Human Rights and Global Democracy

Article excerpt

Over the past dozen years or so democratic theorists and activists have become increasingly worried about globalization's adverse effects on democracy. Their concerns include: (1) democratic deficits, or the lack of democratic control over existing intergovernmental and supranational governance structures such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the European Union (EU); (2) democratic disjunctures, or the disparities in scope between such global political problems as climate change, economic development, and international terrorism, on the one hand, and instantiations of democratic authority in existing, state-level political institutions, on the other; and (3) democratic asymmetries, or the widening inequalities among states whereby the wealthiest and most powerful dominate international interactions.

In response, democratic theorists have advanced various proposals for global democracy, including cosmopolitan and discursive (or global civil society-based) schemes. Such proposals presume whether explicitly or implicitly--that human rights form part of the basic political infrastructure of global democratic governance. (1) They thus leave the relationship between human rights and global democracy undertheorized, with two related negative results: first, there has been little discussion of the theoretical and practical role of human rights in global democracy; second, this inattention has left important questions about the compatibility of democracy and human rights neglected or unnoticed. Meanwhile, numerous critics have questioned the compatibility of the core democratic principle of majoritarian rule and human rights at the national level, citing fears of "illiberal democracy" (3); and scholars from very different ideological and theoretical perspectives have expressed worries about the democratic accountability of supranational human rights regimes--notably, the potential for such regimes to undermine democracy within the state, or to become sources of domination themselves. Further, many scholars and practitioners harbor doubts about the potential effectiveness of supranational human rights mechanisms. Yet all these critiques remain strangely isolated from the debates on global democracy--which are, nonetheless, predicated in part on the assumption that no significant tensions between democracy and human rights obtain.

This article addresses these concerns, arguing that human rights are a necessary condition for global democracy. It aims to clarify the conceptual role of human rights in global democracy and democratization, to work out some institutional implications of this role, and to answer concerns about the democratic legitimacy and potential effectiveness of a supranational human rights regime. The article has five sections. The first briefly examines the main democratic responses to globalization, highlighting how various proposals for global democracy leave the role of human rights undertheorized. The second section presents the conceptual core of the argument. Working with a broad, normative understanding of democracy as a political commitment to freedom and equality for everyone, I show how this commitment can be conceptualized in terms of human rights. I then develop three conjectures about the necessity of human rights to global democracy and democratization: that they provide democratic constraints on power, enable meaningful supranational political participation, and promote state-level democracy and democratization. The third section addresses important institutional implications of this argument, outlining the core functions that a supranational human rights regime designed to promote and support global democracy would have to perform, and contrasting them with existing arrangements. The fourth section refutes in principle objections to the effectiveness of human rights institutions, and the final section answers concerns about the democratic legitimacy of a supranational human rights regime. …