There is a clear correlation between the presence and quality of democratic government in a country and the level of respect for human rights in that country. That may sound obvious but it’s good to have some measured results. This paper for instance offers some clear evidence:
There is a substantial body of research devoted to understanding the relationship between democracy and government human rights performance. Most research centers on physical integrity rights but does not analyze the broader civil liberties encompassed by the category of “empowerment rights.” The dynamics of the relationship between the degree of democracy in a state and protection of empowerment rights might be different and improvements may take longer to emerge. This study examines the effects of democracy and democratic duration on empowerment rights scores, and it also uncovers time thresholds at which different scores are attained. The results show that regime type is more critical to the protection of empowerment rights than it is to physical integrity rights. Even in the earliest years of democracy there is a positive relationship between democracy and empowerment rights, but empowerment rights strengthen as countries gain democratic experience. …
Thus, countries with more institutionalized democratic regimes, as determined by the quality and longevity of democratic experience, are significantly more likely to respect both fundamental human rights and broader classes of civil liberties. … [A]lthough human rights protection is present in early years, it will usually be even greater after countries have had extended experience with democracy. (source)
Two graphs to back this up:
(source, click image to enlarge)
The interesting thing about all this is not that there is a correlation – anyone following the news could have guessed as much. What we should care about are the reasons why there is a correlation. From the studies cited above we can see that the most important causal link is the one going from democracy to respect for human rights. In other words, there is a correlation because democracy causes respect for human rights. Vice versa may also be possible, although the argument is probably weaker. And then there may also be a hidden variable that can partially explain the correlation. For example, it may well be that prosperity and high GDP promote both democracy and human rights.
But then the next question is: how does democracy cause higher levels of respect for human rights? I guess this can happen in several ways:
- Democracies are more likely to be systems based on the rule of law and the rule of law is necessary for the protection of human rights.
- Democratic rulers know that they can’t get away with repression. They’ll be voted out if they try, or, worse, they’ll suffer the consequences of the rule of law, imposed on them by other branches of power in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers.
- Democracies have systems of judicial review which allow courts to void legislation that contradicts basic constitutional rights.
- Democracies have powerful non-violent mechanisms for dispute settlement, such as well-functioning courts. People don’t need to take the law into their own hands. Internal peace and limitations on violent behavior have beneficial effects on a number of human rights.
- Democracy is correlated with high levels of prosperity, and prosperity makes it easier to promote respect for human rights. Rights cost money.
- Democracies need human rights to function adequately (no democracy without free speech, free assembly, free association etc.), so they have an added incentive to respect them.
None of the above is meant to imply the following:
- That we can delay the implementation of human rights norms in non-democratic states. Remember the remark at the beginning that the causal link probably goes in two opposite directions and that human rights can promote democratic government. After all, if people are allowed to express themselves, they will express themselves about the workings of their government, and that is the first step towards democracy.
- That rights are never violated in democracies or never respected in non-democracies. It’s merely a matter of probability.
- That there are no elements other than democracy that promote human rights. Of course there must be. I mentioned prosperity a moment ago. Democracy is not a sufficient condition, although probably a necessary one, at least in the long run, for the full set of human rights and for the equal enjoyment of all rights by all people.
- That the beneficial effect of democracy on human rights is equal for all human rights or for all types of democracy. Well-developed and long-lasting democracies do better, as mentioned above, but perhaps also deep democracies, meaning democracies that provide a wide range of opportunities for democratic say.