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United Nations Global Issues

Democracy and the United Nations

When the founders of the United Nations drafted the Charter 70 years ago, they did not include the word democracy. This was hardly surprising. In 1945, still more than today, many of the UN's Member States did not espouse democracy as a system. Others laid claim to it but did not practise it.

And yet, in the seven decades since the Charter was signed, the UN as an institution has done more to support and strengthen democracy around the world than any other global organization -- from fostering good governance to monitoring elections, from supporting civil society to strengthening democratic institutions and accountability, from ensuring self-determination in decolonized countries to assisting the drafting of new constitutions in nations post-conflict.

This brings home the fact that democracy is one of the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations.  It is based on the freely expressed will of people and closely linked to the rule of law and exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Democracy, and democratic governance in particular, means that people’s human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected, promoted and fulfilled, allowing them to live with dignity.

People have a say in decisions that affect their lives and can hold decision-makers to account, based on inclusive and fair rules, institutions and practices that govern social interactions. Women are equal partners with men in private and public spheres of life and decision-making, and all people are free from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, gender or any other attribute.

Democratic governance feeds into economic and social policies that are responsive to people’s needs and aspirations, that aim at eradicating poverty and expanding the choices that people have in their lives, and that respect the needs of future generations. In essence, therefore, democratic governance is the process of creating and sustaining an environment for inclusive and responsive political processes and settlements.

It is also important to note that the United Nations does not advocate for a specific model of government, but promotes democratic governance as a set of values and principles that should be followed for greater participation, equality, security and human development.

In 2007, the Secretary-General’s Policy Committee, the highest decision-making body within the UN Secretariat, requested the development of an Organization-wide strategy that further defines the UN’s approach to supporting democracy, anchored in the three pillars of the UN’s work, namely, peace and security, development, and human rights. The Secretary-General tasked the Democracy Working Group of the Executive Committee on Peace and Security — established in May 2007 — to ensure regular follow-up on the issue of democracy and, more specifically, on strategy development. Against this background, the Group supported the development of the Secretary-General’s Guidance Note on Democracy, published in 2009.

Democracy in international law

Although the United Nations Charter includes no mention of the word “democracy”, the opening words of the Charter, “We the Peoples”, reflect the fundamental principle of democracy, that the will of the people is the source of legitimacy of sovereign states and therefore of the United Nations as a whole.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly in 1948, clearly projected the concept of democracy by stating “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” The Declaration spells out the rights that are essential for effective political participation. Since its adoption, the Declaration has inspired constitution-making around the world and has contributed greatly to the global acceptance of democracy as a universal value and principle.

electoral officers prepare ballot boxes
Electoral officers from the United Nations Mission
in Nepal prepare ballot boxes and other polling
materials for distribution throughout the country.
(UN Photo)

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) lays the legal basis for the principles of democracy under international law, particularly:

The Covenant is binding on those States that have ratified it. As of July 2015, the number of parties to the Covenant was 168, which constitutes approximately 85 per cent of the United Nations membership.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women stipulates that its 189 States parties (as of July 2015) shall take all appropriate measures that ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to vote and stand for elections, and participate in public life and decision-making (article 7), including at the international level (article 8).

Supporting democracy around the world

UN officer carries polling material unloaded from helicopter
United Nations Movement Control officer carries
polling material, unloaded from a UN helicopter
during the second round of the Presidential
elections. (UN Photo)

United Nations activities in support of democracy and governance are implemented through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) among others. Such activities are inseparable from the UN’s work in promoting human rights, development, and peace and security, and include:

UN ballot box Namibia
A United Nations Transition Assistance Group
worker helps a Namibian voter deposit her ballot
at the mobile polling station, 1989. (UN Photo)

Approximately $US 1.5 billion each year is provided through UNDP to support democratic processes around the world, making the United Nations one of the largest providers of technical cooperation for democracy and governance globally.

The political work of the United Nations requires that it promote democratic outcomes; the development agencies seek to bolster national institutions like parliaments, electoral commissions and legal systems that form the bedrock of any democracy; and the human rights efforts support freedom of expression and association, the right to peaceful assembly, participation, and the rule of law, all of which are critical components of democracy.

The UN General Assembly and democracy

Since 1988, the General Assembly has adopted at least one resolution annually dealing with some aspect of democracy.  Democracy has emerged as a cross-cutting issue in the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits since the 1990s and in the internationally agreed development goals they produced. Member States at the World Summit in September 2005 reaffirmed that “democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.”

The Summit Outcome Document also stressed that “democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing,” and pointed out that “while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy.”  Member States resolved to promote increased representation of women in Government decision-making bodies, including to ensure their equal opportunity to participate fully in the political process (Para 58g).

The World leaders pledged in the Millennium Declaration to spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They resolved to strive for the full protection and promotion in all countries of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for all and to strengthen the capacity of all countries to implement the principles and practices of democracy and respect for human rights.

The Outcome Document of the post-2015 negotiations, “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, to be adopted by Heads of State and Heads of Government on 25-27 September 2015, reaffirms this commitment to a world in which “democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, are essential for sustainable development”.