of mechanisms, including education, science and research, art and culture, and political action. Here at Just Atonement Inc, we support democracy by leveraging the avenue of law. We have committed ourselves to the application of legal systems to protect the vulnerable, strengthen democratic principles, and work to ensure a brighter and safer future for ourselves, our descendants, and all present and future members of our global community. 

How can a legal team protect democracy? How can a law-focused organization serve those who are threatened by injustice or violent conflict? And how can an application of the law mitigate the chaos that looms as a result of a changing climate? What influence might we exercise over threats that seem wider and more amorphous that any dispute that can be resolved in a courtroom?

The answer is far from simple. But our goals are built around a simple idea: that we can begin by cultivating a sense of accountability. And that if we believe in human resilience and the power of human consciousness, we can build a stronghold against the challenges that are poised to shape the century ahead. Our manifesto is posted here and over the next few posts, we’ll discuss more about how our actions, intentions and current projects are founded on this core mission.

 

Five things the U.S. must do to restore the rule of law

by Inder Comar

The rule of law is in serious jeopardy in the United States.

The Executive branch is unconstrained, engaging in foreign wars without oversight even while it dismantles the regulatory and administrative state that protects citizens from abuses of power. 

The Legislative Branch has been hopelessly bought-and-sold by monied interests.

And the Judicial Branch refuses to intervene, and is actively closing the doors to any accountability over other elected officials.

Some scholars like Professor Ryan Alford even argue that the U.S. is no longer a rule of law state, a government that is run by a dictator who is elected every four years.

If this is true, then the U.S. is effectively a rogue nation. 

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Here are five things the U.S. must do in order to restore the rule of law:

(1) End all undeclared wars and military actions, and revoke the 9/11 authorization. Unending wars act as a systemic threat to democratic government. War increases the powers of the presidency and acts as an excuse to increase presidential powers. Money disappears through appropriations for military expenditure, or just through corruption. War destroys civil society by producing a culture that glorifies the military. War and democracy cannot coexist. 

James Madison, one of the chief authors of the U.S. Constitution, observed the very same

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

The 9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed immediately after the 9/11 attacks, has morphed into a blank check on an unending, perpetual, worldwide war.

As of May 2016, the AUMF was cited at least 37 times to support or sustain military action in at least 13 different countries, by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.

And President Donald Trump has indicated his broad support for maintaining the 9/11 AUMF.

But enough is enough. The AUMF should be terminated, immediately.

Al Qaida has been destroyed and Bin Laden is dead.

There very well may be new national security threats that require a military response. If so, Congress can pass a new authorization tailored to those threats.

(2) Join the International Criminal Court. When you think about it, it is a remarkable thing: we live in a world where there is an independent, international, permanent tribunal whose primary purpose is to prosecute international crimes.

The U.S. was initially committed to the International Criminal Court (ICC). President Clinton signed the Rome Statute, but President George W. Bush famously "unsigned" the treaty, and the Senate was never asked to ratify it.

The ICC is in its infancy. It needs help and support. It is admittedly quite wobbly; but the first airplanes were also quite wobbly. Like any technology, the ICC needs investment and refinement. American support for the ICC would be a game changer, and would strengthen the international rule of law in ways that would herald a new era of international accountability for torturers, war criminals, and illegal aggressors.

(3) Investigate and prosecute U.S. officials who committed grave violations of international law. The rule of law is meaningless if it stops at the door step of the powerful. And since 9/11, U.S. leaders have committed terrible international crimes. Torture, unlawful surveillance, wars of aggression, crimes against humanity and war crimes have been openly committed by U.S. government leaders.

Restoring the rule of law requires an investigation into these crimes, and ultimately, prosecution over these crimes.

This will be a painful social process. But Americans have no choice but to expel these poisons that infect its politics, its society, its culture, and its government. When a person gets sick, the immune system does terrible things to fight off the infection. Fever and pain are the hallmark of an immune system that is doing its job. But when the process is over and the infection is gone, the body is restored and is once again healthy.

The American judicial system, including its prosecutorial agencies, attorneys, social activists and even brave members of the political class, are the anti bodies that we need to restore democratic governance. We absolutely need to end impunity of high ranking officials, whatever their rank and title, if we wish to live in a truly free and democratic society. 

(4) Promote and sustain an independent judiciary. It is a terrible thing that court-watchers can determine the outcome of a major case before the U.S. Supreme Court simply by looking at its composition. 

All sense of independent, impartial review has been jettisoned in favor of nakedly political judicial appointees. 

Justices across the political system should find no controversy in protecting and defending civil rights, providing access to justice to vulnerable groups, and acting as a mechanism of last resort for fair and impartial decision making. 

Judges and justices themselves must have the integrity and vision to understand that an independent judiciary is the last defense of a dying democracy. They must reject attempts by either the President or Congress to politicize the judiciary.

(5) End the influence of money in politics. Most pundits of the chattering classes glorify in the process of holding of an election as the end-all and be-all of democracy.

But take a look at any dictatorship in the world today, and there was almost certainly an election that was rigged to manufacture the intended outcome.

Elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition of democracy.

And voting is nothing more than kabuki theater when the results are manufactured or preordained.  

In the U.S., money has infected the electoral process to such a degree that outcomes are effectively tied to the degree of wealth that supports any given candidate. Elected officials take positions that please their wealthy donors, and not ones that reflect the true will of those who elected them to serve. 

For elections to be meaningful, they must express the will of an educated citizenry. Public funding of elections and limits on campaign finance expenditure are critically needed in the U.S. to restore legitimacy to the election process. Elections must free, fair, and open to every citizen. 

These are five, concrete actions that the U.S. must undertake to restore the rule of law. 

Let’s Talk About the Future of Democracy

Here at Just Atonement, we actively search for good news and bright beacons that can lead us toward a better world—a Golden Age of global democracy and global justice. We know that perfection on this point is impossible in a messy world characterized by immeasurable diversity in terms of geography, ethnicity, age, gender, religion, culture, sense of purpose, sense of action, and competing versions of the good. We recognize that people, by nature, all move toward a “better world” defined by different terms. But bearing that in mind, we see democracy and freedom of thought and expression as universal paths to justice, equality, and peace.

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So we try to focus on the good news and look for signs that the world is on the right track. But sometimes, in order to access the truth, we must also take a hard and difficult look at news and status reports that may be unsettling. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently released its “Democracy Report” for 2017, and while the factors that contribute to the primary conclusion are many, the conclusion is simple: the global health of democracy revealed signs of trouble during the past year.

According the report, 27 countries under review saw increases in their scores over the past year, specifically related to freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and free access to information. But 89 countries saw declines. The position of the United States has slipped into the category of “flawed democracy”, and so have several countries across Asia, news made more troubling by President Xi Jinping’s recent efforts to remove presidential term limits in China.

Among the countries at the bottom of the list, the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced the steepest decline. As recently as last week, government security forces have launched a violent crackdown on protesters who urge president Joseph Kabila to step down following the end of his term in 2016. This past weekend, security forces have used tear gas and live ammunition to threaten protesters gathered in churches. Developments are unfolding in the DRC, as well as China, and of course threats to democracy are taking shape in the form of assaults on the media in the United States and Europe.

Please click here for a summary of the report (you can also download the related whitepaper, which requires registration with the site), and provide comments if you choose.