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Paper Presentation

Topic: Democracy and Human Rights

Presenter: Nithin Varghese
Mentor: Rev. Dr. M.M. Abraham
Subject: Human Rights

The word ‘democracy’ does not appear in the United Nations Charter. However, with the
opening words of that document, “We the Peoples of the United Nations”, the founders of the
UN directly linked the legitimacy of this new organisation and its member states to the will of
the people. This commitment finds further expression in the purposes of the United Nations
that include promotion of universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for
all, without distinction.
India, being the world’s largest democracy has been contentious in granting of human rights
to its citizens. The association of human rights and democracy wavered in the recent times
with the emergence of right-wing groups to the fore-front. Yet, India being a member of U.N.
has done little to decode the atmosphere in a mature manner. This paper is a modest attempt
to briefly relate human rights and democracy and to see how far it is complementary to each
1. Properties of Human Rights (HR)
The major properties of Human Rights could be outlined as follows

Human Rights are universal, that is, they belong to each of us regardless of ethnicity,
race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, political conviction, or type of government.1

Human rights are incontrovertible, that is, they are absolute and innate. They are not
grants from states, and thus cannot be removed or denied by any political authority,
and they do not require, and are not negated by the absence of, any corresponding

Human rights are subjective. They are the properties of individual subjects who
possess them because of their capacity for rationality, agency and autonomy.3
2. Premises of UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) with Reference to
The UDHR introduced new premises that re-shaped the human rights discourse and,
indirectly, democratic theory and democratic discourse as well. These were the values of
dignity, equality and community. After that, the human rights discourse started to work as
expressing the articulation and relationship between these values and the traditional
principles of liberty, democratic freedoms and justice.
After having set the framework in the prelude and article 1, with “All human beings are born
free and equal in dignity and rights” - and equality here refers to a specific kind of equality,
Darren J. O’Byrne, Human Rights: An Introduction (Patpatganj: Pearson education Pvt. Ltd., 2003), 27;
Marion Albers, Thomas Hoffmann and Jorn Reinhardt, Human Rights and Human Nature (Springer Science &
Business Media, 2014), 5.
O’Byrne, Human Rights…, 27; Reinhardt, Human Rights…, 5.
O’Byrne, Human Rights…, 27; Reinhardt, Human Rights…, 5.
namely of dignity and of rights, - article 22, which introduces the economic, social and
cultural rights section of the Declaration, defines the relationship between dignity and rights,
describing these rights as “indispensable for [human] dignity.”4
Article 22 of UDHR states: “Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social
security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation
and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social
and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his
Dignity: The premise of dignity places a new burden upon the State(s) and redefines
the kind of relationship between State(s) and individuals. Not only must the state refrain from
abusing individual liberties, but also, the State has the duty to take positive measures to
respect individuals’ inherent worth.6
The strength of the premise of dignity is reinforced by reading it in accordance to the premise
of equality.
Equality: With equality, the drafters chose not just to stick with the Enlightenment7
formula of ‘equality before the law’; instead, they also introduced the modern formulation
that everyone is entitled to the rights in the Declaration “without distinction of any kind,”
such as race, colour, sex, religion, and so forth (Article 2).8
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this
Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language,
religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other
status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political,
jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person
belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other
limitation of sovereignty.”9
Furthermore, “equal protection before the law” is reinforced by the “protection against any
discrimination” – including “incitement to discrimination”, as stated in Article 7.
“All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal
protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in
violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.”10

Johannes Morsink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Pennsylvania:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 15; Guomundur S. Alfreosson and Asbjorn Eide, The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights: A Common Standard of Achievement (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1999), 453.
United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Aegitas, 2015), 5.
Morsink, The Universal Declaration…, 15; Eide, The Universal Declaration…, 453.
The Enlightenment movement introduced three new premises in the political discourse. First, it introduced a
language of ‘natural rights’, associated to the concept of liberty, which would determine the scope of legitimacy
of the government. Second, derived from the first and reflected in the concept and practice of citizenship within
the republic, these natural rights were supported by the rights to free speech and protest. Third, by introducing
‘individual rights’ the role and characterization of the State as such needed to be revised - from now on, the
State became no longer separated from the social body, as if it was the Hobbesian Leviathan. Instead, by
acknowledging the importance of fair trails and due process, we observe a shift of paradigm where the State
becomes an actor among other actors, with its specific rights and duties, accountable and responsible for its
actions and therefore, liable to punishment if judged as ‘criminal’ or violator of natural rights of the individuals
who belong to the Republic.
Morsink, The Universal Declaration…, 15; Eide, The Universal Declaration…, 75
United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Aegitas, 2015), 1.
United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Aegitas, 2015), 2.
Once it was accepted that human rights values require states to proactively take measures to
root out discrimination then the concept of liberty was bound to change. Liberty could no
longer mean be free to buy, to rent, to work; from the moment we introduce the premise of
universality, where everyone’s rights were to be secured, individual liberty had to be
redefined and most likely, restrained.11
Community: The premise of community allows us to contextualize how the living of
these rights can be accomplished. In article 29 the UDHR introduces the idea that ‘everyone
has duties to the community”, with the explanation that it is only through the ‘community’
that “the full development” of an individual’s personality” is possible.12
Article 29 states that:13 (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the
free and full development of his personality is possible. (2) In the exercise of his rights and
freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely
for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others
and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a
democratic society. (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the
purposes and principles of the United Nations.
From the UDHR onwards any limitations on fundamental rights must be lawful,
proportionate and necessary to achieve a prescribed goal “in a democratic society.” However,
this ‘democratic society’ was never defined; it is always assumed but it is never spelled out
what one means by it.
Role of Democracy: The introduction of the expression ‘democratic society’ in the
human rights discourse - also in Article 29 - is revealing of something, namely, it provides the
framework where one thinks human rights; but also, it announces something that goes much
deeper, namely, that while human rights discourse can be analyzed from a functional
perspective - and therefore, as providing certain necessary conditions for a democratic society
- human rights discourse shape not only the process of democracy (and for democratization)
as they also set the boundaries to the outcomes and goals of democracy. I.e., it is not
sufficient that democracies translate in their legislation and practices the respect for human
rights discourse, for instance, by not creating obstacles to individual liberty, expression, etc; it
is also required that democracies (if they want to live up to their ‘name’) act proactively, i.e.,
by taking measures the uphold and promote the values explicit in the UDHR of dignity,
equality and community such as introducing social security or preventing discrimination or,
for that matter, protecting victims of violent crime. In other words, in human rights discourse
the state is in fact obliged to “take preventative ...measures”, in the stated view of the
European Court of Human Rights “to protect an individual whose life is at risk from the
criminal acts of another individual.”14
3. Democratic Governance
Government and its Accountability: From a human rights perspective, the
government should primarily be accountable to its own inhabitants. This should not exclude,
as secondary concern, accountability to external actors including transnational corporations
investing on their territory. To make accountability a reality, civil society and its associations
must have full and open information on the activities of the state and its allocation of

Morsink, The Universal Declaration…, 16; Eide, The Universal Declaration…, 153.
Morsink, The Universal Declaration…, 16; Eide, The Universal Declaration…, 633.
United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Aegitas, 2015), 7.
Todd Landman, Human Rights and Democracy: The Precarious Triumph of Ideals (A&C Black, 2013), 11.
resources. Transparency is required first and foremost in the interest of their own
Equally important is to examine the substantive issue: for what should governments be held
accountable? Good governance should first and foremost be tested in regard to its ability to
ensure that all human rights can be enjoyed under the jurisdiction of the state. The state has
the primary responsibility for implementation of human rights. It follows that governance
must be so constructed as to obtain the optimal realization of human rights for all under the
jurisdiction of the state.16
Good Governance, Democracy and Human Rights: The impact of a human right-
based approach to good governance depends on the degree to which the values underlying the
relevant human standards are shared internationally and within any given state under
examination. While quite obviously some limitations and duties are necessary in society, it is
important that they do not interfere unnecessarily or in a disproportionate way with human
freedoms. The general guideline in international human rights law is found in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR):
“Everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined
by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect
for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just
requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a
democratic society.”17
Need to Relate Democracy and Human Rights: There is an increasing recognition at
the international level of the intimate link between democracy and human rights, most clearly
articulated in a resolution adopted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in
April 2000. It reaffirmed that good governance, including transparency and accountability, is
indispensable for building peaceful, prosperous and democratic societies. In its operative
part, the resolution adopted by the Commission called on all states to consolidate democracy
through the promotion of pluralism and the protection of human rights with the rights of
minorities and fundamental freedoms. The participation of individuals in decision-making
should be maximized. Competent and public institutions should be developed or reinforced,
including and an electoral system that ensures periodic, free and fair elections. The resolution
spelled out in great detail the elements of democracy from a human rights perspective.18
4. The link between human rights and democracy
In 1993, at the World Conference on Human Rights, the member states of the UN affirmed
Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are
interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed
will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural
systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. In the context of the
above, the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms at
the national and international levels should be universal and conducted without
conditions attached. The international community should support the strengthening

Sushma Yadav, “Good Governance, Human Rights and the Rights of Minorities,” Human Rights in the 21st C,
edited by Muhammad Shabbir (New Delhi: Rawat Pubs., 2008), 157.
Yadav, Good Governance…, 157.
As stated in the Article 29.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yadav, Good Governance…, 158.
and promoting of democracy, development and respect for human rights and
fundamental freedoms in the entire world.19
The relationship between democracy and human rights may today seem to be an obvious one.
However, this was not always the case. As noted above, the Charter of the UN, despite its
clear commitment to ideals that we would readily associate with democracy, contains no
direct reference to this concept. None of the major human rights instruments, including the
Universal Declaration and the two international covenants, make an explicit link between
democracy and human rights.
The Background: The end of the cold war brought with it a national and international
environment more conducive to the articulation, pursuit and achievement of democratic
aspirations than at any time in the past. From the late 1980s to the present, there has been a
growing trend towards what has been termed the universalisation of democracy as a system
of government, a social and political process and a value related to human rights. In 1999, the
UN formally recognised the existence of a right to democracy – confirming “the right to full
participation and the other fundamental democratic rights and freedoms inherent in any
democratic society”.20
Right of Democratic Governance: According to the UN’s main human rights body,
the right of democratic governance is actually a composite of a wide range of rights that are
already enshrined in the principal international human rights treaties. These include:21
1. The right of citizens to choose their governmental system through constitutional or
other democratic means;
2. The right of political participation, including equal opportunity for all citizens to
become candidates;
3. The right of universal and equal suffrage, as well as free voting procedures and
periodic and free elections;
4. Transparent and accountable government institutions;
5. The right to freedom of opinion and expression, of thought, conscience and
religion, and of peaceful association and assembly;
6. The right to freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any
7. The rule of law, including legal protection of citizens’ rights, interests and personal
security, and fairness in administration and independence of the judiciary; and
8. The right of equal access to public service in one’s own country.
Aspect of inextricable Relationship: Human rights and democracy are inextricably
linked. A truly democratic society is one in which all human rights are respected and
protected. It is core democratic concepts such as the rule of law, non-discrimination and
universal suffrage that promote human rights. It is through democratic institutions such as an
independent judiciary, a military that is accountable to the (democratically elected) civilian
government, and a free and responsible press that these fundamental principles are realised.

World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, para. 8, reprinted in 32
I.L.M. 1667 (1993).
Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1999/57 of 27 April 1999.
Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1999/57 of 27 April 1999.
History has taught us that the formal ‘trappings’ of democracy are never enough. The fact that
a country holds free and periodic elections, for example, is insufficient. Human rights operate
to limit the laws, policies and practices that can be pursued by governments, irrespective of
the way in which those governments achieved and continue to maintain power. True
democracy goes much deeper than the electoral process and requires much more work. It
would be a serious mistake to imagine that freely elected governments are a guarantee of
individual rights or that majority rule can be equated with democratic rule. The struggle for
democracy is not a one-off war but an ongoing battle that is never completely won.22
Democracy’s Efforts: Recent history has also confirmed that democracy – as an idea
and as a system of government – cannot be successfully imposed from outside. For
democracy to take root and flourish, there must be common understanding, common
agreement and an internal will to change and succeed. This does not mean that the
international community has no role to play in helping to build the foundations for a
democratic society. States can and should be supported in moving towards laws and systems
that support democratic ideals. They can and should be held responsible for protecting and
respecting human rights including those associated with the right of democratic governance.
The international community also has an important role to play in reducing the violence,
poverty and insecurity that threaten the free and complete exercise of democracy and human
Democracy is usually analysed, measured and fought for within and between countries.
However, states and their citizens are not the only players in the struggle for democracy.
Many international (or supranational) institutions that exercise control over our lives are not
subject to the same standards of democracy against which the state is judged. Efforts to
increase the accountability of multinational corporations and international governmental
organisations and to integrate human rights into trade policies and development cooperation
reflect a growing recognition that the key partners in true democracy go well beyond the state
and its citizens.
International human rights law provides important guidance to see how (and why) we should
be promoting democracy outside our own countries and how we can best respond to
situations that threaten the democratic foundations of states or the international community. It
has been especially useful as a framework and reference point against which state responses
to threats against democracy can be measured and, if necessary, challenged. Dealing with
threats to democracy without compromising human rights or democratic processes will
continue to be a major challenge for all democracies.23
5. Democracy and Human Rights: Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural
Defining Democracy: The core idea of democracy is that of popular rule or popular
control over collective decision making. Its starting point is with the citizen rather than with
the institutions of government. Its defining principles are that all citizens are entitled to a say
in public affairs, both through the associations of civil society and through participation in
government; and that this entitlement should be available on terms of equality to all. Control
by citizens over their collective affairs, and equality between citizens in the exercise of that
control, are the key democratic principles. Whereas in very small-scale and simple societies
or associations that control can be exercised directly, by citizens taking part in collective
decisions themselves, in large and complex societies their control can be exercised indirectly:
through the right to stand for public office, to elect key public officials by universal suffrage,

to hold government accountable and to approve directly the terms of any constitutional
Application of Principles: What is needed to make these principles effective in the
context of the modern state? Answering this further question takes us in two directions
simultaneously. One direction is towards an elucidation of the institutional arrangements
which have proved themselves over time as necessary to ensure effective popular control.
Thus we have electoral competition between political parties offering alternative programmes
for popular approval; a representative legislature acting on behalf of the electorate in holding
the executive to account; an independent judiciary to ensure that all public officials act
according to the laws approved by the legislature; independent media acting to scrutinize
government and to voice public opinion; institutions for individual redress in the event of
maladministration, such as Ombudsman, and so on. All these institutions can be termed
democratic to the extent that they contribute to the popular control of government. No doubt
they could do so more effectively, with greater equality between citizens and between
different sections of society. In other words, they could be more democratic than they
currently are. But what makes them democratic, when they are all implemented, is that they
embody, and contribute to, these underlying principles.25
A second direction in which we are taken is to consider what other rights citizens require if
their basic democratic right of having a voice in public affairs is to be effective. Here at once
the necessity of the civil and political part of the human rights agenda becomes evident.
Without the freedoms of expression, of association, of assembly, of movement, people cannot
effectively have a say, whether in the organizations of civil society or in matters of
government policy. Such freedom are not private rights, since they presuppose
communication between citizens, and the existence of a public forum, or a variety of public
for a, in which to do so. However, they can only be guaranteed as rights to individuals; and
they require underpinning in turn by the right to individual liberty, to personal security and to
due legal process.26
Democracy and Right of Citizens: At the heart of democracy thus lies the right to all
citizens to a voice in public affairs and to exercise control over government, on terms of
equality with other citizens. For this right to be effective requires, on one hand, the kind of
political institutions – elections, parties, legislatures and so on – with which we are familiar
from the experience of the established democracies. On the other hand it requires the
guarantee of those human rights which we call civil and political, and which are inscribed in
such conventions as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the
European Convention on Human Rights. Both are needed to realize the basic principles of
democracy. Thus the connection between democracy and human rights is an intrinsic rather
than extrinsic one; human rights constitute a necessary part of democracy.27
There exist a possible tension in practice between the ‘will of people,’ as expressed through a
particular parliamentary majority, and the defence of individual rights, as when the pressure
of public opinion or of some national exigency leads to the limitation or suspension of basic
freedoms. From the time of Tocqueville and J.S. Mill onwards, this has been characterized as
the so-called ‘tyranny of the majority.’ To guard against such pressure, individual rights have
required special protection, whether through bills of rights, judicial review or special
David Beetham, “Democracy and Human Rights,” in New Dimensions and Challenges for Human Rights
(New Delhi: UNESCO Pubs. 2003), 72.
Beetham, Democracy…, 72.
Beetham, Democracy…, 73.
Beetham, Democracy…, 73.
parliamentary procedures or majorities. It would be wrong, however, to describe this tension
as one between democracy and human rights, or democracy and liberty, as is often done; or to
say that constitutional limitations upon a parliamentary majority are a restriction upon
democracy itself. But it would be more accurate to describe such a conflict as one between a
particular expression of popular opinion, on one hand, and the conditions necessary to
guarantee the continuing expression of that opinion, on the other; between a particular voice,
and the conditions for exercising voice on a continuing basis. It follows that democracies
have necessarily to be self-limiting or self-limited, if they are not to be self-contradictory, by
undermining the rights through which popular control over government is secured; though
such limitation in turn requires popular consent to the basic constitutional arrangements
through which it is secured.28
The conclusion, then, is that human rights constitute an intrinsic part of democracy, because
the guarantee of basic freedoms is a necessary condition for people’s voice to be effective in
public affairs, and for popular control over government to be secured. There is a still deeper
level, however, at which democracy and human rights are connected, and that is in the
assumptions about human nature on which their justification is founded. The philosophical
justification for the human rights agenda is based on an identification of the needs and
capacities common to all humans, whatever the differences between them. In particular, the
so-called ‘liberty’ rights – to personal freedom, to the freedoms of thought, conscience,
movement and so on – presuppose a capacity for self-conscious and reasoned choice, or
reflective and purposive agency, in matters affecting one’s individual life. Democratic rights
presuppose the same capacity in matters affecting the common or collective life. The right to
vote, or to stand for public office, assumes the capacity to take part in deliberation about the
public as well as one’s private interest. Both sets of rights, to individual and collective
decision, are assumed together on reaching adulthood.29
Human rights, the inalienable and indivisible rights held by us all are the basic standards of
equity and justice without which people cannot live in dignity and are all around us. And their
abuse is a daily occurrence. It can be concluded with emphasizing that democracy and human
rights go hand in hand. This means that every human being has a human right to democracy.
Can human rights also be realized in a political and legal system which is not democratic?
No, human rights cannot be fully implemented if the political and legal system is not
democratic as every human being’s participation in opinion-building and decision-making
processes is protected by human rights.
Going hand in hand means also that human rights can be legitimated by democratic
processes, but in addition a moral justification which goes beyond the boundaries of national
democratic systems is necessary to ensure that every human being – even outside of these
boundaries – are holders of human rights.
The going hand in hand of democracy and human rights embraces the essential role human
rights play for a democracy as its fundament and its frame of reference. Democratic opinion-
building and decision-making processes have to respect human rights in the access to them,
in the way they are implemented, but also in their conclusions. This complex relationship
between democracy and human rights shows the need for education in democracy which
overcomes the reductionist understanding of democracy to recognize only the will of the
majority, the need for human rights education. Human rights education is the essential
Beetham, Democracy…, 74.
Beetham, Democracy…, 75.
fundament of the implementation of human rights as every human being needs to know about
her/his rights. Human rights education is a ‘must have’ and not a ‘nice to have’ in today's
pluralistic society where human rights enable us to live in peaceful coexistence with respect
for the human dignity of each other and with tolerance across the boundaries of traditions,
cultures, religions, world views and opinions; where human rights empower the individual to
participate in a democratic opinion building and decision-making process; where human
rights protect minorities from the human rights-violating decisions of a majority.