The Causes of Human Rights Violations (14): The Influence of Democracy on Human Rights

I believe human rights and democracy are interdependent and cannot be properly understood if they are separated from one another. A democracy without human rights, without for example the freedom to speak and to organize, is not really a democracy, and the system of human rights is incomplete when political rights – i.e. rights which ground democracy – are left out. Rights and democracy are prerequisites for each other. What use is the right to vote if people don’t have the right to speak, to have an education etc.? And what use is the right to speak if you’re not allowed to vote? There’s a dynamic aspect to this: a certain level of protection for human rights will lead to the development of (a stronger) democracy; and, vice versa, a certain level of development of democracy leads to better protection of human rights. It’s the latter point that I want to deal with in the current post.

Why do I assume that more democracy leads to better human rights protection? For several reasons. Democratic rulers know that they can’t get away with repression. They’ll be voted out if they try, or, worse, they’ll suffer the consequences of the rule of law, imposed on them by other branches of power in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers. Democracies also have powerful non-violent mechanisms for dispute settlement. And, finally, democracies need human rights to function adequately, so they have an added incentive to respect them.

However, all this isn’t just my personal assumption. Most of the political science literature supports the statement that democratic political systems decrease rights violations and repression (see here for an overview). What the literature doesn’t agree on is the pattern of the influence of democracy on rights. There are mainly 3 models doing the rounds: a linear one, an inverted u-shape model, and a threshold model.

1. Linear model

This model, which is the most popular one, states that every step towards democracy is a step away from repression and rights violations (perhaps with “diminishing returns” for human rights once democracy has reached a certain – high – level of development, in which case the linear pattern would be slightly bended downwards).

2. Inverted U-shape model

This model states that well-developed democracies do indeed offer better protection of human rights, but it also states that very authoritarian regimes are also not characterized by high levels of repression since these regimes enjoy such a high level of regime security – perhaps through previous repression – that repression is no longer necessary. This model is also called MMM or “more murder in the middle”. Regimes in the middle are unstable, mixed, and perhaps in a transition to democracy or to strict authoritarianism, and therefore may feel it is necessary to use repression.

3. Threshold model

This model, contrary to the first one, states that not every step in the development of democracy improves the rights situation. Only after democracy has reached a certain level of maturity (a “tipping point”) will repression diminish.


Examples of model 1 are here and here. Other examples are cited here. Examples of model 2 are here and here. An example of model 3 is here.


So, which one is closest to reality? Difficult to say. Much depends on the data used, but still more on the definitions. All 3 models have some intuitive appeal, but only if use different definitions. Model 2 for example is convincing, but only if we limit “repression” and “rights violations” to attacks on physical integrity rights. A well-established and very authoritarian regime will probably not need to go to such extremes. On the other hand, a weak authoritarian regime, threatened by a strong internal (democratic) opposition will be more likely to use force and violence. But all other human rights, apart from the physical integrity rights, are still heavily violated in a “safe” authoritarian regime. So it’s a bit dubious to say that such regimes are not “repressive”.

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