Are human rights indispensable to democracy?

Essay, 2014

6 Pages, Grade: 55


Are human rights indispensable to democracy?

The paper seeks to conceptualise the significance of human rights to democracy and in so doing outlines the nexus between human rights and democracy. Human rights are inalienable basic rights inherent to an individual by virtue of them being human regardless of race, sex, religion, language, nationality or any other status. Democracy is a multifaceted concept with a plethora of definitions even though there is no consensus to what constitutes a democracy, the major sticking point being whether democracy is about majoritarianism or whether it should extend to the upholding of the basic human rights tenets such as freedom of expression, free and fair elections and inclusive suffrage. (Pennock, 1979, 7) defines democracy as a “government by the people where liberty, equality and fraternity are secured to the greatest possible degree and in which human capacities are developed to the utmost, by means including free and full discussion of common problems and interests.” The essay posits that human rights are a necessity to achieve democracy by analysing different types of democracies and how they have human rights at the epicentre of their approaches such as the direct/participatory, representative democracy and the liberal model of democracy. However the essay will also allude to the fact that democratic institutions can function without much ado about human rights by analysing the lee-hypothesis, ancient democracies` existence, controversies surrounding the human rights discourse, communitarianism approaches to human rights and the origins of the human rights doctrine to explain that democracies were already in place before the advent of the human rights discourse and therefore human rights are not necessarily significant to democracy.

Human rights are a determining factor in democracy because they articulate freedom of expression and this free will is manifest in the ability of citizens to vote and exercise their rights in the governance of their country or take part in referendums. Democracy is about exercise of power by elected officials and this is clearly spelt out in Article 21 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) which stipulates that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Democracy it can be noted is also about being elected into positions of leadership through the system of one man one vote. However the lee-hypothesis questions whether human rights are really significant in being a functional democracy. The Asian tigers namely China, South Korea and Singapore had democratically elected officials driving those economies but on very rigid autocratic lines that emphasised efficiency, impersonality and profit maximisation at the expense of free will and liberties. The Asian values promoted by Lee centred upon paternalistic attitudes, accepting hierarchical authority, and community-oriented–characteristics that promote order and consensus as opposed to the western concepts of individualism, and rights based Emmerson (1995). The lee-hypothesis thus shows that a democratically elected government can sacrifice human rights for economic growth and human rights in this instance are not central to democracy.

Held (1997) defines direct democracy as a form of democracy in which people decide on policy initiatives directly. Direct democracies also show that human rights are a necessity in that they promote active citizen participation usually through referendums and political consultation as is the case in Switzerland. Citizens can make decisions on infrastructural development decisions, political plans and economic decisions. This type of system promotes human rights in that it guarantees free discussion, open communication and freedom of expression to make citizens make informed decisions when voting in referendums. Direct democracies it can be argued promote human rights as they epitomise a democratic political culture where there is civic engagement and involvement in the public sphere a case in point would be the recently held Scottish referendum. Marr (2014) reported that Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom after voters decisively rejected independence, clearly highlighting an exercise of freedom of expression by the Scottish people and this shows how human rights are central to a democratic state by giving citizens the ability to vote in a referendum.

However on the contrary it should be noted that democracy though seeming to be democratic is highly discriminatory since migrants do not get to vote yet the decision that the supposed democratic process seeks to impart affects them directly or indirectly yet they are secluded from voting. This shows that the process of attaining democracy impinges on the human rights of minorities and suppresses their rights as enshrined in the UDHR Article 2 which articulates that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the 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. The process of attaining democracies does not in practise account for this human right obligation and it can be argued therefore that in this instance human rights are not indispensable to democracy.

Human rights are also indispensable to democracy in that democratic systems allow for the right to protest in peace and this could be in the form of civil society organisation or pressure groups to influence change. In contemporary societies civil society is an integral part of the democratic process since it involves the dissolution of power to the people by empowering grassroots organisations such as trade unions, women`s groups, student associations and sports clubs to implement bottom up approaches that are empowering to the citizens as enshrined in the UNDHR article 20 which stipulates that everyone has the right to take part in meetings and to join associations in a peaceful way. This shows that human rights and democracy are interdependent and a democratic country should allow for the free reign of these rights.

However on the other hand it is worth noting that human rights just like democracy mean different things to different people. On one end there are Universalists advocating for a universal approach to human rights whilst on the other extreme end are the communitarians advocating for cultural relativity by accounting for the regional and structural differences in societies. This plunges the human rights discourse in a quandary and one needs to question the place of human rights in democracies since Foucault argues that knowledge is power and In fact power produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’ (Foucault 1991: 194). It can be argued from a Marxist perspective that human rights can be a form of indoctrination that seeks to create a false consciousness amongst the working class and make their plight more bearable by using human rights as a form of, “pie-in the sky” salvation discourse to distort the real nature of their exploitation since present day democracies do not follow the principles of human rights even though there is a lot of political bickering surrounding human rights. Democratic states such as the United States of America`s invasion of Iraq is a case in point and this shows that human rights are not necessary in democracies since the “democracies” can exist without accounting for the human rights.

Human rights are also indispensable to democracy as espoused by the liberal model of democracy which advocates for placing the rights of the individual as more important than that of society. Held (1997) defines liberal democracy as a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of liberalism, by protecting the rights of the individual which are generally enshrined in law. Liberal democracy assumes that the individual has both human rights and civil rights this type of democracy respects the rule of law to protect the rights of individual minorities and group and by so doing protects the human rights principles. However the problem with this view is that in placing individual economic, social and cultural rights as central to society it implies forcing others to relinquish their rights or to be under the laid rules and laws as enforced by the system.

Amartha Sen`s proposition that famines do not occur in democracies also gives evidence that democracies generally account for the human rights protection of their citizens by having social safety nets that protect society. Sen (1999) notes that famines cannot occur under democracy due to the incentive to win elections, which means politicians have to ensure that as many potential voters as possible get food, which has the consequence of averting such disasters. This shows that in essence due to the incentive to win the next elections democracies seeks to protect and respect human rights so that they are voted into power. Democracies are thus more efficient in providing public goods and resources unlike authoritarian systems.

A Marxist perspective on democracies postulates that “democracy is the road to socialism” epitomising that a rights based approach is the panacea towards attaining a purely democratic state and a shift from a capitalist state which cannot be democratic since it represents dictatorship by the bourgeoisies. Marx and Engels (1848) noted that if you have a democratic system of government, this will ultimately lead to a socialist attitude to economics and social responsibility because the government would have to respond to the desires of the majority and not necessarily those of the wealthy and powerful and thus less feasible to capitalism. Human rights are thus indispensable to attain democracy. However a weberian perspective would oppose this view by highlighting that human rights are not indispensable to democracy since under a rational-legal system of legitimacy authorities are highly beaucratical in their approach since the authority of the states is tied to the legal rationality, legal legitimacy and beauracracy and modern societies are modelled along these lines. The problem emanates from the fact that bureaucratic democratic systems stifle individual autonomy since large organizations became dominant in society, people find they cannot escape the de-individualizing and dehumanizing rules they are inevitably obliged to follow. It can be argued that freedom of expression is limited in practice because of legislation such as in Russia where the foreign agent law bans civil society organisations that receive funding from external sources to operate in the country, this shows that though Russia has a democratically elected presidium it does not necessarily follow that human rights are subscribed to and therefore democracies can exist without adhering to human rights principles.

Dahl (1989) postulates that no modern country meets the ideal of democracy because of the lack of the five fundamental principles which are effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, control of the agenda and inclusiveness. Instead, he calls politically advanced countries "polyarchies". Polyarchies have elected officials, free and fair elections, inclusive suffrage, and rights to run for office, freedom of expression, alternative information and associational autonomy. It should be noted that democracy does not have single definition and it is interpreted differently thus Dahl`s major critism is the attempt to reduce democracy to a set of conditions yet Amartha Sen notes that democracy cannot be treated as a universal concept because it means different things to different people.

It can be concluded that there is no consensus regarding the definitions of both human rights and democracy and this possesses numerous challenges with regards to deducing these variables. Human rights cannot be taken in universality because of the structural differences in many parts of the world such as religious and cultural differences. Democracy on the other hand cannot also be taken as a universal concept because there is no agreed definition of what constitutes a democracy, the major question arises from whether democracy should be about majoritarianism or whether it should extend to the basic principles of human rights in everyday life such as freedoms of expression, inclusive suffrage and the protection of liberties and freedoms. Democracy and human rights should thus co-exist for no society can be truly democratic without adhering to the human rights principles.


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Are human rights indispensable to democracy?
University of Sussex
Globalisation, Liberalism and Modernity
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human rights, democracy
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Tafadzwa Chivanga (Author), 2014, Are human rights indispensable to democracy?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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