World leaders including Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gather in Bali from Thursday for a forum to promote democracy, but critics say sanctions-hit Tehran will use the talks to combat its growing isolation.
The fifth Bali Democracy Forum has attracted record numbers of heads of state and government, including Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
The high-profile attendees, among some 1,200 delegates at the meeting on the Indonesian resort island, reflect increasing international interest in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, at a time of lethargic global growth.
Indonesia, the world’s third most populous democracy, hopes to show off its growing clout on the world stage by hosting a range of talks and debates over two days aimed at promoting the “principles of democracy on a global scale”.
But the government-run event has been derided as a talking shop that has never produced anything beyond vague communiques, with critics saying it gives unsavoury regimes a platform to falsely present themselves as legitimate.
“The forum is opening its arms too widely to include everyone,” Aleksius Jemadu, from the school of government and global affairs at the Pelita Harapan University, told reporters.
“It is being used by some countries to show they can be part of the democratic world.”
Observers said the Iranian president, whose re-election in 2009 was marred by allegations of fraud, is attending the summit for the first time to build ties with friendly states as sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear programme bite.
Attending the summit “fits in perfectly with the Iranian government strategy of building bridges” with countries outside the West, Amnesty International Iran researcher Drewery Dyke told reporters.
Indonesia, a moderate Muslim-majority country, has maintained strong ties with the Islamic republic.
The European Union in October introduced a new package of sanctions targeting Iran’s banks, shipping and gas imports, aimed at forcing a breakthrough in talks on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
“Rallying the world to isolate Iran and increase the pressure on its leadership so that they stop pursuing a nuclear weapon has been a top priority” the White House said at the time.
The West claims Tehran is seeking to make an atomic bomb, while Iran claims the nuclear drive is for purely peaceful purposes.
Iran is currently chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping of 120 countries, and in August hosted a meeting of the group that it trumpeted as a triumph over the West’s attempts to isolate it.
Ahmadinejad hailed the NAM meeting as “unique in quality and in the number of participants”, although the proceedings were at times overshadowed by pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
Despite the questions over Iran’s motivation for joining the democracy forum, Dyke said some good could come out of it if other countries raised Iran’s serious human rights violations, including its high number of executions.
“If this meeting in Bali can result in a single positive improvement in the human rights situation in Iran, then as far as I am concerned, the Iranian president’s participation in the event will be worthwhile.”
Other high-profile participants at the meeting include Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
There will be tight security for the event, with some 2,300 police officers deployed to guard key areas, about a month after the resort island held 10th anniversary commemorations for nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.