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United Nations Global Issues

Democracy and Human Rights

The human rights normative framework

The values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy.  In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.

The link between democracy and human rights is captured in article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
a voter casts her ballot
A voter casts her ballot in Timore-Leste’s
parliamentary elections in July 2012. (UN Photo)

The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments covering the rights of certain groups (e.g. indigenous peoples, womenminoritiespeople with disabilities, migrant workers and members of their families) are equally essential for democracy as they ensure inclusivity for all groups, including equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.

For several years, the UN General Assembly and the former Commission on Human Rights endeavored to draw on international human rights instruments to promote a common understanding of the principles, norms, standards and values that are the basis of democracy, with a view to guiding Member States in developing domestic democratic traditions and institutions; and in meeting their commitments to human rights, democracy and development.

This led to the articulation of several landmark resolutions of the former Commission on Human Rights.

In 2000, the Commission recommended a series of important legislative, institutional and practical measures to consolidate democracy (resolution 2000/47); and in 2002, the Commission declared the following as essential elements of democracy:    

demonstration for independence of Namibia
Supporters of South West Africa People's
Organization demanding UN- supervised elections
at a rally in Windhoek, Namibia, 1978. (UN Photo)

Since its establishment in 2006, the Human Rights Council (successor to the Commission) has adopted a number of resolutions highlighting the interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationship between democracy and human rights. Recent examples include resolutions 19/36 and 28/14 on “Human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.

Addressing democracy deficits

Democracy deficits, weak institutions and poor governance are among the main challenges to the effective realization of human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) seek to address these challenges through their advisory services and programmes, which focus on strengthening the legal framework for human rights protection and promotion (institutional and legal reform); capacity building for stronger national human rights systems; implementation of the Universal Periodic Review recommendations, promoting human rights-based approaches, including empowering vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of the society to claim their rights; advocacy, awareness raising and human rights education.

In transitional democracies and countries emerging from conflicts, OHCHR collaborates with national governments and actors to build a strong and independent judiciary, a representative, efficient and accountable parliament, an independent and effective national human rights institution, and a vibrant civil society. In fragile contexts UNDP particularly focuses on human rights through its Rule of Law, Justice, Security and Human Rights programming, for example with National Human Rights Institutions in more than 80 countries; including through the Global Focal Point arrangement on Justice, Police and Corrections and the partnership between UNDP, DPKO, OHCHR, UNODC, UN Women and others.

Promoting democratic governance

Democratic governance, as supported by the United Nations emphasizes the role of individuals and peoples — all of them, without any exclusion — in shaping their human growth and the human development of societies. But individuals can only make such contributions when their individual potential is unleashed through the enjoyment of human rights.

In 2011, UNDP helped more than 130 countries and devoted US$1.5 billion in resources to democratic governance, making UNDP the world's largest provider of democratic governance assistance. UNDP supports one in three parliaments in the developing world and an election every two weeks. In 2014, UNDP programmes strengthened electoral processes around the world and helped register 18 million new voters. UNDP also works to foster partnerships and share ways to promote participation, accountability and effectiveness at all levels, aiming to build effective and capable states that are accountable and transparent, inclusive and responsive — from elections to participation of women and the poor.

OHCHR promotes democratic governance by providing sustained support to democratic institutions, including national actors and institutions involved in the administration of justice; enhancing the capacity of parliamentarians to engage in human rights protection, supporting civil society, facilitating constitution-making, and conducting human rights monitoring in the context of electoral processes.

Supporting transitional democracies

protestors in Tripoli
Protestors demand an end to
lawlessness in Tripoli,
December 2011. (UN Photo)

Popular uprisings across the world were led by youth, women, and men from all social strata and are opening greater space for civic engagement in decision making. The calls for transformational change are a popular cry for choice, participation, transparency and respect for people’s legitimate quest for democratic space. These events have reaffirmed the pivotal importance of democratic governance as a system premised on inclusion, participation, non-discrimination and accountability.

In transitional democracies and countries emerging from conflict, OHCHR collaborates with national governments and other actors to confront the past in order to rebuild public confidence and restore peace and the rule of law. OHCHR has actively supported transitional justice programmes in more than 20 countries around the world over the past decade. Its support includes ensuring that human rights and transitional justice considerations are reflected in peace agreements; engaging in the design and implementation of inclusive national consultations on transitional justice mechanisms; supporting the establishment of truth-seeking processes, judicial accountability mechanisms, and reparations programmes; and enhancing institutional reform. 

Guiding national and regional efforts

DRC Goma referendum
People holding up their registration cards during
a referendum in Goma, Democratic Republic of
the Congo.

In March 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution titled “Human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” which reaffirmed that democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing. The Council called upon States to make continuous efforts to strengthen the rule of law and promote democracy through a wide range of measures. Further to this resolution, OHCHR, in consultation with States, national human rights institutions, civil society, relevant intergovernmental bodies and international organizations, published a study on challenges, lessons learned and best practices in securing democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective. Based on the study, in June 2013 OHCHR organized a panel discussion on these issues, with the participation of international experts.

In March 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution 28/14, which established a forum on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, to provide a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation on issues pertaining to these areas. This forum will be held for the first time in 2016.

OHCHR also works to underline the close relationship between human rights and democracy within the United Nations system. In collaboration with the UN Department of Political Affairs and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), OHCHR organized a ‘Round Table on Democracy and Human Rights’ in New York in 2011. The round table discussed democracy movements and their characteristics in a number of States, including those involved in the Arab Spring. It underlined the importance of working with regional and sub-regional organizations when dealing with unconstitutional changes of Government, and when promoting democratic movements and democracies more generally.

OHCHR also seeks to partner with intergovernmental democracy-promoting organizations such as l’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and regional intergovernmental organizations. In addition, the Office provides dedicated support to the UN Democracy Fund, advising the decision making process on programme funding criteria and on project proposals.

For more information:

OHCHR Geneva, Tel: +41 (0) 22 917 9220 or visit: www.ohchr.org
UNDP New York, Tel: +1 (212) 906 5377 or visit: www.undp.org