International Day of Democracy

15th September is the International Day of Democracy!!

The International Day of Democracy provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world. Democracy is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere.

The values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.

The link between democracy and human rights is captured in article 21 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states:

“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.”

The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments covering group rights (e.g.indigenous peoples, minorities, people with disabilities) are equally essential for democracy as they ensure an equitable distribution of wealth, and equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.

What is Democracy?

“Of the people, by the people, for the people”
~ Abraham Lincoln

The word democracy comes from the Greek words “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as “power of the people”: a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.

There are so many different models of democratic government around the world that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it definitely is not. Democracy, then, is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules; and it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules. Properly understood, democracy should not even be “rule of the majority”, if that means that minorities’ interests are ignored completely. A democracy, at least in theory, is government on behalf of all the people, according to their “will”.

Why democracy?

The idea of democracy derives its moral strength – and popular appeal – from two key principles:
1. Individual autonomy: The idea that no-one should be subject to rules which have been imposed by others. People should be able to control their own lives (within reason).
2. Equality: The idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.

The development of democracy | Ancient history

The ancient Greeks are credited with creating the very first democracy, although there were almost certainly earlier examples of primitive democracy in other parts of the world. The Greek model was established in the 5th century BC, in the city of Athens. Among a sea of autocracies and oligarchies – which were the normal forms of government at the time – Athenian democracy stood out.

However, compared to how we understand democracy today, the Athenian model had two important differences:
1. Theirs was a form of direct democracy – in other words, instead of electing representatives to govern on the people’s behalf, “the people” themselves met, discussed questions of government, and then implemented policy.
2. Such a system was possible partly because “the people” was a very limited category. Those who could participate directly were a small part of the population, since women, slaves, aliens – and of course, children – were excluded. The numbers who participated were still far more than in a modern democracy: perhaps 50,000 males engaged directly in politics, out of a population of around 300,000 people.

The development of democracy | Modern world

“While democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy.”
~UN Resolution on promoting and consolidating democracy (A/RES/62/7)

Today there are as many different forms of democracy as there are democratic nations in the world. No two systems are exactly the same and no one system can be taken as a “model”. There are presidential and parliamentary democracies, democracies that are federal or unitary, democracies that use a proportional voting system, and ones that use a majoritarian system, democracies which are also monarchies, and so on.

One thing that unites modern systems of democracy, and which also distinguishes them from the ancient model, is the use of representatives of the people. Instead of taking part directly in law making, modern democracies use elections to select representatives who are sent by the people to govern on their behalf. Such a system is known as representative democracy. It can lay some claim to being “democratic” because it is, at least to some degree, based on the two principles above: equality of all (one person – one vote), and the right of every individual to some degree of personal autonomy.

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) tells us that “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”: so democracy is in fact the only form of government which is consistent with human rights.

Democracy during the COVID-19 pandemic

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has resulted in major social, political and legal challenges globally. As states around the world adopt emergency measures to address the crisis, it is critical that they continue to uphold the rule of law, protect and respect international standards and basic principles of legality, and the right to access justice, remedies and due process.

UN Secretary General António Guterres has urged governments to be transparent, responsive and accountable in their COVID-19 response and ensure that any emergency measures are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. “The best response is one that responds proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law,” he said.

The Secretary-General’s policy brief says states must respect and protect, among other rights, freedom of expression and of the press, freedom of information, freedom of association and of assembly. Concerns in many countries in the context of COVID-19 include:  

  • Measures to control the flow of information and crackdown on freedom of expression and press freedom against an existing background of shrinking civic space.
  • Arrest, detention, prosecution or persecution of political opponents, journalists, doctors and healthcare workers, activists and others for allegedly spreading “fake news”.
  • Aggressive cyber-policing and increased online surveillance.
  • Postponement of elections is raising serious constitutional issues in some cases and may lead to rising tensions.

SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Many of the targets of Goal 16 are geared towards protecting democratic institutions, including:

  • 16.3 Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all
  • 16.5 Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms
  • 16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels
  • 16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels
  • 16.10 Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements

Democratic Education

Democracy in order to be a reality and a way of life has to be introduced from the very beginning of education and its values need to be practiced in educational institutions.

The main aim of education in a democracy is to produce democratic citizens who can not only objectively understand the plethora of social, political, economic and cultural problems but also form their own independent judgement on these complicated problems.

It must inculcate in them the spirit of tolerance and ignite the courage of convictions. It must aim at creating in them a passion for social justice and social service. It must equip them with the power of judgement, scientific thinking and weighing the right and the wrong.

The Secondary Education Commission (1952-53) have spelt out the following aims of democratic education:

(i) Democratic Citizenship:

In orders to foster democratic citizenship, education should aim at the following:
(a) Clear Thinking
(b) Clearness in Speech and Writing
(c) Art of Living with the Community
(d) Sense of True Patriotism
(e) Development of Sense of World Citizenship

(ii) Improvement of Vocational Efficiency:

The second aim of our educational system is the improvement of vocational efficiency which includes creation of the right attitude to work, promotion of technical skills and efficiency.

(iii) Development of Personality:

The third aim is the development of personality which includes discovering hidden talents, cultivating rich interests in art, literature and culture necessary for self-expression and assigning a place of honour to the subjects like art, craft, music, dance and hobbies in the curriculum.

(iv) Training in Leadership:

A democracy cannot run smoothly without efficient and effective leadership. Therefore, it is one of the important aims of democratic education that it should train an army of people who will be able to assume the responsibility of leadership in social, political, economic, industrial or cultural fields. Besides, they are required to acquire skills in the art of leading and following others and to discharge their duties efficiently.

“Schools ought to stress the duties and responsibilities of individual citizens. They ought to train pupils in a spirit of cheerful, willing and effective service. They should teach citizenship directly. Everywhere there should be a spirit of teamwork. School is a prepared environment in which a child may best blossom”. 

Democracy Index

The Democracy Index is an index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research division of the Economist Group, a UK-based private company which publishes the weekly newspaper The Economist. The index is self-described as intending to measure the state of democracy in 167 countries, of which 166 are sovereign states and 164 are UN member states.

The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories, measuring pluralism, civil liberties and political culture. In addition to a numeric score and a ranking, the index categorises each country into one of four regime types: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.

The right to vote

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, recognizes the integral role that transparent and open elections play in ensuring the fundamental right to participatory government. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Article 21 states: “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his/her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives. Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.” 

While the right to vote is widely recognized as a fundamental human right, this right is not fully enforced for millions of individuals around the world. Consistently disenfranchised groups include non-citizens, young people, minorities, those who commit crimes, the homeless, disabled persons, and many others who lack access to the vote for a variety of reasons including poverty, illiteracy, intimidation, or unfair election processes.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the key international guarantee of voting rights and free elections.

ICCPR, Article 25: Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:

(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, in general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

“Democracy is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority.”
~ Albert Camus


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