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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 will 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 group rights (e.g. indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities) 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)

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.

Addressing democracy deficits

Democracy deficits, weak institutions and poor leadership 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 its advisory services and technical cooperation programmes, which focus on strengthening the legal framework for human rights protection (institutional and legal reform); capacity building; empowering vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of the society; 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.

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. 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 and facilitating electoral and constitution building processes.

Supporting transitional democracies

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

Recent popular uprisings across the Arab region 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. With a focus on combating impunity, 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

Two expert seminars organized by OHCHR in 2002 and 2005 shed light on the main challenges to democracy, human rights and the rule of law, including:

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

The reports of these seminars stand as a guide for developing national and regional frameworks and strategies for the realization of democracy as a holistic concept based on a strict adherence to human rights and the principles of the rule of law.

Moreover, OHCHR has published a compilation of relevant documents and texts which serves as a reference and analytical tool for Constitution making, the revision/drafting of national legislations and strategies to consolidate human rights and democratic foundations.

More recently, 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. It also requested the OHCHR, in consultation with States, national human rights institutions, civil society, relevant intergovernmental bodies and international organizations, to draft a study on challenges, lessons learned and best practices in securing democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective

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) 22 928 9787 or visit: www.ohchr.org
UNDP New York, Tel: +1 (212) 906 5377 or visit: www.undp.org