Understanding Democracy – The Importance of Human Rights

Our modern system of democracy can be seen then to be comprised of six pillars, each of which acts as a defence against the abuse of power by pathologically disordered leaders and elites. Political participation through democratic elections and direct participation of citizens in government, the rule of law applied equally to all, Constitutional constraints on the power of government, a prohibition on the imposition of state sponsored ideology, social democracy to ensure social stability, and finally the protection of fundamental human rights through international law. 

The Second World War provided the catalyst for the development of this final pillar in our modern system of democracy – the legal protection of fundamental human rights.That a new fundamental principle of national and international law was needed became abundantly clear when Hermann Goering asserted during the Nuremberg Trials that the murder of six million Jews ‘was our right! We were a sovereign State and that was strictly our business.’[1] In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the protection of the basic rights of every individual, even against the will of the majority, was now seen as an essential duty of government and a duty which had to be enforced by international law. How governments treat their own citizens could no longer be left purely as a matter of domestic concern.

Through the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the principle of fundamental human rights, enunciated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, was finally put into practice. The French Revolution enjoyed, at last, its long delayed victory. The rights established in the Universal Declaration were arrived at through a debate that encompassed the global community. In adopting the Declaration, the nations of the world agreed that every person has the right to life, liberty and security of person; that every person is equal before the law; that everyone is entitled to freedom of conscience, of religion, of expression, and of assembly; and that every person is entitled to the right to work, to food, to shelter, and to education. In adopting the Declaration, the world’s governments agreed that these rights apply to every human being regardless of race, gender or social class and are not negotiable on the basis of traditional or local cultural or religious practice. Religious or cultural diversity can be only valid if as it does not betray our common humanity.

Since the Declaration’s signing, a body of international law and an array of institutions have been established around the world to protect the rights of citizens. Three regional human rights systems have been set up. The European human rights system is the most developed, but regional systems are also in place in the Americas and in Africa. Independent Human Rights Commissions have also been established by many governments around the world to protect human rights within national boundaries.

The creation of the International Criminal Court in 2001 marked a further strengthening of the international human rights system. It has been established to act when a state commits serious human rights abuses and is unwilling or unable to prosecute the perpetrators itself. In 2012, the Court issued its first ever verdict, convicting Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of conscripting child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Also in 2012, it set legal precedent by sentencing Charles Taylor to fifty years in prison for aiding and abetting rebels who carried out atrocities in Sierra Leone during its harrowing civil war.

There is a crucial link between human behaviour and effective democracy, including crucially the protection of the basic human rights of every human being. The more progress we make towards truly democratic societies, the more likely we will be to behave with humanity towards one another. The further we move from democracy’s ideals, the more intolerant and aggressive we become.

Our future depends crucially on us recognising this basic psychological fact about ourselves and acting upon it.

[1] Quoted in Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003:202


1 thought on “Understanding Democracy – The Importance of Human Rights

  1. Undoubtedly, the Declaration was a signal moment in moving towards world peace. All good and worthy ideals; however, on one point it reaches too far: “… that every person is entitled to the right … to food, to shelter, and to education.” Certainly, the right to work through which to earn the wherewithal to obtain these other desirables is basic. The right to work, not the right to a job! And food, shelter, and education must be provided by someone else, at some cost. Who pays for that? Who is made to give up a part of their time, energy and substance to provide those things to others? Who must give part of their life and liberty to serve others’ needs? There needs to be a line drawn between “rights” and “needs or desires”. If all are equal, none should be enslaved for others’ benefit. Then there are the bureaucrats with cushy jobs who administer the favoritism programs. We are to pay them willingly to take our money forcibly?

    Democracy can become like 3 lions and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner. It can become mob rule, turning those with influence into exploiters of the less well placed. Unless democracy–the will of the many–is limited by ironclad protections against turning on any of its members, your six pillars will crumble and make a mockery of their own definitions. Some will become “more equal than others”. That, too, is human nature. The memes resident in human minds are no respecters of human rights. They only pursue their own agenda, mindless but virulent. Humans need a cognitive guardian to test every impulse, every unthinking move, every rationalized decision. That is our next stage of evolution, and we are only on its doorstep.

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