Statement by Alfred de Zayas Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order at the 24th session of the Human Rights Council

10 September 2013

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is my honour to submit this progress report to the Human Rights Council in accordance with Council resolutions 18/6 and 21/9. In it I summarize activities undertaken from August 2012 to June 2013, and endeavour to address the spectrum of issues inherent in the mandate, which I understand as global in geographical scope and multi-level in conceptual approach. As the resolutions indicate, the goal is convergence of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights into a coherent synthesis so as to advance the process of achieving an international order that is more democratic and equitable.

The vast scope of the resolutions manifest the Council’s vision and wisdom and call for the formulation of pragmatic recommendations to the Human Rights Council itself, to States, to National Human Rights Institutions and to civil society actors.

The report is inspired by article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which stipulates: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” and by the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action that provides in part: “Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.” Accordingly, the report places particular emphasis on the fostering of full, equitable and effective participation, as envisaged in paragraph 17 of resolution 21/9.

Mr. President,

A democratic and equitable international order is inherent in the fundamental human rights that humanity shares. It is achievable, step-by-step, when every country and people act at the local, regional and international levels, aware that such an international order must be based on the United Nations Charter and the human rights treaties, which together make up what we can safely call the Constitution of the modern world. The Preamble and articles 1 and 2 of the Charter lay down the intention of the “peoples of the United Nations” to build an international order of peace, human rights and development.

The pertinent resolutions of the HRC and the GA call for an order based on the sovereign equality of States, the right of peoples to self-determination and on a commitment to sharing the riches of the planet in a spirit of international solidarity. Such an order requires greater participation by the bearers of human rights, women and men as individuals and as members of civil society.

Mr. President,

Numerous answers to the questionnaires I sent, presentations at the expert consultations I convened on 16 May and on 6 June 2013, as well as the communications I have received since the inception of my mandate reveal dysfunctions in the democratic and equitable participation of various stakeholders both at the international and the national levels.

Participation in international decision-making is still far from equal or even equitable. Indeed, the United Nations Security Council is not democratic, nor are the Bretton Woods institutions. There are other players which are not democratic in their structure or in their modus operandi, including certain elitist organizations, the G-8, G-20, the World Economic Forum, or regional military alliances. Meanwhile, transnational corporations exert increasing influence on global decision-making and impact on the options of sovereign States and on the enjoyment of human rights. Corporations – whether national or multinational – do not operate on the basis of democratic principles but seek primarily profit, and their decisions affect the international order without transparency or accountability. Reforms are necessary so as to ensure the equitable participation of all in global decision-making, especially concerning decisions on peacekeeping, the environment, trade relations and the common heritage of humankind.

In a democracy, it is the people who are sovereign. Therefore, with regard to the promotion of democracy at the local, country, regional and international levels, civil society must have a strong voice in all political processes. The situation in some countries is grave, since freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and free and fair elections, are not ensured; opposition leaders are arrested or killed; journalists, whistleblowers and bloggers are harassed, intimidated and detained; public demonstrations are prohibited; peaceful demonstrators massacred, and elections are reduced to masquerades. Several Rapporteurs have documented these violations.

Democracy entails a correlation between the public interest as expressed by a majority of the population and the governmental policies that affect them. The term encompasses various manifestations, including direct, participatory and representative democracy, but ultimately Governments must be responsive to people and not to special interests such as the military-industrial complex, financial bankers and transnational corporations.

The war industries in many countries and the enormous trade in weapons of all kinds generate corruption and fuel conflict throughout the world. The existence of an immensely powerful military-industrial complex constitutes a danger to democracy, both internationally and domestically, because it follows its own logic and operates independently of popular participation.

Democracy is inclusive and does not privilege an anthropological aristocracy. It requires consultation with the people and respect of the will of the voters. Although founded on majority rule, a democratic society must recognize and apply individual, minority and group rights. In other words, majority rule must be understood within the context of the rule of law and human dignity. This resolves the tension between populism and human rights, since democracy must not be abused to diminish human rights, e.g. by legitimizing torture or capital punishment.

Democracy has an old evolutionary history and has been adjusted to the needs of many different societies and cultures. There is no single “model” of democracy, and no one should pretend that one particular manifestation of democracy should be exported to countries that function differently, where the political process corresponds to other traditions. When approaching the concept of democracy, one should look beyond the label and ask the crucial question: What is the correlation between the needs and the will of the people and the political decision-making affecting them? A corollary to that question is: To what degree was truthful, reliable and pluralistic information available to facilitate informed participation by the people in the development of law and practice? Democracy is not the end product, but the means to the end, which is the enjoyment of human rights by all.

The manipulation of public opinion both by governments and corporate media, and the manufacturing of consent undermine the essence of democracy, which is genuine participation. The harassment, imprisonment and killing of human rights defenders, including journalists, in many countries shocks the conscience. But also certain aspects of the war on terrorism and the abuse of anti-terrorist legislation have significantly eroded human rights and fundamental freedoms. In a democratic society it is crucial for citizens to know whether their governments are acting constitutionally, or are engaged in policies that violate international law and human rights. It is their civic duty to protest against government secrecy and covers-up, against disproportionate surveillance, acts of intimidation and harassment, arbitrary arrests and defamation of human rights defenders, including whistleblowers as unpatriotic or even traitors, when in fact they are necessary defenders of the rule of law.

Undoubtedly, there is room for improvement in each and every country. No country has a perfect report card. In some States and territories there are minorities, indigenous populations, marginalised groups and groups at risk, people under occupation, unrepresented people and persons living in extreme poverty who lack the possibility to effectively participate in decision–making. Women, more than half the population of the planet, are frequently disenfranchised and marginalised. Effective measures, including a judicial system of enforceable rights, should be adopted to empower women, minorities, indigenous populations, unrepresented peoples, persons with disabilities, amongst many others, so that they can meaningfully participate in the political process and in the decisions affecting them, their right to self-determination, their traditional environment, their culture and beliefs.

At the expert consultation I convened on 16 May, some indigenous groups maintained that they have been denied effective representation and that their participation is at best pro forma, since, regardless of their views, governments pursue their own agendas and only perfunctorily listen to them. In particular, some indigenous claim material breaches of treaties made by their ancestors with the European powers, others claim deception when the treaties were made. They maintain their right to self-determination, autonomy and identity, including sovereignty over their natural resources, which have been taken from them without their consent and without appropriate compensation. A fundamental issue to many indigenous individuals is that of their status as peoples, since they do not want to have the citizenship of the colonizers; in some cases, they challenge self-determination referenda in which they claim they had little or no possibility to manifest their will. I thank States for their clarifications in this regard.

Many observers have exposed the democracy deficits of the international and domestic order; identified threats to international peace; warned against the military-industrial and military-financial complexes; and denounced the retrogression in social justice associated with so-called “austerity measures”. The diagnoses of think tanks universities and researchers are fairly clear, their recommendations sensible and implementable, but changing the status quo has proven difficult, primarily because of lack of transparency and accountability in political processes, and because of powerful vested interests. Not without irony it has been noted that often those who are elected do not govern, and those who do govern are not elected.

Mr. President,

Despite the obstacles I have briefly listed, I would nevertheless like to highlight a series of good practices. Among them, I would like to draw attention to the adoption by the GA of the Arms Trade Treaty, which constitutes a first step toward regulation, reduction, and ultimate disarmament. Meanwhile the Open-ended working group of this Council on the Declaration on the Right to Peace has made good progress and the active participation of many representatives of civil society should be commended.

Moreover, proposals for United Nations reform, in particular reform of the Security Council are under discussion, with a view to render the Organization more representative and give all peoples greater say in global decisions. At the expert consultation of 16 May, the representative of the international campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, Andreas Bummel, stressed that democratization of the international order should aim at promoting the dignity and worth of every person and the equality of all world citizens. Bearing in mind that the United Nations is a State-based organization, Bummel noted that the challenge is to find ways to create a space within this setup that nonetheless allows connecting global decision-making more directly with the world’s citizens as individuals. A world parliamentary body would give civil society a voice at the UN through more direct representation. I consider this a promising initiative worth exploring in future reports. In the expert consultation of 6 June 2013, proposals for the strengthening of the UPR system, UN treaty bodies and the establishment of a World Court of Human Rights were discussed as contributing to the process of advancing toward a just world order.

Mr. President,

Resolution 18/6 created a broad mandate that is coherent and implementable. All United Nations bodies and specialized agencies are invited to review their practices with a view to enhance participation of all stakeholders. Each State should take one step forward and review obstacles to democratic processes and equity and implement targeted measures that will promote participation by all persons under its jurisdiction. This requires a change of paradigm and mindset, goodwill and self-criticism. Complacency is invariably an obstacle to progress.

Convinced that hackneyed prescriptions, platitudes or cosmetic proposals will not serve resolutions 18/6 and 21/9, I offer a number of pragmatic recommendations to the Council itself, to States, and to civil society. Allow me to highlight some of my recommendations to the Council

One, the Council should continue its deliberations on the Draft Declaration on the Right to Peace elaborated by the Advisory Committee, as a constructive step toward a democratic and equitable international order, as expressly mentioned in resolution 21/9. The declaration should be referred to the General Assembly for adoption.

Two, the Council should consider holding a workshop on self-determination and genuine participation. A democratic deficit is ultimately a deficit in self-determination.

Three, the Council should consider assigning several studies to its Advisory Committee, including:
(i) an update of the 1999 Treaty study conducted by the Sub-Commission;
(ii) the elaboration of a strategy to revitalize the 2004 Cardoso report on United Nations-Civil Society Relations (A/58/817), with a view to enhancing the role of civil society in the work of the United Nations, and in particular, in the Human Rights Council and its Advisory Committee;
(iii) a study on how a World Parliamentary Assembly may advance genuine participation;
(iv) a study on strengthening the enforcement of its own resolutions and UPR recommendations; and,
(v) a study on the added value of establishing a World Court of Human Rights.

Four, the Council should recommend to the General Assembly the adoption of a resolution streamlining the procedure for granting consultative status to non-governmental organizations so as to eliminate politicization and enhance civil society access to the Council.

Five, the Council should consider recommending to the General Assembly to bring specific legal questions concerning self-determination, war, peace, democracy, corporate social responsibility and debt cancellation to the International Court of Justice for advisory opinions.

By way of conclusion, I look forward to continued consultations with States, National Human Rights Institutions and civil society and listening to your remarks and criticism, which I pledge to integrate into my subsequent reports.

I wish to express my appreciation to the Secretariat of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for their professionalism, constancy and gracious support.
I also wish to endorse the inspiring words of a great Indian writer, Arundhati Roy:

“Another world is not only possible; she is on her way. On a quiet day… I can hear her breathing.”

Thank you for your attention.