Experts discuss new mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 6, 2016: National flags at the entrance in UN office at Geneva, Switzerland . The United Nations was established in Geneva in 1947 and is the second largest UN office

A group of experts from civil society organisations, think tanks, international institutions and academia gathered online last week for a roundtable discussion on the possible creation of a mandate for a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy. The event, co-hosted by Democracy Without Borders, the Community of Democracies, the Asia Democracy Network, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy and Forum 2000, was the first of its kind to focus on this proposal.

Special Rapporteurs or Independent Experts are individuals who act independently of governments to investigate specific human rights or the situation in particular countries. They are officially appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, the UN’s main body charged with promoting and protecting human rights around the world. While there are 44 thematic mandates at this time, none of those are devoted to examining the situation of democracy as such.

A worrying trend of democratic decline

Speakers at the roundtable discussed a wide range of issues, including the scope of the new mandate, which definition of democracy would apply, the relationship with existing mandates, and its impact and added value. Several stressed that the proposal is being considered in the context of a worrying trend of democratic decline in all world regions. In general terms, the proposed mandate of a UN Rapporteur on Democracy, or UNRoD, is seen as a potential way to help counter this trend and put a spotlight on democracy as a human right.

Opening of the 40th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, 2019. UN Photo/Violaine Martin

Given the influence of autocratic states at the UN, speakers cautioned that it may be difficult to achieve a universal definition of democracy for the purposes of this new mandate. Nevertheless, there was general agreement that it was time for the UN to put the issue of democracy higher on the agenda. Several speakers expressed dissatisfaction that the UN hardly even used the term in its official language.

The Secretary General of the Community of Democracies, Thomas E. Garrett, endorsed the proposal of a UNRoD and pointed out that such a rapporteur could gather information and present recommendations on how to promote and protect democratic principles. The mandate should include setting up an advisory board made up by experts in the field of democracy monitoring and promotion, he suggested.

The Executive Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy, Gina Romero, emphasized the need of a thorough analysis of how the mandate of a UNRoD would complement and build on existing mandates. In her view there are already “too many rapporteurships” related to democracy. She suggested the creation of a “task force” that works on establishing a common definition of democracy in a process that includes regional bodies, civil society and citizens “in all their diversity”.

Screenshot showing some of the participants of the online roundtable on a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy. Source: DWB

Other panelists agreed that strengthening democracy required additional measures at the UN beyond the creation of a new rapporteur. Additional ideas raised during the discussion included a permanent forum on democracy. A task force or such a forum could be organised or chaired by the rapporteur one of the speakers noted. Despite the UN’s own lack of democratic legitimacy it should be the framework of such initiatives because it was hard for countries to dismiss assessments and recommendations coming from a UN body, a point made by Laura Thornton, Senior Vice President for Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.

A rights-based approach to democracy

Staffan Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, suggested that a rights-based approach offered a solution to the issue of a definition. He pointed out that Articles 19 to 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be used as a reference for the mandate. In his view, “the need for a special rapporteur on democracy couldn’t be greater”. The rapporteur should be supported by a scientific panel, he said, echoing the idea of an advisory board.

According to Roukaya Kasenally, Chair of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, a UNRoD should aim at having a real exchange with people on the ground, hear their stories and avoid a bureaucratic approach. Speaking on behalf of Forum 2000, Niroshini Nugawela, an attorney-at-law and youth representative of the organization, stressed that a UNRoD could analyze best practices of countries that are enhancing the quality of democracy. The new mandate, she said, had the potential of bringing together the work of all relevant special rapporteurs related to economic, social, civil and political rights, from peaceful assembly to freedom of expression. The creation of a UNRoD would “give more hope” to democracy supporters around the world, who would then know the UN has their back. Similarly, Asia Democracy Network’s Secretary-General Ichal Supriadi expressed support for a UNRoD, saying that democracy promotion in the Asian region would benefit from this new mandate.

The chair of the sub-committee on democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, noted that it was “very important” to create the institution of a UNRoD as it would bring “some more oxygen” into the UN concerning the issue of democracy. The right approach would be to show how good democracy was for societies and thus making it a model for others. Thinking long-term, Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy, pointed out that the work of a UN democracy rapporteur could play a role in establishing “a global societal voice that needs to be heard and be present”.

Ahead of the Summit for Democracy hosted by the United States in December 2021, documents and statements issued by the Club de Madrid, the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal and the European Partnership for Democracy endorsed the proposal for a UN Rapporteur on Democracy.

Based on the roundtable and further consultations, Democracy Without Borders plans to publish a report and recommendations on the proposed UNRoD ahead of the second Summit for Democracy scheduled for March 29-30, 2023.