Program Areas

Program Areas

A new mandate on democracy at the UN Human Rights Council

Ceiling of the conference hall of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Image: Shutterstock, licensed for use on this website

According to Kofi Annan, the seventh UN Secretary-General, the “crown jewels” of the UN’s Human Rights Council are the “Special Procedures” system. It is made up of special rapporteurs, independent experts or working groups tasked with examining a specific area of human rights.

The UN Special Procedures play a significant role in promoting democracy by addressing human rights violations that undermine democratic principles, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, for instance, can investigate and report on cases where governments restrict or censor information and media outlets critical of their policies, which is an essential aspect of a democratic society. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association can provide guidance on creating an enabling environment for civil society organizations and promoting freedom of association, which is essential for a vibrant and pluralistic democracy.

While a wide range of human rights are covered, there is no specific mandate on democracy. Several civil society groups and think-tanks, among them Democracy Without Borders, in recent times expressed their support for the creation of a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy. There are good arguments for this new mandate.

Gulnara Shahinian speaking at the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council on 12 September 2013. Until 2014 she served as the first UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. Image: UN Geneva/Jean-Marc Ferré

Arguments for a mandate on democracy

First, democracy is not only a political system but a fundamental human right. It guarantees individuals’ participation in decision-making processes and protects their freedoms and rights. As a human right, democracy includes the right to free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the right to participate in the political process without fear of persecution or discrimination, among other things. Democracy promotes the rule of law, fosters an environment of openness, tolerance, and diversity, and encourages respect for human dignity, equality, and the value of every individual.

Democracy is a fundamental human right

Second, democracy cannot exist without the promotion and protection of human rights. The UN Special Procedures system’s primary objective is to monitor and report on human rights issues globally. Therefore, establishing a democracy mandate would strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights, especially in those transitioning to democracy.

Third, as an organization committed to promoting peace, security, and human rights, the UN has a responsibility to promote democracy as a means towards achieving these goals. By establishing a democracy mandate, the UN would be better equipped to provide assistance to countries transitioning to democracy and promote the establishment of democratic institutions and practices.

Finally, the world needs more democracy. Democratic countries are more likely to respect human rights, promote economic development, and maintain international peace and security. By promoting democracy through a dedicated mandate within the UN Special Procedures system, the UN can help create a more stable and prosperous global community.

Adapting the “Special Procedures” system

The UN Special Procedures system is designed to monitor and report on human rights issues globally, and its thematic mandates cover a wide range of human rights concerns. While the system is not currently specifically designed to support a democracy mandate, it could be adapted to do so.

The system would need to develop expertise in areas such as electoral processes, constitutional law, and democratic governance. It could help provide assistance in fields such as capacity building, legal reform, and support of civil society. It would need to build close partnerships with civil society organizations, political leaders, and other actors especially in countries transitioning to democracy to ensure that its work is grounded in local realities and needs.

There might be a need to develop guidelines and protocols that ensure that the work on democracy is consistent and effective. This could include developing reporting frameworks, establishing best practices for engaging with governments, among others, and creating training programs to build the capacity of Special Procedures mandate holders on democracy-related issues.

Overall, the implementation of a democracy-related mandate within the Special Procedures system would require managerial and financial support. By providing capacity building measures, facilitating collaboration with other mandate holders, mobilizing resources, and engaging with civil society, the system could help ensure that the mandate is implemented in an effective manner.

Promoting the new mandate

The mandate would have to be set up by the Human Rights Council and there are likely to be varying levels of support among member states, depending on their political systems, values, and priorities. It is essential to engage with governments early on to identify potential pioneers. Civil society organizations, international organizations, and academic institutions obviously play an important role in this. Civil society groups, in particular, can provide expertise, conduct advocacy, and mobilize at a grassroots level.

Further, the existing Special Procedures mandate holders should be engaged. They have the experience as experts appointed by the Human Rights Council to monitor and report on human rights issues. Engaging with them and raising awareness of the importance of promoting democracy as a fundamental human right will help build momentum.

Conducting research on promoting democracy as a human right will help strengthen the case for this new mandate. For instance, research can include analysis of the relationship between democracy and human rights, economic development, and peace and security.

Finally, raising awareness of the importance of promoting democracy as a human right and dialogue among different actors will help generate support. This can include organizing conferences, workshops, and other events. Progressive governments and other donors committed to democracy should support these efforts.

Gulnara Shahinian
Gulnara Shahinian is an international democracy and human rights advocate. She is founder of the Armenian group Democracy Today and served as first UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery from 2006 to 2014. She is an advisor to Democracy Without Borders.