Democracy: Overview

Democracy is a universally recognized ideal and is one of the core values and principles of the United Nations. It provides an 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.

United Nations activities in support of democracy and governance are carried out 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:

  • assisting parliaments to enhance the checks and balances that allow democracy to thrive;
  • helping to strengthen the impartiality and effectiveness of national human rights institutions and justice and security systems;
  • helping to develop legislation and media capacities to ensure freedom of expression and access to information;
  • assisting to develop policies and legislation to guarantee the right to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly;
  • providing electoral assistance and long-term support for electoral management bodies;
  • promoting women’s participation in political and public life.

Since 1991 the United Nations has provided various forms of electoral assistance to more than 100 countries — including advisory services, logistics, training, civic education, computer applications and short-term observation.

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. 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. The Outcome Document of the post-2015 negotiations, “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, which was 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”. 

The UN General Assembly has 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,” as previously stated in the outcome document of the World Summit in September 2005.  At that summit governments renewed their commitment to support democracy and welcomed the establishment of a Democracy Fund at the United Nations.  The large majority of UNDEF funds go to local civil society organizations for projects that strengthen the voice of civil society, promote human rights, and encourage the participation of all groups in democratic processes.

The UN supports women's political participation, including efforts to increase the share of women elected into office and to build women's capacity as effective legislators once elected. In July 2010, as part of a resolution on system-wide reform, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women, mandated to coordinate the gender mainstreaming work of the UN System. In doing so, UN Member States took an historic step in accelerating the Organization’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women. 

The International Day of Democracy

On 8 November 2007, the General Assembly proclaimed 15 September as the International Day of Democracy, inviting Member States, the United Nations system and other regional, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to commemorate the Day. The International Day of Democracy provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world. Democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

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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.

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

  • freedom of expression (Article 19); the right of peaceful assembly (Article 21);
  • the right to freedom of association with others (Article 22);
  • the right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives (Article 25);
  • the right to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors (Article 25).

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

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:

  • assisting parliaments and decentralized local governance structures to enhance the checks and balances that allow democracy to thrive;
  • promoting human rights, the rule of law and access to justice by helping to strengthen impartiality and effectiveness of national human rights machinery institutions and judicial justice systems;
  • ensuring freedom of expression and access to information by strengthening legislation and media capacities;
  • electoral assistance and long-term support for electoral management bodies; and
  • promoting women’s participation in political and public life.

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.

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” 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”. 

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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 inarticle 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.”

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, women, minorities, people 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:    

  • Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of expression and opinion
  • Access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law
  • The holding of periodic free and fair elections by universal suffrage and by secret ballot as the expression of the will of the people
  • A pluralistic system of political parties and organizations
  • The separation of powers
  • The independence of the judiciary
  • Transparency and accountability in public administration
  • Free, independent and pluralistic media

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

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

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. 

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.

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Democracy and Elections

The spread of democracy around the world is one of the most significant achievements of our times. Elections sit at the heart of this, making possible the act of self-determination envisaged in the Charter of the United Nations. The Organization’s history is interwoven with elections extending back to shortly after its founding, when, in the late 1940s, it observed elections on the Korean Peninsula. During the subsequent era of trusteeship and decolonization, it supervised and observed plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide. Today, the United Nations continues to be a trusted impartial actor providing electoral assistance to approximately 60 countries each year, either at the request of Member States or based on a Security Council or General Assembly mandate.

Electoral assistance is based on the principle established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the will of the people, as expressed through periodic and genuine elections, shall be the basis of government authority. Electoral assistance also recognizes the principles of state sovereignty and national ownership of elections, and that there is no single model of democracy.

The main goal of United Nations electoral assistance is to support Member States in holding periodic, inclusive and transparent elections that are credible and popularly perceived as such and establishing nationally sustainable electoral processes.

The provision of electoral assistance by the United Nations is a team effort involving a number of programmes, funds, agencies and departments under the mandate provided by the General Assembly.

The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs is designated by the Secretary-General as the UN Focal Point for Electoral Assistance Activities, with a leadership role in ensuring system-wide coherence and consistency and in strengthening the institutional memory and the development, dissemination and issuance of United Nations electoral assistance policies.

The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali provided electoral support to the authorities following a tumultuous year that included a military coup d'état, fighting between the Government and rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical Islamists. 

The Electoral Assistance Division, within the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), supports the United Nations Focal Point in ensuring system-wide coherence and consistency in the provision of United Nations electoral assistance. This includes undertaking electoral needs assessments, recommending parameters for all United Nations electoral assistance, advising on the design of projects, developing electoral policy, maintaining institutional memory, and providing technical guidance and support in the implementation of electoral projects.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the UN system’s main provider of technical electoral assistance, which is delivered as part of its mandate to lead democratic governance assistance at the country level.

In peacekeeping or post-conflict environments, electoral assistance is generally provided through components of field missions under the aegis of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) or the DPA. Military and police components of peacekeeping missions support national law enforcement agencies in providing security for electoral processes.

Other UN actors involved in providing electoral assistance include the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Volunteers, UN Women, the United Nations Office for Project Services, UNESCO, the Peacebuilding Fund, and the United Nations Democracy Fund.

Over the last 20 years, the United Nations has provided electoral assistance to more than 110 Member States and/or territories that have requested support. In the forthcoming report 2015 biennial report of the Secretary-General to the General Assembly on the UN’s work in support of democratic elections, 68 countries are documented as having received UN support. UNDP provides electoral assistance to develop sustainable electoral management capacities, to foster inclusive participation in elections, particularly of women and youth and other underrepresented groups, and to coordinate donor support to electoral processes. This includes seven countries where special political missions are deployed, and eight where peacekeeping missions are deployed. Where more than one UN actor is involved in providing electoral assistance (for example, DPKO and UNDP), support should be provided in an integrated manner.

United Nations electoral assistance has been a crucial and successful component in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and in establishing and deepening democratic governance. As democracy has spread, so has the role of elections as the means to establish legitimate government. The United Nations has been engaged in elections in all regions of the world, with assistance provided recently in the Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia, Jordan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Iraq, to name just a few. In Tunisia for example, the UN supported civil society in the October 2011 National Constituent Assembly elections and continues to provide technical assistance to the national authorities. In Libya, an integrated UN team supported the Libyan authorities in organizing and conducting the General National Congress elections on 7 July 2012. In 2013, the United Nations provided technical and logistical support to Malian authorities in the conduct of Presidential elections. In addition, the United Nations is currently in the the process of supporting electoral reform in Afghanistan.

The United Nations also has established relations with regional and intergovernmental organizations involved in electoral assistance, including the African Union, the European Union, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, League of Arab States (LAS) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Southern African Development Community, as well as with sub-regional organizations like Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). Other partners are the many international non-governmental organizations working in the field of electoral assistance. These include institutions such as the Carter Center, the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. These relationships provide opportunities for collaboration on electoral support activities as well as for sharing lessons and experiences.

It is recognized that addressing the capacity of an electoral management body in isolation will not necessarily produce credible elections. There also needs to be a focus on the overall political environment in which the elections take place. The United Nations therefore also makes efforts to build capacity outside the electoral authorities. This involves working with voters, the media, political parties and civil society, as well as other actors and institutions of democratic governance such as parliament and the judiciary.

Further recognizing that even a technically good election may still ignite underlying grievances and tensions, the United Nations is placing greater attention on taking a political approach to preventing and responding to  election-related violence. This is the basis for regular training for field and headquarters based staff. Some examples of successful political engagement include the mediation and dialogue activities of the Special Adviser for Yemen, who works closely with the UN Resident Coordinator and the UNDP Country Office in moving the political process  forward; the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which is in close consultation with ECOWAS, engaged political actors in an effort to lessen tensions before, during and after the elections; and the SRSG for West Africa’s engagement in Guinea, who, with close support from DPA, facilitated dialogue among political actors thereby ensuring a resumption of the stalled electoral process.

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Democracy and Civil Society: The United Nations Democracy Fund

Globally, the role of civil society has never been more important than this year, 2015, as the world prepares to implement a new development agenda, agreed by all the world’s Governments. However, for civil society activists and organizations in a range of countries covering every continent, space is shrinking — or even closing. Governments have adopted restrictions that limit the ability of NGOs to work or to receive funding. 

As the Secretary-General has said, the hallmark of successful and stable democracies is the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society -- in which Government and civil society work together for common goals for a better future, and at the same time, civil society helps keep Government accountable.

The United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) supports projects that strengthen the voice of civil society, promote human rights, and encourage the participation of all groups in democratic processes. It is the only UN entity that has the word “democracy” in its name; the only UN body with the primary purpose of supporting democracy through empowering civil society; and one of the youngest entities in the UN system.

Since Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan created UNDEF as a UN General Trust Fund in 2005, it has supported more than 600 projects in over 120 countries, with a total disbursement of more than 150 million dollars. These have ranged from supporting civil society efforts for accountability and transparency to building capacity for strengthening good governance and the rule of law. The large majority of UNDEF funds go to local civil society organizations in countries in both the transition and consolidation phases of democratisation. In this way, UNDEF plays a new, distinct and unique role, complementing and enhancing the UN's traditional work with Governments to strengthen democratic governance around the world. It targets the demand side of democracy, rather than the supply side.

UNDEF projects are in seven main areas:  

  • Community Activism
  • Rule of Law and Human Rights
  • Tools for Knowledge
  • Women's Empowerment
  • Youth Engagement
  • Media and Freedom of Information
  • Strengthening Civil Society Capacity for Interaction with Government

UNDEF’s project selection in the Ninth Round of Funding places a deliberate emphasis on youth engagement, with almost 50 per cent of selected projects operating in this field. This reflects the fact that today, one person out of five is between the ages of 15 and 24. Young people have increasing powers to network, connecting on issues that matter – from injustice, discrimination and climate change to human rights and the need for human solidarity. The emphasis also reflects that 2015 was a turning point for the United Nations, as the international community agreed on new sustainable development goals and a new universal and meaningful climate agreement – commitments that those who are young today will have to live with and carry forward.

In 2014, UNDEF received over 2,300 project proposals. Grants average around USD195,000 and applications are subject to a highly rigorous and competitive selection process. The Fund depends entirely on voluntary contributions from Member States. So far, it has been supported by over 40 Governments, who have contributed a cumulative amount of more than 160 million dollars. The biggest donors are the United States and India.

UNDEF is committed to transparency and knowledge sharing. External evaluations of completed projects are available on the UNDEF website.

The following are some examples of UNDEF projects around the world:

Democracy in Action

A School of Democratic Procedures for Self-Governance Bodies in All Regions of Ukraine

In Ukraine, an UNDEF-funded project works to increase the transparency and accountability of local self-governance by introducing parliamentary procedures in the daily work of selected local Councils in all regions of the country, including the East. Under the project, representatives of 24 local authorities, one for each region of Ukraine, attend a School of Democratic Rules and Procedures. 

Participants work for the adoption of amendments to the regulations of the relevant local authorities to introduce parliamentary procedures and democratic rules - enabling Councils to broadcast their sessions on the Internet. By bringing together representatives from all the regions of Ukraine, the School of Democratic Rules and Procedures also advances the concept of holding organized inclusive and peaceful political debate.  The project is implemented by West Ukrainian Resource Centre. 

Empowering Indigenous Communities in Bolivia through Basic Legal Identity Documents

In Bolivia, UNDEF funds a project in the La Paz and Oruro departments, to assist in legally and politically empowering indigenous communities. It is doing so by providing them with basic legal identity documents, prerequisites for democratic participation which many of them have lacked in the past; strengthening their knowledge and capacity to participate in democratic processes and exercise their rights; and improving access to basic legal documents and rights for all, through evidence-based advocacy aimed at institutional change. Implemented by Fundacion Microjusticia Bolivia (MJB), the project is also setting up a network of rural facilitators to act as focal points for establishing outlets for legal advice, and run legal campaigns on how to obtain the necessary documentation. Also importantly, the project encourages debate between traditional leaders and government officials by organising networking meetings and a forum. 

Upholding the Rights of Communities and Miners amid Exploitation of Mineral Resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, an UNDEF-funded project works to uphold economic, social and cultural rights of local communities and traditional miners in relation to the exploitation of mineral resources. The project conducts advocacy for legal reform; dissemination and explanation of legal texts; awareness-raising on rights and obligations among community leaders, judiciary, mine administration officials; support for rights violation victims; organizing of traditional mine diggers; and monitoring of human rights related to the exploitation of natural resources. The project is implemented by the NGO Action pour la Promotion et la Défense des Droits des Personnes Défavorisées. 

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Women and Democracy

Democracy requires that citizens’ interests be heard, deliberated and legislated on. Women are half of the world’s population, and as such their voice should be heard in the democratic process. Democracy needs women in order to be truly democratic, and women need democracy if they are to change the systems and laws that preclude them, and preclude them, and preclude societies as a whole, from attaining equality.

It is through democratic representation that women’s interests can be represented and their voices heard. Article 7 in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reiterates the importance of women’s representation in the political life of their countries:

“…ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right: 
(a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies; 
(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government”

The role of women in democratic processes is further emphasized in the 2011 General Assembly resolution on Women’s Political Participation (A/RES/66/130), which reaffirms “that the active participation of women, on equal terms with men, at all levels of decision-making is essential to the achievement of equality, sustainable development, peace and democracy”.  

Despite these normative advances, and as universal as these goals are, they nevertheless remain elusive for many women. Progress has been too slow in increasing numbers of women in representative. In 2015, just 22 per cent of national parliamentarians were women, a slow increase from 11.3 per cent in 1995. As of January 2015, 10 women served as Head of State and 14 served as Head of Government. Just 17 per cent of government ministers were women, and many of these hold social policy portfolios such as education and the family. Women are also poorly represented in local decision-making bodies, whether as mayors or local council members.

Women are still under-represented in elected positions and most countries are far from reaching the ’gender balance’ proposed by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Political institutions – from political parties to electoral commissions - often lack the capacity to ensure that women’s interests are articulated and addressed in public policy. Accountability institutions are not consistent in ensuring that power-holders answer to women for failures to protect women’s rights or respond to their needs. 

In post-conflict settings the lack of access for women to democratic institutions and democratic process is most evident. Security Council resolution 1325 calls on Member States to increase the representation of women at all decision making levels. In response, the United Nations Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support intervene to facilitate women’s participation in political processes and women’s inclusion in governance structures in the countries where peacekeeping operations are deployed.

Four Key Practices for Women’s Effective Political Participation

1. Make both local and national elections free and fair for women.

Promote temporary special measures such as quotas, sanctions on non-complying political parties, waivers of nomination fees, access to public media, and access to public resources, and to increase women’s participation as both elected and appointed decision-makers in public institutions. Ensure voter registration processes enable women to exercise their democratic right. Consider implementing measures to address the factors (violence against women, gender-biased media reporting, non-transparent political party practices, lack of campaign financing) preventing women from participating in politics by working with Electoral Management Bodies and political parties.

2. Support women’s civil society organizations to advance women’s interests.

Provide assistance to develop collective policy agendas, for instance, through Women’s Charters or by holding National Conventions of Women. Women share priorities that cut across any differences they may have – these shared priorities may be about their right to hold office or their access to improved health care and child care. It is important for women to coordinate, create coalitions, work together and ensure common messages during times of change. Provide capacity building and skills development training to promote advocacy and communication skills, as well as internal organizational capacities of women’s groups and movements.

3. Build accountability for women’s rights in public institutions.

Ensure that constitutional revision processes consider the impact of the design of political, judicial and other public institutions on women’s participation and the exercise of their social, political and economic rights. Constitutional revisions should ensure harmonization with international standards on women’s rights. Promote accountability mechanisms and governance reforms that address women’s needs such as gender responsive service delivery, access to justice, budgeting and access to information. Ensure that accountability processes are in place, through which public authorities answer for their performance on national commitments on gender equality and women’s rights.

4. Support women political leaders to expand their influence.

Support skills and capacity development for both candidates and elected leaders. This support involves both training in terms of skills (parliamentary debate and language, advocacy) as well as content skills on gender mainstreaming, international gender equality commitments and strategies that can be of use. Support also entails advocating for mechanisms such as women’s parliamentary caucuses or women’s networks within civil service institutions, as well as creating governmental mechanisms that have the mandate, capacities and position in government to be an effective policy advocate for women’s interests. Consider training men in the principles and practice of gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment.

What the UN is Doing – Recent Successes

Afghanistan: in 2014 the UN Mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, engaged in extensive efforts to sensitize the Afghan public on the importance of women in politics. As a result the Government took concrete steps to equip women’s polling stations with female security and women observers. The presence of women was a direct indicator of the increased level of women’s confidence in casting ballots.

Ecuador: The programme provided technical support to the Parliamentary Group for Women's Rights to establish dialogue mechanisms among CSOs, women members of political parties, and the National Assembly to ensure harmonization of domestic legislation with the 2008 Constitution in compliance with Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). UN Women played a convening role for the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the National Assembly and the United Nations system to support gender and human rights mainstreaming within the legal reform.

Haiti: the United Nations Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH), UN Women and UNDP, with the support USAID, assisted with the establishment of an office for gender equality in the parliament and consultations culminating in a Plan of Action on promoting women’s participation in the forthcoming elections.

Liberia: the UN mission in Liberia (UNMIL) supported the Women NGO Secretariat of Liberia on a project “levelling the playing field for women’s participation in Liberia Governance’. The project aimed at promoting gender-responsive and inclusive governance in Liberia by identifying the obstacles and challenges to women’s full participation. In 2015, UN Women also conducted an in-country mission to support national stakeholders (Constitutional Review Committee, Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection, CSOs and the Women’s Joint Constitutional Review Task Force) on the constitutional review process. The mission results included the submission of gender equality constitutional provisions related to the rights of women and children; parity in representation in national and local assemblies; development of an agreed road map with partners; and strengthened capacities of media representatives on gender-responsive media coverage.

Malawi: Following the programme’s electoral support in 2014, a network of eminent women was established by senior women citizens, retired politicians, professionals and faith leaders, to support women’s political participation in Malawi. The network helped promote conflict prevention and advocate through the UN Women “HeforShe” campaign to hold political leaders accountable to the commitments on gender equality included in their respective parties’ manifestos. The network provides advice and mentorship to newly elected women and candidates in preparation for the 2019 elections.

Morocco: UN Women continued supporting the implementation of the gender equality provisions of the 2011 Constitution, through capacity-development for gender-responsive legal reform and monitoring mechanisms; and technical support to the Group of Parliamentarians for Equality. UN Women played a convening role and provided local expertise to support the review and harmonization with CEDAW of draft laws being debated in the Parliament (i.e., Law on Municipal and Regional Elections and the Fight against All Forms of Discrimination).

Paraguay: UN Women, in coordination with the Centre of Documentation and Studies and the NGO Decidamos, convened a National Dialogue from June to October 2014 that promoted inclusive political institutions and the establishment of a task force on democratic parity with representation of women from political parties, women’s organizations and the Municipal Women’s Networks. The task force drafted a proposed law on democratic parity. UN Women is bringing this political dialogue to the municipal level and will support training for women candidates prior to municipal elections.

Tanzania: UN Women supported a women’s coalition (comprising of 50 CSOs), with representation from women from different party affiliations countrywide. This resulted in increased support for gender equality demands in the constitution review process. From 13-17 April 2015, over 400 women assembled in Dodoma, the seat of the Constituent Assembly, to demand the adoption of the 12 gender issues achieved in the second draft constitution. In achieving 50/50 representation, the Women’s Caucus in the Constituent Assembly, has been commended as the most organized coalition.

In United Nations peacekeeping: There has been significant, and in most cases increased, participation of women as voters and as candidates in elections as a result of the efforts of UN peacekeeping missions to integrate a gender dimension into electoral processes and to ensure the safety of female voters and candidates.

As part of the events to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2010), The Department of Peacekeeping Operations, UN Women, the Department of Political Affairs and UNDP convened Open Days on women, peace and security in multiple countries. The Open Days gave women from the DRC, Nepal, Afghanistan, Liberia, Guinea Bissau, Kosovo, and Somalia among others access to senior management of UN missions and government. The women collectively voiced their concerns on challenges to women’s political, social and economic participation and presented their views on the impact of peace building and reconstruction on their lives. One of the results from the Open Days was the global call for increased political empowerment for women and engagement at all levels of decision-making. 

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Democracy, Youth, and the United Nations

For seven decades, the UN’s work for democratic values and principles has been carried out by career diplomats and drafters, political experts and peacekeepers. Today, the UN is banking on a different constituency to advance its mission on nearly every front: young people.

In our time, young people hold the key to almost all the challenges facing the UN: from fighting extremism to resolving frozen conflicts and preventing new ones; from giving effect to sustainable development goals to implementing a new universal and meaningful climate agreement; from advancing and defending human rights to ensuring inclusive and participatory governance.

This youth generation is the largest the world has ever known. More than half the global population is under 25 years old. They have opportunities and skills for communicating, acting, networking and influencing that would have been unimaginable to the founders of the UN seven decades ago. The challenges they face are also unprecedented -- from climate change to unemployment and multiple forms of inequalities and exclusion, contributing to the acute migration crisis we are witnessing in several parts of the world. Never before has the transition from youth to adulthood been so burdened by challenges, yet so blessed by opportunities.

It is often observed that young people are increasingly sceptical of the conventional model of democracy. But at the same time, they can and do connect and give voice on issues that matter -- using new media to fight injustice, discrimination, human rights abuses; reviving student activism to give voice to the disempowered; taking individual and collective action for what they believe in -- from sustainable consumer habits to participatory greening of cities, from online petition activism to social entrepreneurship.

Young people not only have the tools to achieve change – they are also the masters of those tools, far more so than their elders. And they have an eloquent voice that resonates deeply with their own generation – from Malala Yousafzai on the universal right to education to Emma Watson on mobilizing men and boys for gender equality.

That is why on the International Day of Democracy in September 2014, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued his message directly to those who will be taking the lead beyond 2015, and who by nature are at a turning point in their own lives. He called on members of the largest young generation in history to confront challenges and consider what they can do to resolve them; to take control of their destiny and translate their dreams into a better future for all; to contribute to building stronger and better democratic societies; to work together, to use their creative thinking, to become architects of a future that leaves no one behind.

To give life to the Secretary-General's vision, the United Nations family is acting on a range of levels:

The Secretary-General himself has made working with and for young people as one of his top priorities, deepening the youth focus of existing programmes on employment, entrepreneurship, political inclusion, citizenship and protection of rights, and education, including on reproductive health. He has appointed the first Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, mandated with the task of bringing the voices of young people to the United Nations family.

The UN General Assembly in March 2015 adopted “Education for Democracy”, a resolution encouraging all UN entities to use education – including school curricula -- to strengthen efforts to promote peace, human rights, democracy, respect for religious and cultural diversity, and justice. The resolution also strongly encourages Member States to integrate education for democracy, along with civics and human rights, into their education standards.

Also in 2015, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution creating a Forum on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and making the first edition of the Forum in 2016 "Widening the Democratic Space: the Role of Youth in Public Decision-Making".

And the UN Commission for Social Development passed a draft resolution encouraging Member States to develop comprehensive policies and action plans focused on the best interests of youth, particularly the poor and marginalized, and to address all aspects of youth development.

Meanwhile the UN Democracy Fund focused 50 per cent of its new projects in 2015 on young people -- ranging from participation of youth for peaceful collaboration in conflict zones to young people organizing to fight corruption, from building local youth councils to media campaigns for greater youth participation in elections. Securing space for young people to engage is especially important today, a time when space is closing for civil society in a range of countries as an alarming number of Governments have passed restrictions into law.

And as of 2014, the UN Development Programme has adopted its first Youth Strategy, engaging young people as a positive force for transformational change. The first organization-wide strategy that explicitly states UNDP’s commitment to youth, it covers three years and envisages three outcomes:

  • Increased economic empowerment of youth;
  • Enhanced youth civic engagement and participation in decision-making and political processes and institutions;
  • Strengthened youth engagement in resilience building;

To that end, the strategy is guided by a four-pronged approach: capacity development, advocacy and mainstreaming, thought leadership, and national policy.

These efforts by the UN family draw on a shared lesson: Generation after generation, experience has taught us that democracy is strongest where people of all walks and all ages join together in common causes they believe in, drawing on their passion rather than their self-interest, building democratic foundations that go way beyond Government, deepening democratic practices that go way beyond elections.

The UN is committed to acting on that, and ensuring that young people have their democratic say. In the words of the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi: "As a young person, you don't need to carry UN badge to work for the UN. You just need to carry its values in your heart."

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