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International statement calls for a UN Rapporteur on Democracy

General view of a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2015. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

A statement calling on the United Nations to appoint a special rapporteur on democracy has been signed by more than 80 civil society organizations, networks, think tanks and institutions as well as over 180 individuals from across the world united by their commitment to human rights and democracy. 

According to the document, which was released today and is endorsed by Democracy Without Borders, “democracy is threatened and authoritarianism is on the rise”. In this situation, the UN “needs to do more to strengthen human rights and democracy”, the statement says. The new rapporteur position would be created by the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva and “mandated to investigate the state of democracy around the world.”

The joint appeal is made ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is coming up on 10 December 2023. Like-minded organizations, policy-makers and individuals are invited to sign on.

“Democracy is a human right and human rights depend on democracy. The UN can no longer look the other way while this right is being denied, undermined and weakened in many countries around the world. A UN rapporteur on democracy is urgently needed”, said Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders.

A joint appeal head of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The statement points out that the new mandate can be based on UN resolutions that identify and support democratic principles. This includes the “central democratic principle” that “public authority must derive from the will of the people” which is expressed in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The UN headquarters in Geneva, seat of the Human Rights Council. Image: John Samuel, Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

According to the document, the proposed UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy, assisted by an independent advisory board, would “examine challenges and opportunities related to the realization of democracy”. This would include, among other things, looking into “constitutional and institutional arrangements such as checks and balances; effectiveness of parliaments; free, fair and competitive elections and election environments; political participation including of minorities and women; direct and deliberative mechanisms; as well as civic space and freedoms.”

Groups that endorsed the appeal include ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, Citizens for Global Solutions, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Democracy International, Counterpart International, Open Society Foundations, Parliamentarians for Global Action, PEN America, the Latin-American network for democracy REDLAD, Society for Threatened Peoples, The Carter Center, The May 18 Foundation, and Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem).

Democracy is a human right and human rights depend on democracy

“The UN Special Rapporteur system is an invaluable tool for advancing human rights. It is time that this powerful mechanism be deployed in support of democracy,” said Rebecca A. Shoot, Executive Director, Citizens for Global Solutions. According to Sigrid Lipott, UN Advisor in Geneva of CIVICUS, “democracy cannot exist without the protection and promotion of civic space” and “the mandate of a UN rapporteur on democracy is key to ensuring that civil society and civic space remain at the heart of democracy”. 

“Despite the evolving threats, this mandate, rooted in UN principles, symbolizes our optimism for a future where strengthened democratic values prevail”, Eric Bjornlund, CEO and President, Democracy International, noted. A UN Rapporteur on Democracy will keep keep human rights and democracy “at the forefront and signal to naysayers that democratic principles and practices offer the best conditions for peace and prosperity”, said Dr Ann Hudock, President and CEO, Counterpart International. “At a time of crisis and contested narratives, the UN must use every possible tool to empower people: a Special Rapporteur on Democracy would be a good start”, according to Natalie Samarasinghe, Global Director of Advocacy, Open Society Foundations. 

“The establishment of a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy will support our legislative work, especially when drafting evidence-based legislation and policies that promote integrity in political speech, transparency in government and the protection of fundamental human rights”, said Naveed Qamar, Member of Parliament from Pakistan and President of Parliamentarians for Global Action. Citizens and civil society as well require focused tools to effectively counter democratic regression noted Gina Romero, Executive Director, REDLAD, adding that a UN rapporteur “could provide substantial assistance”.

“Ethnic and religious minorities and indigenous peoples are particularly affected by the increasing authoritarianism in the world. At the same time, they are particularly dependent on functioning democratic institutions in order to be able to represent their interests and fight for their rights,” explained Roman Kühn, Director, Society for Threatened Peoples. “This is why strengthening democracy worldwide should be on the UN’s agenda. The position of a Special Rapporteur can make a valuable contribution to this.”

The proposal deserves urgent and serious consideration

“In a time when democracy is challenged by autocracies and undermined in many democracies, the proposal of a UN rapporteur on democracy deserves urgent and serious consideration”, said political scientist Staffan Lindberg, Director, V-Dem, University of Gothenburg. Soonsuk Won, Chairperson, The May 18 Foundation, in Gwangju, South Korea is convinced that such a rapporteur can help pave the way “to a better world for democracy and human rights.”

In addition to representatives of the endorsing organizations, the list of initial supporters includes over 100 individuals from around 70 countries, among them numerous human rights and democracy defenders and scholars as well as over 25 parliamentarians from across the world. Among them are Nobel Peace laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk from Ukraine, the former Prime Ministers of Greece, George Papandreou, and of Mongolia, Amarjargal Rinchinnyam, the former Foreign Ministers from Canada, Lloyd Axworthy, and from Montenegro, Srđan Darmanović, the former Minister of Defense of Georgia, Tinatin Khidasheli, or the UN’s Special Rapporteur for promoting an equitable international order, Livingstone Sewanyana from Uganda.

In an individual capacity Thomas Garrett, Secretary-General of the Community of Democracies and Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary-General of The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), declared their support of the statement. Their organizations are intergovernmental with 30 and 34 member states respectively. Both organizations work closely with civil society. 

The statement calls on “all governments that are committed to democracy to support the establishment of this new mandate under the auspices of the Human Rights Council.” Annika​​​​ ​Silva‑Leander, Permanent Observer to the United Nations, International IDEA expressed hopes that UN member states will consider supporting the effort.