Forgoing Democracy Is Forgoing Human Rights

Posted December 16, 2009 at 2:31pm

When most of us think of human rights, we think of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But the declaration in which the American founders proclaimed those rights asserts another fundamental right: the right to government by popular consent. That means the right to vote.[IMGCAP(1)] Like the Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration states that the will of the people “shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Because having a say in the way that we are governed is a human right and representative government is a necessary foundation for all other human rights to flourish, no country should be allowed a free ticket to forgo democracy.While individual elections often receive good media coverage, few think of democratic governance or free and fair elections as human rights. Some consider democracy a “Western” concept rather than a universal right, or an ideal for which some countries are not yet prepared.Looking at the governments of Africa, it’s easy to agree with the skeptics. Many elections, including recent ones in Tunisia and Equatorial Guinea, serve only to legitimize incumbent rulers. Sometimes elections seem ineffective, as in Mauritania, and sometimes democratic processes slip rapidly away, as in Niger.Even worse, the 2007 elections in Kenya and the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe splashed casualty figures across newspapers, and some people argued that they were not only futile but dangerous. Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi said earlier this year that multiparty elections in Africa led to bloodshed, and similar things have been said of Afghanistan and Iraq.But specific failures of democracy do not justify its absence. If a government persecuted a group of people for its religious beliefs, few would proclaim that country unfit for religious freedom. We should view elections similarly: their failures warrant not despair but redoubled efforts to ensure that all people have a say in how they are governed.Nor do elections begin and end on Election Day. They are part of a broad, complicated and sometimes challenging democratic process and the foundation of a healthy society.Indeed, even in countries that have suffered most from failed or fraudulent elections or refusal even to hold them at all, from Iran to Nigeria, people have not forsaken democracy. They have responded by increasing their demands for reform and accountability, and for recognition of their fundamental human rights, even at risk to life and limb.Earlier this fall in Guinea, thousands of people marched peacefully in the streets of the capital, calling on the military junta to step down and for free and fair elections to be held. The junta responded brutally, killing a reported 158 people in the streets of Conakry and injuring thousands.Yet across Africa, South Asia and many other parts of the developing world, the protesters cannot be deterred. As the world becomes ever more interconnected, they are seeing the alternatives, and they know they deserve better.In many countries, elections are bringing governments that represent the will of the people. Even in the volatile region of West Africa, Ghana has emerged as a bastion of democracy, while Sierra Leone and Liberia have demonstrated the power of elections to help solidify peace after civil war.Electoral democracy is not only a fundamental right and desirable end in itself, but it’s a means of advancing other human rights. Free and fair elections necessitate freedom of speech and assembly. And although elections sometimes result in violence, no other processes have so consistently delivered nonviolent transitions of political power. Once developed, a tradition of free and fair elections bolsters other rights, enabling citizens to hold their governments more accountable.Although free and fair elections seem a distant goal in some countries, the mere act of holding them can improve overall respect for human rights. Liberia and Sierra Leone have experienced marked improvements in freedom of speech and the press. In simply going through the process of voting, citizens become more aware of their rights, which in turn encourages them to demand more of their governments.As we debate whether some countries are ready for democracy, we must recognize the centrality of democracy and free elections to preserving human rights. Just as millions are denied their right to speak and associate freely or receive a fair trial in court, millions are also denied the right to participate in or choose the governments of their own countries.As Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founders understood well, without the recognition of that human right, governments can deny other rights, too, and destroy the hopes and aspirations of peoples everywhere.Almami Cyllah is the International Foundation for Electoral Systems regional director for Africa. A native of Sierra Leone, Cyllah has more than 25 years experience in elections, conflict resolution, political affairs and democracy development.