The Human Rights Content of Legitimate Governance
Seminar on the Interdependence between
Democracy and Human Rights
Geneva, 25 November 2002
Respeito aos direitos humanos como fundamento de legitimidade governamental – Artigo de 25 de novembro de 2002
Opening Statement by Sergio Vieira De Mello, High Commissioner for Human Rights
Madame Chairperson, distinguished experts, representatives of the diplomatic community, NGO partners, colleagues, dear friends:
Allow me to welcome you all to this seminar on the interdependence between democracy and human rights, which we have convened at the request of the Commission on Human Rights.
I would like, in particular, to thank our experts for the thoughtful papers that each has contributed to guide our discussions over the next two days.
This is a topic that, for me, transcends the theoretical, evoking vivid images of the concrete realities, practical challenges, and hard-fought achievements of peoples and their democratic struggles that I have known throughout my UN career.
Just a few months ago, I had the great privilege to witness the birth of a new State and the historic culmination of the long struggle for democracy and human rights of the people of Timor Leste.
Listening to the cheering crowds in Dili in May, I had to remind myself that, until very recently, they, like so many others around the globe, had known democracy mostly by its absence.
The absence of voice for the governed.
The absence of accountability for the governors.
Indeed, it is in those places where democracy is absent that we find the most compelling proof of the interdependence between democracy and human rights. And while much has been said about democracy’s imperfections, there remains little doubt anywhere about its indispensability in curtailing official abuse and securing human rights. Imperfect as the ship of democracy may be, no other vessel has proven as sea-worthy in bringing us safely to the shores of human dignity.
But just what is democracy? At times, one could be forgiven for thinking that the concept incorporates all that is vaguely positive in human society. Under this approach, democracy is “in the eye of the beholder,” an entirely subjective concept, incapable of measure or judgement—like a favorite color, or a passing fad.
Others would have us equate democracy with the casting of ballots, though, today, this view is fading, as most have come to realize that democracy is as much about what happens between elections as it is about what happens during them.
Still others seem to use the term merely as an empty rhetorical concept employed to political ends but devoid of any real substance. Some countries that call themselves “democracies” have variously excluded minorities, persecuted vulnerable groups, oppressed women, committed torture, carried out extrajudicial executions, ignored economic and social rights, waged aggressive wars, and exploited their neighbors.
Surely, so noble a term must imply more.
Surely, what we seek to promote and achieve is not a narrowly defined notion of democracy, but rather one of holistic democracy.
By holistic democracy, I mean a conception of democracy that accommodates the procedural and the substantive, formal institutions and informal processes, majorities and minorities, male and female, government and civil society, the political and the economic, the national and the international.
This vision of democracy is one which views a democratic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It sees not dispersed pockets of democracy in a segregated world, but a continuum of democracy in an interconnected and globalized world, reaching from the local community, to our international institutions, and back.
Holistic democracy finds its normative basis in the universal human rights standards themselves, and attends both to the particular substantive content of those standards, and to their interdependence. Thus, it takes account of Nelson Mandela’s oft-quoted admonition that we must never be forced to choose between ballots and bread, but rather we must have both. Are the hungry able to choose? Can the uneducated make an adequately informed choice? The logic of holistic democracy is undeniable.
The human rights standards tell us much about the underpinnings of democracy. They give us self-determination as a right, and declare that the will of the people shall be the basis of governmental authority. In the Universal Declaration and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights we find the requirements of genuine elections, and free information, opinion, expression, association, and assembly. They emphasize equality and fairness. Holistic democracy thus abhors both discrimination and the concentration of power, whether this occurs on the basis of wealth, or race, or sex, or ethnicity or any other such factor.
The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees the right to education, itself a vital element of informed political engagement. Guaranteeing the right to an adequate standard of living, as set out in this treaty, is both a responsibility of democratic governance, and a requirement for people’s meaningful participation. And the right to development is itself first and foremost about free, active and meaningful participation in development decision making—an essential subject of public affairs in every country.
Of course, giving life to the democratic standards contained in the human rights instruments necessitates the building of strong institutions of democratic governance, based on the rule of law, and including an accountable executive, an elected legislature, and an independent judiciary. Free and fair elections are essential, as are appropriate and effective institutions for popular consultation between elections.
But holistic democracy does not seek to export or promote any particular national or regional model of democracy or of democratic institutions. To the contrary, a key strength of this approach is its recognition that each society and every context has its own indigenous and relevant democratic institutional traditions. From the village council to the diwaniya, from the loya jirga to the circle of elders, popular consultation has many faces. And while no single institution can claim democratic perfection, the combination of domestic democratic structures with universal democratic norms is a formidable tool in our quest to strengthen the roots of democracy.
But holistic democracy also demands an empowered, enabled and protected citizenry. While official institutions may serve as its arms and legs, its heart is a free and active civil society, including NGOs and trade unions, women’s groups and minority organizations, professional societies and community groups, social movements and watchdog associations.
Nor is holistic democracy satisfied by giving voice to the majority. Legitimate democratic governance concerns itself with the needs, aspirations and rights of all sectors of society, whether minority or majority, indigenous or immigrant, male or female, popular or unpopular, powerful or vulnerable. This means incorporating appropriate safeguards to hear and protect the less numerous, less powerful, less wealthy and less popular. It also means that every member of the polity must accept and embrace his or her civic responsibilities in protecting the rights and freedoms of others, and in meeting the just requirements of the democratic society, as explicitly required by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Holistic democracy also recognizes and responds to today’s new democratic challenges, in a world where decision-making that affects our economic well-being, our political future, our social conditions and our personal security seems to be ever more remotely located. While many of the old problems remain, the global context is being transformed dramatically, as borders evaporate and centres of power shift from the public to the private sphere, and from the national to the global arena.
Clearly, notions of democratic governance can no longer be reasonably confined to the national level. As Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, “if governments today must govern better, they must also learn to govern better as a community of nations. The principles of democratic government are just as important internationally as they are at the national level.” This is what I have in mind when I speak of a continuum of democratic governance, extending from the village, to the State, to our international institutions and back.
To there can be no doubt that democracy requires strong institutions at all levels. But it is, in the first instance, neither defined nor sustained by them. Democracy is defined by its principles and norms, as enshrined in the human rights instruments. And democracy is sustained only by popular vigilance in its defense.
That is why my Office is working today with national level partners in more than thirty-five countries around the world, helping to promote these universal standards, to build strong democratic institutions, and to empower civil society. And yes, we can, and will do more. It is for this reason that we view the anticipated outcome of this seminar as a vital contribution of direct practical value to our work.
Judged against the principles and norms that define holistic democracy, there are no perfect or complete democracies. Rather all countries, and the international community itself, are engaged in processes of democratization. Our job is to support and strengthen those processes.
Madame Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen,
I am exceedingly grateful to the Commission on Human Rights for mandating this important event. I have no doubt that the Commission, as well as my office will benefit from its conclusions. Over the course of the next two days, you will help us to craft a vision of holistic democracy which rejects the narrow in favor of the inclusive, and guides us in the building of democracy’s house on the enduring foundations of human rights. This is crucial work at a time of critical need. I therefore thank you for your participation, and I wish you well in your deliberations.