Democracy is a core value of the United Nations. The UN supports democracy by promoting human rights, development, and peace and security. In the 75 years since the UN Charter was signed, the UN has done more to support democracy around the world than any other global organization. The UN promotes good governance, monitors elections, supports the civil society to strengthen democratic institutions and accountability, ensures self-determination in decolonized countries, and assists in the drafting of new constitutions in post-conflict nations.
United Nations activities in support of democracy are carried out through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA), 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.
Democracy in the founding documents of the United Nations
When the founders of the United Nations drafted the United Nations Charter, they did not mention the word democracy. In 1945, many of the UN Member States did not endorse democracy as a system, or didn’t practice it. Yet, 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 UN 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. Democracy provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in which the freely expressed will of people is exercised. People have a say in decisions and can hold decision-makers to account. Women and men have equal rights and all people are free from discrimination.
These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It projects the concept of democracy by stating “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights develops them even further and lays down the legal basis for the principles of democracy in international law. It covers, for instance, freedom of expression, the right of peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of association with others. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women stipulates that its 189 contracting parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that women can vote and stand for elections, and participate in public life and decision-making, including at the international level.
The UN General Assembly and democracy
Since 1988, the General Assembly has adopted at least one resolution annually dealing with some aspect of democracy. In 2015, world leaders committed in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 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 Agenda reaffirmed commitments that were made earlier at the World Summit in 2005 and in the Millennium Declaration.
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 an environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.
For several years, the UN General Assembly and the former Commission on Human Rights endeavoured to draw on international human rights instruments to promote a common understanding of the principles and values of democracy. As a result, in 2000, the Commission recommended a series of legislative, institutional and practical measures to consolidate democracy. Moreover, 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 several 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 impose persistent challenges. The OHCHR and UNDP address these challenges through their advisory services and programmes. In transitional democracies and countries emerging from conflict, OHCHR assists to build strong and independent judiciary systems, parliaments, human rights institutions, and vibrant civil societies. UNDP assists governments in strengthening their public institutions, to help countries fight corruption and support inclusive participation to ensure that no one is left behind. Every year, UNDP invests, on average, US$565 million to support inclusive governance and development at the local level.
Supporting transitional democracies
OHCHR collaborates with national governments and other actors to rebuild public confidence and restore peace and the rule of law in post-conflict nations and transitional democracies. OHCHR has actively supported transitional justice programmes in more than 20 countries around the world over the past 15 years. OHCHR tries to ensure that human rights and transitional justice considerations are reflected in peace agreements and it supports the establishment of truth-seeking processes, judicial accountability mechanisms, and reparations programmes.
Guiding national and regional efforts
OHCHR works to guide national and regional efforts and to facilitate the discussion on democracy and human rights. In 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 human rights and fundamental freedoms were interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Further, OHCHR published a study on challenges, lessons learned and best practices in securing democracy and the rule of law from a human rights perspective, and also organized a panel discussion on these issues.
In 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 and partners with democracy-promoting organizations such as l’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Democracy and Elections
The UN is 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. The assistance includes advisory services, logistics, training, civic education, computer applications and short-term observation. The UN also strives to build capacity regarding the overall political environment. This involves working with voters, the media, political parties, civil society, as well as the parliament and the judiciary.
The electoral assistance helps Member States to hold periodic, inclusive, transparent and credible elections and to establish nationally sustainable electoral processes. UN electoral assistance has been a crucial and successful component in peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and in establishing and deepening democratic governance.
The electoral assistance involves several programmes, funds, agencies and departments. The Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs is the UN Focal Point for Electoral Assistance. The Electoral Assistance Division within the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) assesses electoral needs, develops electoral policy, and maintains institutional memory. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provides technical assistance, and fosters the participation of women, the youth and other underrepresented groups in elections. It also coordinates donor support. In peacekeeping or post-conflict environments, military and police components of peacekeeping missions support national law enforcement agencies in securing elections. The UN also partners with other regional, intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations involved in electoral assistance.
Democracy and Civil Society: The United Nations Democracy Fund
The United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) funds projects that empower civil society, promote human rights, and encourage the participation of all groups in democratic processes. Currently, for example, UNDEF finances projects to mobilize the youth for elections in Côte d'Ivoire, to engage men in promoting gender equality in Palestine, and to build a platform for citizen advocacy in elections in Brazil. Most of UNDEF funds go to local civil society organizations in countries in both the transition and consolidation phases of democratisation.
Since its creation in 2005, UNDEF has supported more than 750 projects in over 120 countries, with a total amount of almost 182 million dollars. Applicants can request a grant between 100,000 US dollars and 300,000 US dollars. The Fund depends entirely on voluntary contributions from Member States. So far, it has been supported by over 40 Governments. The biggest donors are the United States and India. External evaluations of completed projects are available on the UNDEF website.
Women and Democracy
Democracy needs women to be truly democratic, and women need democracy if they are to change the systems and laws that exclude them. The role of women in democratic processes is emphasized in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and in the 2011 General Assembly resolution on Women’s Political Participation.
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 2018, just 24 per cent of national parliamentarians were women, a slow increase from 14 per cent in 2000. Women are also poorly represented in local decision-making bodies, whether as mayors or local council members. Political parties and electoral commissions often lack the capacity to ensure that women’s interests are articulated and addressed.
The UN supports women's political participation. In July 2010, the UN General Assembly created UN Women, mandated to coordinate the gender mainstreaming work of the UN System. In doing so, UN Member States took a historic step in accelerating the Organization’s goals on gender equality and the empowerment of women. The UN’s approach to support women’s effective political participation is to make local and national elections free and fair for women, to support women’s civil society organizations, to build accountability for women’s rights in public institutions, and to support women political leaders.
Democracy, Youth, and the United Nations
More than half of the global population is younger than 25. The youth faces huge challenges, such as climate change, unemployment, inequalities and exclusion. Many migrate in response. Meanwhile, young people connect and give voice to issues that matter. They use new media to fight injustice, discrimination, and human rights abuses; and take action for what they believe in. Young people also have an eloquent voice that resonates deeply with their own generation – from Malala Yousafzai on the universal right to education, to Greta Thunberg on leading the fight against climate change.
The Secretary-General made working with and for young people one of his top priorities. He appointed the first Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, mandated with the task of developing a UN Youth Strategy. The UN General Assembly in March 2015 adopted “Education for Democracy”, a resolution encouraging all UN entities to use education to promote peace, human rights, and democracy. The resolution encourages Member States to integrate education for democracy into their education standards.
DESA’s World Youth Report addresses key areas of youth development around the world. Another platform for the youth is the ECOSOC Youth Forum, where young people can voice their needs and concerns through informal dialogue with other stakeholders. The Forum represents the most institutionalized venue for youth participation in UN deliberations and is an important vehicle to mobilize young people for implementing the 2030 Agenda.
The International Day of Democracy
The General Assembly proclaimed 15 September as the International Day of Democracy. The observance provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world. Only with the full support of the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be realised to the benefit of all and everywhere.