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“Much more than periodic voting” – UN Independent Expert calls for more direct democracy worldwide

Democracy Day

14 September 2016

International Day of Democracy – Thursday 15 September 2016

GENEVA (14 September 2016) – On the occasion of the International Day of Democracy, the United Nations Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, Alfred de Zayas, calls on Parliaments and Governments to be responsive to people and not to lobbyists.
“Democracy must be lived and practiced every day.  It entails much more than periodic voting, which in many cases is only pro forma, in the absence of public influence on the choice of candidates and scarce possibility of policy change.  Democracy means a genuine correlation between the will of the people and legislation and policies that affect them, be it domestic or international.

More and more, ‘representative democracy’ has disappointed voters, because parliamentarians, once elected, rarely consult with their constituencies and sometimes take decisions that are clearly contrary to the expressed wishes of the electorate. The frequent disconnect between Parliaments and the people has led to a feeling of disenfranchisement in many countries, resulting in apathy, absenteeism and distrust. Dissatisfaction with the performance of Parliaments has opened the door to exploitation of social problems by populist politicians.

Representative democracy can only be considered ‘democratic’ when Parliamentarians proactively inform constituencies about laws and treaties that will affect them, consult with them regularly and endeavour to implement their wishes in good faith. We can think of many laws and treaties, including mega-regional treaties currently under negotiation such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA), which surely would be rejected if put to popular vote.  At the very least, democracy requires full disclosure and multistakeholder participation, i.e. ‘participatory democracy’.  In the absence of popular consent, it is inconceivable for democratically elected Parliaments to ratify such agreements.

Parliaments that do not genuinely represent, but act as if they had a blank check for x number of years lose their legitimacy.  In some countries one could even speak of the phenomenon of ‘parliamentary despotism’, because laws and treaties are adopted regardless of the wishes of the constituencies, even to the extent of entering into aggressive wars against the clearly expressed wish of the population.

Democracy requires respect for the right to access to information, freedom of opinion and expression as provided for in article 19 ICCPR, and meaningful public participation in decision-making, as provided in article 25 ICCPR.

A correlation between the public interest and policies affecting them is best secured through the direct democracy mechanisms of public initiative and referenda. Direct democracy is undoubtedly one of the most efficient, reliable and transparent methods to determine the will of the people.  In order to generate democratic change, it must respect human rights, in particular pluralism, electoral law principles, freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

The emergence of People Power is the best avenue to effect changes that will ensure human rights for all. More and more individuals and groups are taking to the streets to demand greater public participation and higher transparency and accountability from those who exercise power -- from governments to non-State actors including the private sector.

Special interests such as those of transnational corporations, financial bankers or the military-industrial complex must cease exercising disproportionate influence over domestic and foreign policy, frequently in contravention of the public interest.

Direct, participatory and responsive democracy has been shown to be conducive to achieving a more just world order. Only such an approach will allow progressing from predator societies to human rights oriented societies.”

Mr. Alfred de Zayas (United States of America) was appointed as the first Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order by the Human Rights Council, effective May 2012. He is currently professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. Mr. de Zayas practiced corporate law and family law in New York and Florida. As a Human Rights Council’s mandate holder, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity. Learn more, log on to:

The Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. Thibaut Guillet (+41 22 917 93 89 / [email protected]) or write to [email protected]

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