Human rights, the rule of law and global challenges to democracy

By Thomas Hughes, Independent Governor

Democracy worldwide is seemingly under increasing threat, with restrictions and repression on the rise. Well established democracies appear to be eroding their institutions and standards from within, whilst emergent democracies are failing to deliver accountability, broad participation and power-sharing. Leaders of faux-democracies have learnt how to rule with a ‘velvet fist’ to maintain an outwardly palatable veneer whilst suppressing internal opposition. Leaders of established democracies seem increasingly ready to jeopardise long-standing norms for short-term political gain.

If we cast our minds back only 20 years, the post-cold war period of 1990 to 1995 saw an explosion in democratisation, with over 120 nominally democratic countries by the turn of the century. Given this surge, the realisation that much of this progress has not been deep-rooted makes the regression more explainable. Although not an ‘end of history’ fatalist, I nevertheless believe the cards remain stacked in the favour of democracy in the long-term. Where democracy exists, it’s systems and institutions fail because individuals or groups manipulate and abuse them without accountability or recourse.

My reason for becoming an independent governor of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is that it’s work to strengthen democratic institutions and political parties is crucial for reversing this downward trend. Alongside this, I believe the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law must also be central, with a focus on three areas. Firstly, closing the human rights implementation gap between international standards and national action; secondly emboldening national civil society and media; and thirdly strengthening judiciaries and legal communities.

Human rights, multilateralism and the closing implementation gap

A number of global and regional intergovernmental institutions play important roles in setting and monitoring state compliance with human rights. Among these is the United Nations Human Rights Council. When the Council was created a decade ago it was designed to be more relevant, credible and impartial than its predecessor. The Council has achieved important successes, but there is growing polarisation, as well as clear attempts by states to block or evade human rights scrutiny. The Vienna Declaration, unanimously adopted more than two decades ago, confirmed “the promotion and protection of all human rights is a legitimate concern of the international community.” However, there remains an implementation gap between international agreements and national actions. As such, all states need to seriously pursue implementation of international human rights commitments domestically and must clearly and consistently hold one another to account for doing so.

Emboldening national civil society and media

A robust and protected civic space forms the cornerstone of accountable and responsive democratic governance. As seen by the growing prowess of civic campaigns and the colour revolutions of the past decades, civil society is growing in strength. However, according to the Carnegie Endowment, over the past three years more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that curtail the activity of non-governmental and civil society organisations, whilst 96 countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity. This is being done with a ‘viral-like’ spread of new copycat laws targeting areas like finance, registration, protest, censorship and ‘anti-propaganda’ and independent media. To counter this, the rights to information, expression, protest and participation must be rigorously defended.

Strengthening judiciaries and legal communities

Legal communities and the judiciary remain a bulwark against the misuse of power. Recent examples include the East African Court of Justice, a relatively new court based in Arusha, upholding the rights of journalists in Burundi to protect the identities of their sources, and finding the country’s criminal defamation law as inconsistent with international law. In another example, in April the High Court in Kenya ruled that Section 29 of the Information and Communication Act, used to arrest and charge a number of social media users, was unconstitutional. As such, the judiciary is a cornerstone for the defence of human rights and democracy and must be respected and defended as such.

Whilst these are challenging times, the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law are essential for the creation and defence of healthy vibrant democracies.

 

(Top: Photo credit: Studio Incendo – Citizens in Hong Kong protest against proposed electoral reforms, in what became known as the “umbrella movement”

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