A key area of interest among political scientists is the promotion of human rights and democracy at the international level. Over the past century, many countries in all regions throughout the world sought to create domestic democratic political systems with mixed results. In these cases, some countries transitioned towards democracy, while on the contrary, others slipped further towards authoritarianism. Some of the factors inhibiting the establishment of democratic governments and improve the protection of human rights worldwide include the role of the military, cultural and historical factors, and religious factors. Additionally, the structure of international institutions such as the United Nations often makes it difficult to effectively promote human rights and efforts at democratization at the international level. This paper seeks to explore the overall record of the UN in fostering democratic political reforms and human rights protections at the international arena and offers some suggestions regarding the future of these efforts.
The UN has sought to improve the global protection of human rights and encourage the spread of democratic governments at the international level since its inception. Even though the UN Charter does not specifically address the issue of democracy on the global scale, the opening lines of the charter show that there is a direct link between the will of the people to the member-states and the legitimacy of the organization. Additionally, the UN Charter directly mentions human rights and states that the promotion of these rights is a major aspect of international policy. Democracy and human rights were also addressed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 1948.
The UN further promoted the idea of political reform and human rights protection in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Adopted on December 15, 1966, the ICCPR puts forward the legal basis for the promotion of democracy under the international legal mechanism. The ICCPR enshrines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, the right to vote and take part in public affairs, and universal suffrage as essential aspects of any international efforts to promote democracy. In addition to many different conventions and charters focusing on human rights and democracy, several committees within the UN focus on the effective promotion of human rights and democracy at the international level. These committees include the UN Human Rights Committee, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), among many others.
The UN has had some success in promoting democracy and human rights. An example of the UN furthering democracy is its monitoring of elections. Starting in the 1980s, the UN strengthened its election monitoring processes. The primary factor contributing to this change was the end of the Cold War, which resulted in an increase in democratization worldwide. This increase in democratization necessitated the need for the international community to monitor elections within newly-democratic states to make sure that they were in accord with international standards.
One failure of the UN regarding human rights was its inability to adequately address the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda during the 1990s. During the Rwandan genocide, the UN did little to prevent human rights abuses taking place within the country. The lack of political will among the members of the peacekeeping operations within the country and the lack of a vital national security interest in the country by the Security Council members prevented an effective response to the crisis. Additionally, the UN failed to address the ongoing human rights violations stemming from the Syrian Civil War. Like the response by the UN to the Rwandan genocide, the failure to address the human rights issues surrounding the Syrian conflict are attributed to political deadlock within the UN Security Council and the lack of will to address these issues head-on. These incidents show that much of the international community was reluctant at times to intervene to prevent human rights abuse.
There are several factors that reduce the effectiveness of the promotion of democracy and the protection and upholding of human rights by the UN. One such reason is related to the structure of the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council has five permanent members and ten non-permanent members who serve two-year terms. The five permanent members have veto power over all resolutions passed by the Security Council. In recent years, members of the council such as Russia and China have vetoed several resolutions related to the Syrian Civil War. Additionally, the US used veto power over resolutions condemning the continued building of illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.
Another factor that hampers the promotion of human rights and democracy by the UN is the overall structure of the UN committee system. The structure of the UN committees allows countries with poor human rights records and undemocratic political systems to potentially serve on committees dealing with human rights. For example, China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia were elected to sit on the UN Human Rights Committee despite being guilty of human rights abuses and having nondemocratic governments.
The record of the UN in promoting democratic reform at the international level and protecting human rights illustrates the need for lasting reforms within the UN. The central area of improvement is related to the structure of the UN Security Council. One such reform proposal is to limit the right of veto to national security issues. By restricting veto authority to matters related to national security concerns, the security council will be forced to put aside their political objections to human rights resolutions. Another reform proposal is to require the five permanent members of the security council to consult with other nations to get an agreement before using their veto power on resolutions. The official language of the UN charter hampers any efforts to implement changes to the UN Security Council. For example, Article 108 of the UN Charter states that the Five Permanent Security Council members have veto power over any proposed amendments to the UN Charter.
Another proposal to improve the protection of human rights by the UN is to implement a grading scale for countries on various human rights issues to encourage improvements and progress. This approach will allow for a mare targeted approach to human rights violations while at the same time making sure that any changes are implemented in a way that is monitored easily by the international community. The UN should provide increased levels of support and development aid to countries that have improved their overall human rights record.
Tunisia is an example of a country that can be a model for this proposal. For example, Tunisia typically ranked near the bottom regarding human rights before the ousting of its President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011. After Ali’s removal from power, Tunisia made a series of improvements regarding human rights and political freedom and today ranks as one of the Middle Eastern nations with the highest level of political freedom. By implementing this proposal, the UN can allow for permanent changes in human rights policy to be implemented.
The structure of elections to UN committees dealing with human rights is an additional area in which reform is necessary. A possible solution in this area is to restrict elections to the human rights related committees to countries that have met the international requirements for human rights protection. One possible benefit from this proposal is that it will improve the effectiveness of the committees dealing with human rights and motivate countries to improve their human rights records. A problem with this proposal is that it is undemocratic in nature and prevents equal representation at the international level, thus going against the original intent of the UN as a fair and impartial body for international dispute settling.