Is international law any closer to defining the content of a “right to democratic governance”? International human rights law instruments do not prescribe a form of governance, but they do explicitly refer to consistency with the needs of a “democratic society” when they admit limitations or restrictions to certain rights and freedoms. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refers to limitations to rights and freedoms determined by law and which meet “the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.” (UDHR, Article 29(2). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) enumerates specific civil and political rights and freedoms, but only refers to the needs of a “democratic society” when it speaks of permissible restrictions on press and public participation in court hearings [ICCPR Article 14(1)], restrictions to the right to peaceable assembly [ICCPR Article 21], and restrictions to the right to freedom of association [ICCPR Article 22(2)]. The general limitations clause in Article 4 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) refers to “such limitations as are determined by law only in so far as this may be compatible with the nature of these rights and solely for the purpose of promoting the general welfare in a democratic society.” The United Nations paints a broad brush on democracy as the enabling environment for the realization of human rights:
“Democracy, based on the rule of law, is ultimately a means to achieve international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights – the three pillars of the United Nations mission as set forth in the Charter of the UN. Democratic principles are woven throughout the normative fabric of the United Nations….The UN has long advocated a concept of democracy that is holistic: encompassing the procedural and the substantive; formal institutions and informal processes; majorities and minorities; men and women; governments and civil society; the political and the economic; at the national and the local levels. It has been recognized as well that, while these norms and standards are both universal and essential to democracy, there is no one model: General Assembly resolution 62/7 posits that “while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy” and that “democracy does not belong to any country or region”. Indeed, the ideal of democracy is rooted in philosophies and traditions from many parts of the world. The Organization has never sought to export or promote any particular national or regional model of democracy.” (UN Guidance Note of the Secretary-General on Democracy, at p. 2).
There is no shortage of international legal scholarship examining different facets of “democracy”, whether as a separate right of individuals or peoples under international human rights law, or as an emerging norm of governance under international law. Thomas Franck wrote in 1992 about the “emerging right to democratic governance” under international law, anchored on the notions of “democratic entitlement” and a “separate and equal status in the community of nations” – all traceable to the fundamental human right to self-determination. In the same year, Gregory Fox also published a landmark article with the Yale Journal of International Law, this time on the specific right to political participation in international law, based on the ICCPR, the European Convention on Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. A year later, James Crawford argued that a “pro-democratic” shift was taking place in international law, in a much-cited article in the British Yearbook of International Law. Susan Marks later developed the concept of an emerging international law norm of “democratic governance” in her landmark book The Riddle of All Constitutions: International Law, Democracy, and the Critique of Ideology (OUP, 2003). Jean D’Aspremont’s 2011 EJIL Article observed that certain global events – such as the rise of non-democratic regimes – could be “cutting short the consolidation of the principle of democratic legitimacy under international law.” But even among these scholars (and many others, see here, here, here, and here), there is no hard consensus on the elements of the “right to democratic governance”. After Stanford’s Larry Diamond originated the idea of the “global democratic recession” some years ago, the Economist’s Intelligence Unit (EIU) developed its “Democracy Index” which measures the state of democratic freedoms in countries around the world according to five categories: 1) electoral process and pluralism; 2) civil liberties; 3) the functioning of government; 4) political participation; and 5) political culture.
The Philippines presents an interesting case study on today’s many scholarly contestations over the “right to democratic governance” under international law (see among others Susan Marks’ 2011 EJIL article here, Ignacio del Moral’s ESIL essay, Johannes Fahner’s 2017 positivist argument for the existence of the right to democracy here). As of 2017, the Philippines is ranked 51st among the world’s democracies in the 2017 Democracy Index as a “flawed democracy”, expressly finding that “the indefinite declaration of martial law in the southern state of Mindanao in the Philippines, and the rule of country’s strongman leader, Rodrigo Duterte, adversely affected the quality of democracy in the Philippines. Mr. Duterte has led the way among the many Asian countries that are infringing democratic values.” (2017 Democracy Index, at p. 28). While the Philippines ranks in the highest percentiles when it comes to the electoral process and pluralism category, it ranked very dismally in the categories of the functioning of government and political culture, and only in moderate percentiles in the categories of political participation and civil liberties. It is a jurisdiction that is unique for having repeatedly and consistently transformed the UDHR into a legally binding and directly actionable set of rights under Philippine law (see landmark Philippine Supreme Court decisions here, here, here, here, here, among others), and yet it finds itself today seriously contesting visions of “democratic governance” between Mr. Duterte’s asserted “rule of law” and the myriad of civil and political liberties issues raised by local critics (see for example here, here, and here), as well as abroad (such as the 2018 US State Department Country Report on Human Rights in the Philippines, the 2017 Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review for the Philippines, the 2018 chapter on the Philippines in Human Rights Watch’s World Report, among others). The irony is, both the Philippine government and its critics claim to act according to a “right to democratic governance”, even if both parties may have different visions of what democratic governance is.