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The Human Right to Democracy: Is This What Democracy Looks Like?


By Vasuki Nesiah

From the Fall 2016 Gallatin Today

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) heralds the right of a person “to take part in the government of his country,” including “periodic and genuine elections” and “universal and equal suffrage.” In class discussions, it is not long before a Gallatin student raises concerns that democracy promotion often oils the wheels of intervention. From Baghdad to Benghazi, our students came of age in a world where no one launches bombs and enacts regime change except in the name of democracy.

Even when not militarized, armies of technocrats circulate standardized models of electoral arrangements and democratic institutions as if democracy pertains to the science of politics rather than politics itself. This is not “what democracy looks like” to students coming into class after a Black Lives Matter demonstration or a Bernie Sanders rally. If democracy is about status quo–challenging, messy, diverse, and innovative experiments to shape our future, then how can it come packaged in a universal template? If democracy is about “bottom-up” sovereignty, how can it entail institutional arrangements regulated from above by international law?

Inevitably, discussion turns to how international law both empowers and circumscribes our approach to democracy. The human rights framework recognizes self-determination as the prerequisite and foundation for all other democratic rights. However, as the right to self-determination got equated with achieving sovereignty, it tethered democracy’s future to the nation-state. For grassroots social movements, the notion of democratic governance entails a fundamentally existential tension. From France to Turkey to India, elected governments curb dissent in the name of protecting democracy; the performance of popular consent can be invoked to disempower the 99 percent. Moreover, if democratic processes are directed at state power, how do we advance democratic accountability vis-à-vis corporations, banks, or multilateral entities such as the IMF?

Democracy has always been entangled with its converse, including the hierarchies and civilizational discourses regarding the West and the rest. The late-eighteenth-century French and American democratic revolutions were intertwined with colonialism, slavery, genocide against first nations communities, and the disenfranchisement of women, the indigent, and racial and religious minorities. When the UDHR was adopted in 1948, most of the world’s peoples lived under colonialism. As radical scholars have argued, “provincializing” canonical theorization about democracy entails interrogating these contradictions.

Thus students grapple with recognizing the history of democracy as intertwined with “the inheritance of loss,” even as they seek (in their work in and outside the classroom) to imagine a democratic politics against the grain of these inheritances. In short, to rethink the end(s) of democracy.
Past democratic struggles can help inspire this project of political imagination. For instance, Gandhi’s notion of self-rule envisioned democracy as a kind of “enlightened anarchy,” an ongoing process of self-constitution rather than what some have termed “ballotocracy.” Similarly, one can trace alternative approaches in Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa or in Occupy’s effort to reclaim public space in ways that exceed the authorized institutional avenues of liberal democracy.

Thus, our class engages with rethinking the human right to democracy not as a fixed political arrangement but as an ongoing struggle to further democratize; not packaged for export but to be unpacked and reimagined. As we travel through the arc of this conversation about the intellectual, legal, and political landscapes of democracy, we look at the relationship between Article 21 and other human rights (such as the right to dissent or the right to free association), as well as rights that are not recognized by the human rights framework but should be—“the right to dream,” as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano put it.