Dec 10, 2016

Democracy and Rule of Law Are Human Rights


On international Human Rights Day, UNPO reiterates its commitment to the promotion of democracy, rule of law, and human rights everywhere. The first United Nations Forum on Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law was held in Geneva on 21 and 22 November 2016 to provide a platform for promoting dialogue and cooperation. This Forum is the occasion to reflect on the interdependency of those three concepts, as the geopolitical changes of today’s world tip the international balance of power away from western democracies and towards the East, and to assess its implications for UNPO members across the world.

Sustainable and resilient democracy means a lot more than free elections. In fact, democracy is an environment in which each citizen without restriction of gender, ethnicity, language or religion, can participate in the ruling of their country; it is as much a process respecting human dignity as a goal of good governance. Accountability and transparency (the ability to discern whether government institutions have acted fairly during a particular decision-making process) are integral parts of a truly democratic system, yet too often human rights violations occur in national contexts where a lack of separation of powers and responsibility for the ruling elites correlate with a lack of political will to protect the rights of minorities and implement international treaties.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations defines rule of law as a principle of governance in which all, including the state, are accountable to publicly promulgated, equally enforced, and independently adjudicated laws consistent with international human rights norms and standards. The notion of rule of law is thus opposed to the right of arbitrary decisions by the ruling classes, as in an autocratic or oligarchic system. Furthermore, the preamble of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms further notes that the governments of European countries have a common heritage of political traditions, ideals, freedom and the rule of law.

UNPO is a unique organisation dedicated to advocating for the rights of marginalised and disenfranchised peoples of the world that are often ignored by the international community. A membership association that represent millions of stateless people or people without rights, we renew our commitment to work together toward a common goal: the right of everyone to decide their own destiny, live in peace in a democratic society of their choice that protects the rule of law and freedom of expression, choose their leaders freely, and manage their own lives.


In Mauritania, an estimated 20% of the population is still enslaved, most of whom belong to the black Haratin community and 90% are women and children. The leading antislavery NGO, the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist movement has seen its registration attempts rejected countless times by the government, and its members are routinely arrested and charged with belonging to an unrecognised organisation. Their crime: seeking to end slavery and state racism.

There are around 30 million Oromo people in Ethiopia, making it the largest ethnic group in the country, struggling against government repression and curtailment of minority rights and civil liberties. The latest arrest of an Oromo opposition politician after speaking in favour of HR for his people testifies to this situation. Before colonisation, the Oromo had a system of governance called Gada, which could be deemed democratic, and has been inscribed on the UNESCO representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2016. The Ogaden, a Somali minority group in Ethiopia, are facing similar measures aiming at suppressing their language and culture, and forcefully shutting down self-determination movements.

In Crimea, the indigenous Tatar people are persecuted because of their Turkic ethnicity and Muslim religion and live in dire conditions, which have only worsened since the illegal annexation by Russia in 2014. The subsequent ban on their self-governing body, the Mejlis, and arrest warrant against the exiled Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev are further HR abuses against the backdrop of Russia’s crackdown on foreign NGOs seeking to denounce such violations.

The human rights situation in Iran is deeply concerning for minorities, with Kurds, Ahwazi Arabs, Balochs, Turkmen, and  Azerbaijanis facing harsh repression, including detention, torture, and arbitrary execution, for expressing their distinct identities and seeking to preserve their culture. Discriminatory laws prevent them from fully participating in civil life and impose total Persian control on the country. In neighbouring Iraq, Kurds, Turkmen, Yazidi and Assyrians are denied self-determination and fundamental human rights. Disproportionately victims of massacres and mass abductions by Daesh in the region, the very survival of Iraqi minorities is under threat and conflicts between internal components and the government, which does not protect them properly, are making the situation even more difficult to solve.

As the implementation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects goes underway, Pakistan is renewing its assaults on minority rights, particularly in the regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. Meanwhile, in the south-east of the country Sindhi people struggle for autonomy and sovereignty. Together, Pakistan’s occupied territories denounce the lack of justice and rule of law to very little attention by international powers.


Too often human rights defenders putting their lives in danger to tackle abuses and promote democracy are treated like criminals by the governments of the countries in which they work, arrested summarily, subjected to torture, silenced, and disappeared or even murdered by officials. In 2016 alone, 60 countries have passed laws that restrict the work of NGOs and human rights defenders. Yet if the global community wants to promote human rights and the rule of law, we must do so from a position of humility, and not as neo-colonial interference. Crucially, a number of dictatorial regimes reject the notion of human rights as eurocentric and frame the issue as the west lecturing them.

We must remember that human rights are embedded in international treaties ratified by almost every country in the world, and shift the debate to demand their full and unconditional implementation in order to maintain existing trade and aid agreements. Since there has been no internalisation of the discourse of universal human rights as fundamental to human dignity everywhere, we must find a new diplomatic language to carry an effective human rights narrative. At UNPO we believe that this new language must encompass a redefinition of what constitutes human rights to include democracy and rule of law as prerequisite for the respect of human dignity. It is not only pragmatic, it is also the right thing to do.