What is Democracy? (7): Democracy and Human Rights

At first sight, there are some persistent facts “facts” that seem to contradict the statement (see my previous post in this series) that democracy and human rights are necessarily linked to each other.

Democracies can apparently exist without respecting human rights (or all human rights), and human rights (or certain human rights) can apparently be respected by non-democratic regimes.

An example of the former is of course the ancient Greek “polis” where human rights indeed did not exist, although the “polis” did guarantee a kind of freedom of speech, not for humanity as such but for a tiny minority of privileged citizens. It is clear however that the “polis” was not a democracy as we understand it today. It was an oligarchy in which the large majority of the people was excluded from politics. And although the word “democracy” was invented in the “polis”, it is difficult to maintain that the people ruled the “polis”. Inside the oligarchic group decisions were made democratically on the basis of freedom of expression and equality, but freedom and equality never became human rights, to wit rights belonging to human beings in general, including those human beings excluded from politics.

Today only those states, in which the participants in the political decision making process are the same people as those who are subject to the political decisions, can be called democratic. In the Greek “polis”, self-government was only a reality for a small minority; the decisions of this minority governed the actions of the large majority of women, foreigners and slaves.

Some present-day states such as the Islamic republic of Iran regularly hold reasonably fair elections but hardly respect human rights. The question is, of course, what these elections are worth without the free expression of opinions, without free and open discussions among citizens regarding the record of the government and the most appropriate government policies, without free flows of information concerning the work of the government, without the freedom to associate and to form opposition movements etc.

Even in those countries in which people can vote for existing opposition movements (for example Malaysia and Singapore), there is never a change of government because human rights are not respected and opposition movements are systematically sabotaged (they suffer from unjustified lawsuits, they do not have equal access to the media etc.). Of course, the absence of a change of power does not prove that there is no democracy. The people can always decide the same thing. The problem is that the people cannot decide without human rights. A decision which is not based on free and open discussion and free flows of information is no decision at all.

Hong Kong before the takeover by China and the last minute democratic reforms of the British government was considered to be a non-democratic state which respected a great number of human rights. In this case, the question is what are these human rights worth if they cannot be applied to or can have no consequence for the workings of the government. If you express an opinion you expect some consequences resulting from this expression. Otherwise it would be better not to express the opinion at all. What is the use of being able to express opinions on the workings of the government if this expression is entirely without consequences?

Respect for human rights will most probably lead to democratization. People who have freedom of expression will start to claim the right to vote. They will have opinions on the workings of the government and they will want to see these opinions implemented. Conversely, the presence of a democratic form of government will lead to the institutionalization of human rights. If the people can vote and therefore express themselves on things as important as the government, what is the use of prohibiting the expression of other kinds of opinions?

The transition of a rights regime to a democracy and vice versa is of course not as easy as all this seems to imply. A non-democratic government, even though it is kind enough to grant its people a few rights narrowly defined, will cling to power and will have the means to do so. It will resist demands for more democracy. The opposite seems to be easier. Democracies are more inclined to grant rights. Granting rights is also easier than changing the form of government, at least at first sight. Creating the institutions necessary for the enforcement of rights can also be an awesome task.

One can only maintain that there are democracies which do not respect human rights or that there non-democratic regimes which respect human rights, if one adopts some kind of reduced definition of either democracy or rights. An ideal democracy cannot exist without rights, and vice versa.


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