Is There a Human Right to Democracy?

13612203_10206155636603188_4130233331516496311_n  Gavin Davies

Human rights are often seen as a noble yet unrealistic goal as time and again they are not upheld in times of repression or conflict, just when they are needed most. In order to deal with this, there has been a consistent trend of forcing the spread of democracy, since democratic peace theory suggests that democratic countries do not go to war and are more free and open. However, we should ask why it is assumed that democracy is the answer to attaining comprehensive human rights, and critically analyze the failed attempts at democracy. If democracy is the answer, why was there such great instability after the Arab Spring, and why are there still so many failings in democratic countries around the world? So even though article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that there is a human right to elections and governmental participation,[1] it is counter-intuitive to enforce democratic systems without respecting sovereignty or popular will. This leads us to the essential question: should there be a human right to democracy?

What Defines a Human Right?

In order to understand the full impact of this question, there must be a clearer understanding of what a human right is. Characteristically, human rights are thought of as the rights that are fundamental to the continuation of an adequate human life, based on the naturalist view that all people are entitled to human rights because of their status as moral and social beings.[2] However, this view disregards cultural acceptance of human rights. This means that a human right “naturalist” would say that a right to equality before the law, as in article 7 of the UDHR, is necessary for human dignity and must be enforced.[3] Some see this as a strength of human rights, as it forces societies to place lofty goals and be pushed to be more humane.[4] Others stipulate that this logic of moral universalism can be too easily abused, and in fact provides a basis for neo-colonialist intervention.[5]

Human rights theorists have wrestled with this contradiction for many years, and in doing so transitioned to a new view; the moral implication of human rights is secondary to the political reality. The most notable proponent of this view is John Rawls and his theory of overlapping consensus, which states that human rights depends on the society that it addresses, and human rights should come from the similarities in values between societies.[6] Whereas the previous view was “naturalist”, this view of the grounding of human rights has been labelled the “deliberative approach”.[7] This deals with concerns of neo-imperialism, as it is built from respect of sovereignty and cultural difference.[8] However, it has become clear that in practice this does little to encourage countries to take seriously the needs of repressed minorities, or ensure basic civil liberties and freedoms.

Therefore, the deliberative approach is compelling in how it encourages consensus, but unfortunately undermines the fundamental premise of human rights as universal. However, there may be a third way; social accommodation for the naturalist grounding of human rights. Human rights theorist Joshua Cohen proposed this idea after recognizing the issues in imposing democracy, but also understanding the necessity of maintaining a universal mandate. He believed that there were ways of using culturally relevant terms and histories to emphasize democratic ideals, rather than just aim for consensus among the dominant political ideologies of the time. So Cohen conducted a wide-ranging discourse analysis of Islam and Confucianism, and found prominent scholars and practices within each tradition that embodied democratic values, such as equality before the law.[9] Therefore, though it might take time for general acceptance, there is a justifiable reason to emphasize deliberation that highlights the fair and tolerant aspects of a society’s cultural history and norms when conducting international relations and diplomacy.[10] In doing so, the charge of ideological imperialism can be countered by the practice of discussing political change in another country in a culturally endogenous narrative, and avoid any egregious limitations on a state’s sovereignty or identity.[11] By following this logic, there is a justifiable moral imperative for the international community to support means of encouraging equality among every country’s citizens.[12]

The Instrumentality of Democracy as a Human Right

So if we can take this third approach, does that mean there should be a human right to democracy? Not necessarily. Generally speaking, there are three main conditions that need to be met for a right to constitute a human right: first, the right is universal to all societies and individuals, second, it is morally justified due to their necessity in an individual living a minimally decent life, and third, it is urgently required.[13] From the arguments so far, we could make the case for satisfying the first two conditions, but not that there is an urgent need for democracy, as “urgent” means immediately necessary for human dignity and guaranteeing basic interests.[14] The only way that this urgency can be justified for democracy is through an instrumentalist argument that democracy is necessary to ensure other urgently required human rights.

Therefore, it needs to be proven that use a democratic political system adopt the egalitarian policies necessary to meet human rights standards better than non-democratic societies. There have been a number of studies that have aimed to quantify the veracity of democratic urgency by using large scale statistical predictors,[15] and there are two notable ones that I will mention here. In the first study, the researchers compiled previous analysis on what would best predict physical and personal rights. The meta-data showed that democracy is positively-correlated with a country’s history of protection of personal integrity and negatively-correlated to the frequency of civil war,[16] meaning that “the more democracy there is, the less repression of the human rights to personal integrity there is”.[17]

This data is corroborated by the studies done by Bueno de Mesquita et al., which showed that violations of personal integrity lessened by a statistically significant amount by the time five years had passed after a state becomes a “high quality democracy”.[18] This study is important in showing that it is indeed democracy that initiates the protection of rights, and not vice versa.[19] But what counts as high quality democracy? It can generally be defined as a state that has a constitution that necessitates the elected accountability of a legislature to the people, has elections that are competitive and fair, and there is a majority of people participating in elections.[20] Though the definition is somewhat vague, as in how one could interpret “elected accountability”, this ambiguity allows for more open cultural interpretations that could align with Cohen’s model of emphasizing egalitarian historical or religious norms, while still proving that democracy is an urgent moral good in meeting human rights standards.

However, the political viability of Cohen’s argument for culturally resonant egalitarianism is challenged by the instances where a high quality democracy has not lasted, such as in Egypt after the Arab Spring.[21] Political scientists and advocacy groups have analyzed this trend, and concluded that there is often a lack of acceptance of democracy in illiberal countries because it is untenable for the country’s leaders, not because democratic values are unsuitable for the population.[22] Essentially, democracy does lead to improved human rights, but rather than achieving it through violent regime change, democracy needs to come from a place of culturally resonant ideas of fairness that pervade up to elites, and institutions that are pushed to be more egalitarian and accountable to the people.[23]


From this information, it becomes reasonable to argue that there is indeed a human right to democracy, and even though it is not perfect, it is better than the alternatives. This would mean that if for whatever reason a state does not allow progress towards human rights, the international community would have a duty to provide assistance through measures that encourage the more tolerant historically relevant narrative of democratic values, and potentially punish those offending leaders with sanctions and diplomatic pressure. However, it is important to note that this alone would not be grounds for country wide economic sanctions or military intervention, and all countries should be equally open to criticism. Only if the situation worsens, especially to the point where are mass atrocities occurring, is there a valid argument for military intervention. The responses will differ case by case, as repression can be small scale but consistent, or short and severe, but in either instance, if the majority of citizens are no longer able to live minimally decent lives because of repressive governmental practices, then there is the duty to intervene and actively defend those people. Though this last option is fraught with risks, the moral cost of not acting would be higher than the diplomatic ramifications of acting. Therefore, even though it can be shown that there is a human right to democracy, there must be understanding, transparency, and deliberation in regards to the actions taken to ensure it.



Bueno de Mesquita, B., Downs, G.W., Smith, A., and Cherif, F.M. ‘Thinking Inside the Box: A Closer Look at Democracy and Human Rights’, International Studies Quarterly 49 (3), 439-57.

Christiano, T. (2011) ‘An Instrumental Argument for a Human Right to Democracy’, Philosophy & Public Affairs. 39 (2), 142–176.

Christiano, T. (2015) ‘Self-determination and the Human Right to Democracy’, in Cruft, R., Liao, S. and Renzo, M. (ed.), Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 459-480.

Cohen, J. (2004) ‘Minimalism About Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For?’ Journal of Political Philosophy. 12 (2), 190–213.

Cohen, J. (2005) ‘Is there a Human Right to Democracy?’, The Egalitarian Conscience. 226–249.

Davenport, C., and Armstrong, D. A. (2004) ‘Democracy and the Violation of Human Rights: A Statistical Analysis from 1976 to 1996’, American Journal of Political Science, 48, (3), 538-554.

Dembour, M.B. (2010) ‘What Are Human Rights? Four Schools of Thought’, Human Rights Quarterly. 32 (1), 1–20.

Hamed, Y. (2014) Egypt’s Coup has Plunged the Country into Catastrophe [online]. Available from: [Accessed 21 May 2016].

Henkin, L. (1978) The Rights of Man Today, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Langlois, A. (2009) Normative and Theoretical Foundations of Human Rights. In: M. Goodhart, ed. (2009), Human Rights: Politics and Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 1.

New Tactics (2010) Domesticating International Human Rights Law, New Tactics, Available at: [Accessed 18 March 2016].

Mahmud, S. (1993) ‘The State and Human Rights in Africa in the 1990’s: Perspectives and Prospects’, Human Rights Quarterly, 15 (3), 485-498.

Poe, S.C., Tate N.C., and Keith, L.C. (1999) ‘Repression of the Human Right to Personal Integrity Revisited: A Global Cross-National Study Covering the Years 1976-1993’, International Studies Quarterly, 43 (2), 291-313.

Rawls, J. (1987) The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) (1948) The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations [online]. Available from: [Accessed 18 March 2016].

Vincent, A. (2010) The P

[1] United Nations General Assembly, 1948.

[2] Dembour, 2010, p. 3.

[3] United Nations General Assembly, 1948.

[4] Henkin, 1978.

[5] Langlois, 2009, p. 19.

[6] Rawls, 1987, p. 1.

[7] Dembour, 2010, p. 5.

[8] Vincent, 2010, p. 45.

[9] Cohen, 2004, pp. 192-196.

[10] Ibid. p. 194.

[11] Ibid. p. 195.

[12] Christiano, 2015, p. 462.

[13] Cohen, 2005, pp. 229-230; emphasis added.

[14] Christiano, 2015, p. 461.

[15] Christiano, 2011, pp. 8-9.

[16] Poe et al., 1999, p. 297.

[17] Ibid. p. 297.

[18] Bueno de Mesquita et al., 2005, p. 452.

[19] Ibid, p. 452.

[20] Davenport and Armstrong, 2007, p. 544-545.

[21] Hamed, 2014.

[22] New Tactics, 2010; Mahmud 1993, p. 495.

[23] Cohen, 2005, p. 233.

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