It was the 16th President of the United States of America (USA), Abraham Lincoln, who brought the essence democracy as a system of governance into sharper focus when he defined it as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’ In the American War of Independence against Eng-land, the battle cry was ‘No taxation without representation’, which was an insistence on democratic practice.
However, democracy as a system pre-dates these episodes in the democratic journey towards be-coming a universally recognized ideal and which was also adopted by the United Nations (UN) as one of its core values and principles. That system of governance provides an environment for the protec-tion and effective realization of human rights.
It forms the basis for the UN to strive to promote good governance, monitor elections, support civil society to strengthen democratic institutions and accountability, ensure self-determination in decolo-nized countries, and assist in the drafting of new constitutions in post-conflict nations.
The International Day of Democracy which is marked every September 15, provides an opportunity to review the state of the system itself in the world because it is as much a process as a goal, and only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by every-one, everywhere.
It is pertinent to point out that the essential elements of democracy are the values of freedom, re-spect for human rights, the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage. In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which enshrines a host of political rights and civil liberties underpinning meaningful democracies.
Historically, the link between democracy and human rights is captured in article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subse-quent human rights instruments covering group rights are equally essential for democracy as they en-sure an equitable distribution of wealth, equality and equity in respect of access to civil and political rights.
This year’s celebration is influenced by the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19) which, the UN Secre-tary General, António Guterres noted, as the world confronts COVID-19, democracy is crucial in ensur-ing the free flow of information, participation in decision-making and accountability for the response to the pandemic.
Intriguingly, in our view, the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has resulted in major social, political and legal challenges globally. As states around the world adopt emergency measures to address the crisis, it is critical that they continue to uphold the rule of law, protect and respect international standards and basic principles of legality, and the right to access justice, remedies and due process.
Guterres further urged governments to be transparent, responsive and accountable in their COVID-19 response and ensure that any emergency measures are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. “The best response is one that responds proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law,” he said. This entails in our opinion, a felt need to respect and protect, among other rights, freedom of expression and of the press, freedom of information, freedom of association and of assembly.
This newspaper observes that the crisis in the prevailing COVID-19 situation even internationally, raises the question of how best to counter harmful speech while protecting freedom of expression. The danger, the UN is worried about is the likely implication of sweeping efforts to eliminate misinfor-mation or disinformation which it said can result in purposeful or unintentional censorship, which un-dermines trust. The world body avers and we agree that the most effective response is accurate, clear and evidence-based information from sources people trust.
Around the world civil society organizations have answered the UN’s call to action to address and counteract the wide range of ways the Covid-19 crisis may impair democracy and increase authoritari-anism, by developing media literacy and digital safety, more critical than ever as activism is forced online, so as to address the risk of suppression, interference and closing of civic space; fighting misin-formation, disinformation and hate speech, which have mushroomed in the crisis; training journalists remotely to report on the impact of the pandemic with in-depth, fact-checked coverage, while staying safe on the front line; empowering women against gender-based violence, which has surged amid Covid-19 lockdowns, quarantines, and social and economic pressures; while at the same time helping to highlight the challenges of inequality and weak service delivery made worse by the crisis. Generally it is agreed that there should be specific focus on the needs and rights of women, youth, minorities and other marginalized populations, so as to help hold governments to account.