The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Democracy are Interconnected

In the words of Benito Mussolini “democracy is beautiful in theory, but in practice it is a fallacy”. The word democracy was derived from a Greek word demos, which means ‘people’ and kratos, which means ‘rule’. In essence it means the rule by the people. Alexis de Tocqueville in his book Democracy in America wrote “it is in the way we use democracy that brings about the greatest confusion, unless this word is clearly defined and their definition agree upon, people will live in an inextricable confusion of ideas, much to the advantage of demagogues and despots”. Therefore, this implies that defining democracy might be different because it is perceived differently by authors. In essence democracy according to Abraham Lincoln is the rule of the people, by the people, for the people. INCOMPLETE


The term democracy began to emerge in different eras. The first usage of the term according to Crick was by the Greeks, Plato believed that the meaning reassigned power to rule to the poor and ignorant over the educated and knowledgeable. According to Crick the second use of democracy was found in the Roman republic, particularly in the great Discourses by Machiavelli. While the third usage was found in the historical events of the French Revolution as well as in Jean Jacques Rousseau’s writings. The fourth usage of the term democracy was found in the American constitution as well as the European constitutions. Nzongola-Ntalaja maintains that “democracy is a universal form of rule”, that even though it may have had different manifestations in various social and historical settings, those manifestations are connected or rather tied together by a common thread, which is human dignity. Democracy therefore in this context has three basic ideas, which according to Nzongola-Ntalaja are; firstly democracy as a social process, this refers to how democracy is a “continuous process of promoting equal access to fundamental human rights and civil liberties for all”. Secondly, democracy is perceived as a political practice and a mode of governance that is mainly based on principles of rule of law, participation, accountability and sovereignty. Lastly, democracy is seen as a moral imperative, which refers to the idea that it represents the human aspiration for freedom, as well as a better political and social order.

Plato in his book The Politics considers democracy to be a “necessary condition for good governance”. Democracy for Heywood is viewed as less of a system where the public could participate in the political activities and more of a system through which citizens could use to protect themselves from the encroachment of the government. While for James Mill & Jeremy Benthan democracy is a tool that is based on the need to protect or advance individual interests. Rousseau maintained that democracy was the means through which citizens can achieve freedom. For John Stuart Mill democracy was developed to promote the “highest and harmonious development for individual capacities”, which meant for him democracy is meant to be an educational experience. There are two conditions that are necessary for the construction of democracy according to Thomas Hobbes in his writing the Philosophical Rudiments. The first condition refers to an agreement that needs to exist within a society pertaining the will of the majority, the second condition is closely related to the first condition. Which refers to the need of regular mass meetings and discussions pertaining the grounding principles of the society.

In essence, democracy may be described as collective decision making mechanism, furthermore, democracy refers to the participation embers of a society in deciding the laws of the society. Mahatma Gandhi once mentioned that “I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong”, and for this particular reason human rights have become fundamental in the world. Democracy cannot be defined without human rights.

Human Rights.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner human rights are rights that are inherent to all human beings. They enable all individuals to shape as well as determine their own lives regarding equality, liberty and respect for human dignity. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner state that human rights are universal, for the reason that they are based on human dignity regardless of their colour, race, sex, social origin, ethnicity, religion, nationality, age, language, sexual orientation, disability and other distinguishing characteristics. While for the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa human rights are “rights that everyone must enjoy, by the mere fact that they are human beings. These rights are inalienable, which means that it cannot be taken away from you”.

Historically the codification of human rights can be traced back to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is used as the foundation for the human rights we have globally. The declaration was according to Cruft and Renzo adopted by the third National General Assembly in December 1948. It therefore became a foundation for the constitutions of multiple countries. But the idea of rights pre-existed before 1948, an illustration can be found in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 as well as in the 1789 French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen. According to the United Nations Human Rights Basic Handbook, after the World War 2, multiple world leaders decided that the United Nations Charter would be the road map to guarantying the rights of every individual everywhere. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created to be the foundation of the international human rights law. The international human rights law provides a statutory framework in which States are bound to respect. Because of the international treaties that many countries are part of, they automatically have obligations and duties within the international law to protect and respect as well as fulfil human rights. Theodore Roosevelt stated that “freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere”, therefore, by standardising human right, it has afforded and allowed many populations to be treated far better with dignity.


Throughout history, democracy and the human rights have together created regimes that enable citizens to enjoy their freedom. Orlando Patterson begins his writings by declaring that “freedom is one of those values which are better experienced than defined”, according to him freedom has three dimensions. Firstly, it’s personal freedom, which refers to the “absence of coercion and the ability to do as one pleases, within the limits of other person’s desires to do as they please”. The second dimension is sovereignal freedom, which implies “the power to act as one pleases, regardless of the desires of other people”. The last dimension is civic freedom, which speaks to the “ability of people to participate in public life, especially governance”. From the dimensions that Patterson provides, it becomes evident that freedom requires limitations, because as much as human rights gives us liberation to act how we please, we also have to keep in mind that our practice of these rights must not hinder the next person’s rights. Eric Foner views freedom as more than just a fixed, predetermined concept, but rather he sees it as an “essentially contested concept”. His analysis of the word freedom is linked to five elements.

Firstly, he identifies freedom from a political lens, which he believes that political freedom implies “the right of people to participate in public affairs”. Secondly, he mentions personal freedom, which he perceives as an individual’s ability to make free choices without coercion. Lastly, he mentions economic freedom, which he ties to economic autonomy, industrial freedom, liberty of contract and economic security. Nancy Hirschmann studied the term freedom from the writings of five classical liberal thinkers, which are Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. For Nancy Locke, Hobbes and Mill perceive freedom as the absence of any form of external constraints, while for Rousseau and Kant, freedom is associated with internal barriers. For Thomas Mann he associates democracy as equivalent to freedom, because he believes that democracy is a way to establish order and rules while freedom is the absence of limits. This paper believes that democracy is in fact a way to establish order and rules within a society, for the purpose of allowing citizens to enjoy their full access to human rights without hindering on another.

This then leads us into understanding the classifications of the human rights according to multiple authors. There are multiple rights that are given to citizens therefore in order to better understand the freedoms they espouse, society tends to classify them. Political and civil rights include the right to life, right to liberty and security, the right to vote, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression etc. While economic, social and cultural rights refer to the right to social security, the right to health, the right to education, the right to housing, the right to a healthy environment and the right to form and join a trade union etc. These are the rights that are given by the United Nation through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the international human rights law, as well as Constitutions of countries.

War and human rights

The global world is known for its historical experiences of wars and oppressions such as racial, gender, sex, culture, religion, class and economic oppression laws. Democracy therefore has enabled or rather has provided many countries with the structural framework of how to develop their liberation structures, which in turn gave citizens’ the rights to practice their freedoms within the confinements provided by democracy. Due to the oppression that a vast majority of groups experienced, the demand of freedom from slavery, the request of liberty of conscience, as well as the need for security by ethnic groups from mass murders and genocide became too loud to ignore. The violation of people’s rights that where uncodified called for the codification of natural rights in order to promote and protect those rights, which led to the rise of liberal democratic governments. They were and still are seen as the most effective systems of protecting human rights. According to Rawls human rights are a class of rights that play an important role in the lives of individuals, because they restrict the justification of wars as well as its conduct, they in this sense reflect a fundamental historical profound change in the powers associated to state sovereignty.

For instance, war was used in multiple countries as a means to rule or conquer but because of human rights, war was said to be no longer a justifiable reason or rather means of government policy practice. Rather it is now used under special circumstances to protect human rights. For instance, war was a tool that was used by the United States government in 2001 to raid Afghanistan in order to try and eradicate the Taliban. The Taliban is known for its terrorist attacks thus, the United States used force to protect the human rights of the citizens. We have witnessed similar events such as when the United Nations and the French government sent their troops to Syria to fight against the ISIS organisation, similarly we’ve witnessed the same intervention by the United States and the French government as well as the African Union and the United Nations to protect the human rights people that where were affected by the Jihab, Seleka, Anti-Balaka, and the Fulmark group organisations. The reason this aspect is relevant is because taking a closer look into the reason behind the terrors these groups brought was all in the name of practicing their religious beliefs, which is one of the freedoms provided by human rights. The right to freedom of thought, belief and religion is one of the fundamental rights that the human rights provide and the interpretation of that right in particular has in multiple African states led to the abuse of the right which evidently led to the infringement of other citizens’ rights in those regimes. Their rights to freedom of movement, freedom of association, their right to life, right to education, right to health and sanitation and so forth. These groups are not the only organisations that continuously infringe people’s human rights, but they do so in the name of practicing their freedom to religion. In his writings, Dr Ahmed Shaheed expressed how the Islamic Republic of Iran has continuously infringed the rights of its citizens. Despite the criticism by the international human rights activists as well as the United Nations, the regime still undermines human rights, the Iran government has been criticised for its restrictions and punishment they are embedded in its constitution. From the inhuman harsh penalties for crimes committed, to the restrictions that are placed on freedom of speech as well as press, to restriction2s placed on freedom of religion.

This now brings us to the question of “do human rights and the freedoms they espouse threaten democracy as we know it?”. Democracy as defined by Rousseau is the means through which citizens can achieve freedom, and that freedom is delivered through the access to human rights. The same human rights which delivered citizens from around the globe from systems of oppression and afforded them dignity. The freedoms that are afforded by human rights include, freedom of movement, religion and thought, speech, association, right to life, dignity, education, housing, water and sanitation, health, the right to participate in politics, the right to vote, freedom of expression, the right to equality, the right to not be punished in inhuman ways and so forth. The same rights are the rights that are the cornerstone of democratic countries in the 21st century.

Due to the painful history the world has, human rights have created an environment in which individuals are able to live their lives according to their will. Human rights have instead empowered people, they have given people the voice to speak their minds without being fearful of prosecution, they have given people access to opportunities of being part of the decision making processes of their governing systems. Human rights have been important for development. According to Darrow & Tomas human rights have provided firstly, the grounding objectives for development, secondly, they have empowered communities and individuals, thirdly, they have ensure genuine participation as well as encourage non-discriminatory programme implementations, lastly, they encourage the establishment of effective accountability systems. Furthermore, they maintain that human rights are important for the creation of critical analytical frameworks, for instance they have assisted in framing the Millennium Development Goals.

Langfort speaks of how research has shown that political and court-based advocacy strategies have been able to deliver impactful results such as expending feeding programmes, legitimising women’s rights as well as indigenous rights. Furthermore, human rights have provided a uniting platform for multicultural, diverse groups that enables them to mobilise for a common cause. Human rights are fundamental for the protection of our human dignity, life, autonomy, as well as liberty. Therefore, it is important to note democracy is a system of rule and that human rights have always existed even before the development as well as the implementation of the democratic system. With that said, human rights and the freedom they espouse do not in any way threaten democracy as we know it, but rather democracy threatens the existence of human rights.


The question becomes does human rights come before democracy or visa versa? The reason democracy threatens the existence is because democracy and human rights according to James Griffin have grown up to meet different needs. On one hand democratic institutions were developed for our need to participate in decision making procedures, which aimed to create a system of procedure that is stable, a system that is able to manage power transfers and one that had to promote the commonweal which advocated for order, development, security and prosperity. On the other hand, human rights aimed at protecting and promoting human dignity, liberty and autonomy. Instead human rights have magnified the flaws in democracy, for its biggest flaw is its inability to function to its full penitential in the growing multicultural societies. Human rights are a necessary condition for the normative agency as well as democracy, freedom of expression, right to life, right to education, right to privacy, right to information, right to vote and so forth.


It is important to note that the international human rights are and should be honoured in both liberal and traditional regimes, because human rights according to Rawls “are intrinsic to the law of peoples and they have a political effect whether or not they are supported locally”. Which implies that they are applicable in all societies and they should are binding. 

29 April 2022
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