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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


Universal Democracy: A Global Standard or a Western Concept?

Democracy is a set of elements that form the base of a society where the human rights of every individual, group, and identity are respected. It is not a Western concept but a universal one, that is compatible with the multitude of cultural differences and divergences that exist in this world. Democracy is able to be flexible and be expressed based on the unique needs of each society.
By Nicholas Probst

La democracia universal: ¿un estándar global o un concepto occidental?

“Democracy arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.” -- Aristotle

Thousands of years later, the concept of democracy which originated in Ancient Greece is now a system of governance that is universally accepted by the international community. With the goal of establishing universal standards with respect to the definition and role of democracy, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organization which includes the parliaments of 179 countries, took up the challenge of creating the Universal Declaration on Democracy. Adopted in 1997 by a committee of 12 academics and experts chosen by the IPU, the Declaration presents the principles of democracy, its elements and exercise, and its international dimension. Additionally, the same group of experts published Democracy: Its Principles and Achievement, where each author contributed a chapter that went into more detail on one or several of the points presented in the original Declaration. As the Rapporteur General of the committee, Professor Cherif Bassiouni, Egyptian jurist, professor of law and president of several institutions upholding law and human rights, dedicated his chapter to how the Declaration justifies democracy as a universal concept, and as just one ideology among others.

First, Bassiouni explains that the term “democracy” has multiple definitions, and that these definitions can even coexist in the same place at the same time. According to him, democracy is not just a state of being, but also, and primarily, a process and the action of progressing towards a condition of democracy through measures, laws, and institutions guaranteed by a democratic system (democratization). As such, he concludes that “democracy is an ever-perfecting and perfectable goal…, [and therefore] as a goal can never be achieved”. However, although Bassiouni admits that democracy is a goal that is unachievable that is always changing and being perfected, he also confirms that despite these “differences and divergences of perspectives in the world’s different cultures… , it appears that four sets of elements are common to these various contemporary perspectives on democracy”: 1) A governments chosen by the people; 2) Collective and individual rights that are upheld in an equal, unbiased manner; 3) A just system for regulating the establishment and transition of a government; and 4) The existence of mechanisms to ensure the integrity and legitimacy of the political process.

Here it is important to note that Bassiouni never offers a fixed definition for democracy. He only mentions some of its elements, but not how a society is to achieve them. In this way, he justifies his argument that democracy is a universal concept that is compatible with the multitude of cultural “differences and divergences” that exist in this world. It is precisely thanks to this ambiguity that democracy is able to be so flexible and be expressed based on the unique needs of each society. Likewise, Bassiouni claims that “democracy is not a model to be copied from certain states, but a goal to be attained by all peoples” to emphasize the idea that democracy is a universal concept whose application varies from country to country.

Next, Bassiouni explains the connection between democracy and human rights, citing the Vienna Declaration on human rights in order to highlight that human rights are “the birthright of all human beings… [and whose] protection and promotion is the first responsibility of government”. Therefore, human rights are universal rights whose protection is the duty and obligation of all countries, regardless of their cultural, social, economic, linguistic, or religious identity. And in order to promote these universal rights, there must be a universal system -- a democratic system. According to David Beetham, Director of the Center for Democratization Studies at the University of Leeds, the affirmation that democracy is the best way of promoting human rights is not an opinion, nor is it “because of any inherent superiority of Western arrangements”. On the contrary, it is a fact proven over and over again through human history, which attests that any “attempts in our century to democratize it - through populist, Marxist, or single-party regimes - … have all proved illusory”. The question then becomes not whether a democratic system is compatible with a variety of world cultures and identities, but whether the government is capable of fulfilling its duty to represent and respect this diversity. Finally, Bassiouni adds a brief mention of the international dimension of democracy. According to the professor, since democracy is a universal system with the purpose of promoting universal rights, any threat to it in one country is the concern of the entire international community. As such, it is the responsibility of every country, especially of those that are more industrialized and developed, to support and aid in the democratic efforts of other countries.

In conclusion, democracy is a system where the government responds to its people, and not the other way around. And although it is not perfect, democracy is the one and only system that can be “cured with more democracy” and thereby be adapted in order to best represent the interests of the public. It is not a model to be followed or a Western ideology, but a set of elements that form the base of a society where the human rights of every individual, group, and identity are respected. Therefore, the recognition and protection of these rights is the best indication of the presence and promotion of democracy.

Nicholas  Probst
Nicholas Probst
Former international intern at CADAL
International Relations student at Johns Hopkins University (Class 2024). International intern at CADAL between June and July 2021

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