Human Rights Nonsense (43): Self-Determination

comments 4
democracy / human rights nonsense / international relations / intervention

This is about the right to democracy. I’ve argued many times in favor of such a right. In fact, if you read the texts of the major international human rights treaties and declarations, you’ll see that democratic rule is listed as part of the set of human rights. That’s not just an argument from authority; there are many good philosophical and practical arguments that speak for this right. However, I won’t discuss those arguments now since I want to focus on a counter-argument, more specifically a counter-argument that is based on another right, namely the right to self-determination.

There are perhaps better counter-arguments than this one. In fact, I believe it’s a very bad counter-argument, so bad that it’s nonsensical. You may say, why not tackle the best counter-arguments? Wouldn’t that make the case for the right to democracy a lot stronger? Sure it would, but I think it’s worthwhile to focus also on bad counter-arguments especially those that have some currency, as is the case with the counter-argument based on the right to self-determination.

Here it is: if we assert and enforce a right to democratic government on the international scene, we will violate people’s right to self-determination since a right to democratic government gives outsiders the right to intervene in other societies in order to bring about democracy. People, cultures and nations have a right to determine their form of government independently, and if they decide to adopt a non-democratic form of government we should allow them to do so since that is what their right to self-determination requires.

That looks quite reasonable at first sight, but the problem with this argument should still be obvious: self-determination and democracy are not two different things. If a nation determines that it should be governed in a non-democratic way, if determines away its self-determination. It’s one act of self-determination that renders all future acts of self-determination impossible. Promoting the right to democracy means promoting democracy; if outsiders promote democracy in a particular society, then they also de facto promote self-determination, not self-determination as a one-off self-destructive act, but self-determination as a permanent way of life.

free kosovoOpponents of the right to democracy may argue that if people reject democracy and want to exercise their self-determination in such a way that they forfeit self-determination, then they should be able to do so. Imposing democracy on them because of a misguided belief in the universal value and desirability of a right to democracy means imposing values and a culture that are alien to them. This is contrary to their right to self-determination. We must respect non-democratic governments and societies like we respect minority religious or cultural groups within a society. Even if there is such a thing as a right to democracy, people should be able to waive this right. And anyway, democracy won’t work when it is perceived as alien, because it requires active and motivated participation.

While I agree that real democracy is not imposed and must come from the inside, there is a difference between imposing and promoting. Democracy can’t be imposed but it can be promoted. And promoting it means allowing it to arise from the inside, and it can arise from the inside when people are told about it and when they get a taste of it; often the appetite only comes when you’ve already started eating. Furthermore, it’s nonsensical to speak about people rejecting something in the setting of a non-democratic government. How can we possibly know that people reject democracy if they don’t already have democracy?  Assuming that a society rejects democracy because some unelected representatives say this to the outside world and loudly claim a right to self-determination, is just plain silly. What these representatives really say is that they themselves reject democracy, and they obviously have good reasons to do so because democracy would be the end of them. If they talk about self-determination, it’s only their personal self-determination they care about.

Another unrelated but equally nonsensical concern about the right to democracy goes like this: democracies often violate the rights of minorities, so how can democracy be a human right if it conflicts with other human rights? As if different human rights don’t conflict all of the time, and as if it’s not an empirically verifiable fact that human rights are safest in democracies. Furthermore, this concern about the right to democracy assumes a simplistic model of democracy in which democracy equals majority rule. In fact, democracy is much more than that and includes – by definition – strong protections for the rights of minorities (such as constitutional protection, judicial review etc.). A realistic model of democracy also assumes that proper democratic government can’t function without respect for most if not all human rights. Hence, if democracy requires human rights, the supposed contradiction between democracy and rights loses a lot of its meaning.

More posts in this series are here.

(image source)


  1. Mike says

    Seems reasonable on paper, but so often the democracy we promote is simply laissez faire market capitalism, which includes all kinds of undemocratic aspects and often effectively becomes a means for some kind of extractive neocolonial relationship. We should be critical of democracy promotion efforts from western countries whose industry-captured democracies are shadows if their purported ideals.

  2. Pingback: Best of the Summer | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

  3. Pingback: Cultural Rights (15): Crimea and the Ethics of Secession | P.a.p.-Blog // Human Rights Etc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s