Democracies and the UDHR


Democracy is the principle of popular sovereignty, whereby a majority of a society has the power to govern and make laws, either directly or through freely chosen representatives. The word derives from the Greek , meaning “people” or “the citizens”. This means that all members of society have the right to participate in government, and to hold elected officials accountable. This includes the freedom of expression and association, where people can talk about their ideas with others and discuss them in parliament or other organisations.

Democracy also involves free and fair elections, where all citizens have the opportunity to vote for whomever they choose. It also includes a rule of law, where everyone is treated fairly by the state. This also includes the freedom to form political parties and NGOs, and to organise peaceful protests in accordance with the law. Democracy also encourages civic engagement, whereby people contribute to their community in a variety of ways, such as through volunteering or by joining local associations or groups, such as environmental, animal rights or human rights groups.

There are various justifications for democracy: instrumentally, by reference to the benefits that it produces compared with alternative methods of political decision making; and intrinsically, by reference to values that are intrinsic to the system. The latter often involve values that support the individual autonomy of the citizen, including a sense of control over one’s life, property and body.

The UDHR defines many important democratic principles, such as freedom of movement and association (Article 20), the right to free speech (Article 19) and the right to assemble and form interest groups (Article 21). These are necessary if citizens are to be able to discuss their views with each other and present them in government or elsewhere, so that they can take part in the decisions that affect their lives.

Another key element of democracy is the right to information, which enables citizens to make informed choices in their political life. This is essential if the principles of democracy are to be upheld, as it prevents politicians from misleading citizens and allows them to respond to their concerns.

In addition, the UDHR also provides for freedom of religion and belief (Article 18), the right to own property (Article 25) and the freedom from unwarranted governmental deprivation of property or life (Article 14). This ensures that citizens can make informed decisions about their lifestyles and political options.

It is hard to say what exactly constitutes democracy, as this can vary from place to place. A minimum requirement is that a significant proportion of the population believe that democracy is better than any other possible form of governance. However, it can be more than that: for democracies to flourish they must be flexible and capable of accommodating change from below, such as the expansion of voting rights or the greater protection of civil liberties. It is likely that democracies will wither if they are unable to adapt and evolve to changing circumstances.