Democracy and human rights are two sides of the same coin

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Democracy and human rights are two sides of the same coin

December 10th, 2019
Image: UN Photo / Flickr (Creative Commons)

By Dina Melhem, WFD’s Senior Human Rights Adviser and Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa

Human rights are for everyone. But, 71 years after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we must recognise great challenges still lie ahead. In the immediate future we need to emphasise the importance of the promotion and protection of human rights at every level of democracy assistance: global, regional and national.

Despite progress in the global fight for human rights, the world today continues to suffer from civil wars, the widespread use of torture, human trafficking, inequalities and exclusion, environmental degradation, the rise of terrorism and the recurrence of abominable crimes. In the face of such challenges, we must remember that the path to the fulfilment of human rights intersects with many others. The paths to democracy and the rule of law, to peace, to sustainable development, and to equality and an end to discrimination, all point the way to tackling the biggest current threats to democracy, including the rise of populism and increasing attempts to close political space. In any work that aims to strengthen democratic practices it is important to recall the synergy between them. Above all, a human rights approach to democracy support is critical.

This idea of this intersectionality is nothing new. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights adopted the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.  The declaration made clear that democracy and respect for human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

Since then, the Human Rights Council has adopted resolutions highlighting the interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationship between democracy and human rights. In 2012 its Resolution 19/36 on ‘Human rights, democracy and the rule of law’ tackled the complexity of the concept of democracy by identifying its different dimensions and restating its definition from a human rights perspective.

It is now well-established that the principles of non-discrimination and equality before the law are inherent in any protection and recognition of human rights. These principles are key to building inclusive societies which leave no one behind. But there is a need to ensure principles of diversity and inclusion – key democratic principles – are respected as a core part of any policy. Achieving this goal requires giving marginalised and vulnerable persons and groups the mechanisms, space and better awareness they need to be heard when they speak up about inequalities and rights violations, and to take their perspectives into account during policymaking.

Commitments to democracy and human rights are two sides of the same coin, which is why empowering individuals and groups to exercise their democratic rights lies at the heart of WFD’s work.  We believe that effective, accountable, transparent, and inclusive institutions provide the groundwork for all democratic societies. WFD helps parliaments, civil society organisations, political parties and independent bodies such as national human rights institutions to play an active role. As a result of our work they are better able to defend human rights, strengthen human rights committees, promote legislative reform and establish legal frameworks that comply with international human rights standards. Working together – for example, with parties to formulate progressive human rights policies – is an important part of this work.

WFD spotlights intersectionality more broadly, too, as seen in our work on human rights for women, young people and persons with disabilities across all identities. For example, WFD supported the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab countries to develop a draft Arab Convention to Combat Violence Against Women and Girls. WFD also supported their goal to repeal penal code articles which allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims in Lebanon, in Jordan and Palestine. Elsewhere, in North Macedonia, WFD has been working with political parties to make their websites and campaign materials more accessible to people with disabilities, thus allowing them to better exercise their democratic rights.

International Human Rights Day on Tuesday 10 December is an occasion to underline that human rights, and the interdependence of human rights and the rule of law, are core components of democracy as a concept and as a practice. More than ever, there is a need to facilitate dialogue between stakeholders on human rights issues. We need to see more synergies between human rights expertise and broad-based democracy expertise drawn from all regions of the world. The result would be even more democracy assistance which revolves around building states’ capacities to undertake comprehensive reforms.

That could make a real difference that delivers on the promise of the Vienna Declaration and the Human Rights Council’s 2012 Resolution. Ultimately, a constructive promotion of democratic ideals anchored in respect for all humans will serve to advance global peace and security – the ultimate goals of those who signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights back in 1948.

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