Human Rights Day 2012 - Information Note
The right of every citizen to participate in the conduct of public affairs, to vote and to be elected, and to have equal access to public service, is established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and legally guaranteed and protected under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
These principles, commonly known as “participation rights” have been further defined by the UN Human Rights Committee, a group of experts which oversees the implementation of the Covenant. The Committee has set down explicitly the core components of article 25, how it should be implemented, its importance for a democratic society, and who has responsibility for its implementation.
What does the right to participate involve?
- The Human Rights Committee says that the right to participate in public life “lies at the core of democratic government”. Article 25 of the Covenant recognizes and protects the right and the opportunity of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to vote and to be elected and the right to have access to public service.
- It grants people the right to choose their own political affiliations, their official representatives, their government, and a constitution. These choices and “the right of individuals to participate in those processes… constitute the conduct of public affairs,” the Committee says.
- The conduct of public affairs relates to the exercise of political power, in particular the exercise of legislative, executive and administrative powers. It covers all aspects of public administration, and the formulation and implementation of policy at international, national, regional and local levels.
Who does this right apply to?
It applies to every citizen without distinction on the “grounds of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Are there conditions attached?
There may be conditions attached to the exercise of this right but the Committee is quite clear that they must be based on “objective and reasonable criteria”. For example, the Committee points out that it may be reasonable to require a higher age for election or appointment to particular offices than for exercising the right to vote.
What does participation in public life mean in practice?
- People participate directly in the conduct of public affairs when they exercise power as members of legislative bodies or by holding executive office.
- They also participate directly or indirectly in the election of local representatives, the parliament, the head of State and in national consultations or referenda, for instance, to adopt or change the constitution. .
- Popular assemblies established to make decisions on local issues and to represent the interests of a particular community in consultation with government involve direct participation by citizens.
- People also participate through public debate and dialogue.
Who ensures people have this right and are included?
The right to participate, including the right to vote at elections and referenda must be established by law. “The allocation of powers and the means by which individual citizens exercise the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs… should be established by the constitution and other laws”, according to the Committee.
It is unreasonable, the Committee found, to restrict the right to vote on the ground of physical disability or to impose literacy, educational or property requirements.
The Committee also made clear that freedom of expression, assembly and association are essential conditions for the effective exercise of the right to vote and must be fully protected.
Patterns of exclusion and measures to guarantee inclusion
Some groups encounter difficulties in voicing their opinion or taking part in the public life of their communities. For reasons of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and religion among others and because of a lack of access to education, and appropriate facilities, many people have not been able to exercise their right to participation at all or as fully as others.
Women in many communities continue to be ‘silent’ in decisions affecting their societies. This is despite specific provisions in the Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women requiring States to take measures “to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country”, in particular ensuring their right to vote, to participate in formulating government policy and to participate in organisations concerned with the public and political life of the country.
Globally, 19.5 percent of parliamentary seats turned over in 2011 were taken by women, an increase of half a percent over the year before. The figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) show a slow but steady increase in the number of women parliamentarians but with marked disparities between countries and regions. According to the IPU there are just not enough women running for office to have the same electoral impact as men.
Disabled people, long excluded from full participation in the public lives of their communities are now campaigning for inclusion. A ground-breaking study by the UN Human Rights Office in 2012 found that “persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities continue to be deprived of their right to vote and be elected”. The report recommended that the Human Rights Committee consider reviewing its General Comment on Article 25 “so as to reflect the progressive evolution of international human rights law in this field.”
Indigenous peoples and minorities often find themselves relegated to ‘outsider’ status unable to exercise their right to participate. Societies whose indigenous and minority groups are marginalised, struggle with poverty reduction, environmental sustainability and conflict resolution. The UN Human Rights Office supports and advocates for the rights of indigenous and minority groups at international and national levels, including through the efforts of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Independent Expert on Minority issues.
Children may legitimately be excluded from voting but according to the Convention on the rights of the Child they still have a right to participate in their communities. Article 12 of the Convention says children have the right to participate in decision-making processes that may be relevant in their lives. In its General Comment (12) on the right of the child to be heard the Committee on the Rights of the Child explains that, “the concept of participation emphasizes that including children should not only be a momentary act, but the starting point for an intense exchange.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
General Comment No 25: The right to participate in public affairs, voting rights and the right of equal access to public service.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Committee on the Rights of the Child: General Comment No 12
Study on the Participation of People with Disabilities in Public and Political Life
The UN Human Rights Committee
OHCHR – Indigenous peoples
OHCHR - Minorities