Opening Statement by Mehr Khan-Williams
The Deputy High Commissioner
for Human Rights
to the Expert Seminar on Democracy
and the Rule of Law


Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Geneva, 28 February – 2 March 2005

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address the second expert seminar on the interdependence between democracy and human rights. Our meeting today results from an important initiative by the Commission on Human Rights to facilitate a constructive dialogue on democracy. The theme chosen for this second expert meeting is “The interface between democracy and the Rule of Law”. A discussion on this theme is critical to a better understanding of how democratic governments can fulfill their obligations to ensure that all citizens can access their human rights.

The first expert seminar held in November 2003 contributed to a better understanding of democratic institutions and processes from the perspective of the individual as a holder of rights. It also identified a number of issues for further elaboration. While focusing on the rule of law, the provisional agenda of today’s seminar allows us to also take account of some of the issues flagged then for further discussion.

By inviting Governments, intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations to focus on the rule of law, the Commission on Human Rights has highlighted a core principle in constitutional democracies that gives effect to individual rights and liberties. This discussion is very timely. It will not only look at institutional and functional links between democracy and the rule of law, it will do so in the context of contemporary challenges and identify the way forward. We are fortunate to have with us ten distinguished experts from various regions. I want to thank them for joining this meeting and for preparing very useful papers to guide the discussion.

Let me now say a few words about your topic.

The notion of democracy as a government created by elections in which every adult citizen can vote is relatively new. In 1900 not a single country could meet this criteria. Now some 120 do, comprising the majority of the countries in the world. This is a major achievement. But in applauding it, we must look at why democracy was considered necessary. Historically, the heart of the notion of democracy was not just a procedure for selecting governments, but what it would enable governments to do for citizens. There was a deeply-rooted belief and expectation that democratic governments would protect the autonomy and dignity of individuals from all sources including from the state itself. Seen from this perspective, securing human rights in a democratic society requires checks on the power of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and the separation of church and state. As such, the protection of human rights through the rule of law and good governance are essential purposes of democracies.

When we say a country is democratic, we effectively praise it. But is that praise based on vague notions? The concepts of democracy and the rule of law are not ambiguous terms. The Commission on Human Rights (resolution 1999/57) has produced a comprehensive list of elements that constitute democracy. These include, but go beyond, the right to political participation. They emphasize the right to seek, receive and impart information as well as freedom of expression, thought, and assembly. They also comprise access to justice, fairness in the administration of justice and the independence of the judiciary. A compilation of international and regional documents on promoting and consolidating democracy has been prepared by our Office and is available to you today. It sheds further light on the components of democracy.

While the Rule of Law is a dynamic concept, it also has clear parameters. As the Secretary-General in his report to the Security Council on the rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies (S/2004/616 - 3 August 2004) stated, the Rule of Law refers to a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, laws which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.

There is no doubt that the interplay between democracy, human rights, and the rule of law can benefit from further debate. The challenge ahead of us, however, is to move from the theoretical analysis to a practical way forward. Each of the three concepts, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law is a value and a cause in itself. Yet, it is essential to recognize that progress or deterioration in any of these three areas impacts the other two. We know that when governments do not represent the will of their people, when freedom of belief and expression are curtailed, and when the law through its institutions does not protect the dignity and humanity of every person, the result is often unrest, violence, and even out-right conflict, irrespective of how the government came to power.

The nexus between the three concepts of democracy, human rights and the rule of law has been widely recognized for some time. Less than five years ago, Heads of State and Government pledged in the Millennium Declaration to “spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, as well as respect for all internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development.” They resolved to undertake specific measures that will lead to enhancing these three values. These measures included:

• striving for the full protection and promotion of civil, political, economic,
social and cultural rights for all;
• strengthening the capacity of all countries to implement the principles and
practices of democracy and respect for human rights, including minority rights;
• combating all forms of violence against women and implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women;
• taking measures to ensure respect for and protection of the human rights of migrants and their families;
• eliminating acts of racism and xenophobia and promoting greater harmony and tolerance in all societies;
• working collectively for more inclusive political processes and allowing
genuine participation by all citizens; and
• ensuring the freedom of the media and the right of the public to have access to information.

During this seminar, please reflect on the extent to which progress has been made on these and the challenges and obstacles that stand in the way of their universal implementation. Similar reflections are now under-way to assess the implementation of another set of pledges in the Millennium Declaration related to development known as the Millennium Development Goals. A recent study by the United Nations demonstrated that we are far from reaching our MDG targets. We must also ask ourselves if this is also the case with regard to the Millennium’s democracy and human rights commitments.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The question of respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democracy is not a luxury that States can or cannot afford. For over fifty years, the United Nations has elaborated standards, and set up programmes and mechanisms to offer States and non-State actors help with building capacities for accountability and reparation at the national and international levels. As the General Assembly has emphasized, respect for these values lies at the foundation of all sustainable development. International cooperation and the participation of civil society are also essential in building the wide range of pluralistic institutions and supporting periodic elections and other democratic processes. A number of United Nations departments, agencies and programmes are actively assisting Member States to build more inclusive and participatory democratic political processes. Some of them are represented here today and I thank them for their presence.

Experience has shown that democracy thrives on the strong participation of civil society. The non-governmental organizations, particularly those working in the human rights field, have made an indispensable contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights. They are essential partners in enhancing democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. By pointing out weaknesses and strengths, they are essential in enhancing dynamism in society and mobilizing the will for positive change.

At a seminar on good governance practices for the promotion of human rights organized by UNDP and OHCHR in collaboration with the Government of Korea, participants concluded that there is a need for greater awareness of good governance and its relationship to human rights, particularly from the perspective of political will and public participation and awareness. They identified a number of measures that must be taken in this respect. These include integrating human rights effectively in State policy and practice and establishing the promotion of justice as the aim of the rule of law. The participants also emphasized the need to address the linkages between good governance, human rights, poverty reduction and inequalities; as well as issues of gender equality and cultural diversity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me conclude by saying that during the coming three days you will hear presentations from eminent experts on a wide- range of topics. You will explore the subject of elections and separation of powers and examine challenges to the full realization of democracy and human rights through conflicts, impunity, and corruption. And you will consider the question of access to justice by disadvantaged groups, as well as measures to strengthen judicial infrastructure. You will consider the special challenges facing parliaments, and the situation of post-conflict States. You will also hear from us: UN Departments, Agencies and Programmes about our work and action.

Surely there cannot be more timely and important subjects. Use this opportunity to reflect on national experiences and to identify further steps that must be taken to enhance the practical approach. We need to identify strengths and weaknesses and concrete measures that the Commission on Human Rights can further reflect on.

And as you begin your discussions, let us remember the words of President Nelson Mandela who captured the links between the values of a democratic society in one succinct sentence: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

I wish you every success in your deliberations.

Thank you.