Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

The Human Right to Political Participation

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

The Human Right to Political Participation

Article excerpt

THE GROWING IMPORTANCE OF HUMAN RIGHTS after World War II set an end to the state-sovereignty doctrine as the main political norm in the global realm. Human rights became the center of a distinctively political and legal agenda for the global order informed by egalitarian values. Human rights impose minimal binding standards both on domestic political institutions and the domestic legal order and on international relations and global institutions.

Insofar as human rights have, in this way, become part of the requirements of political legitimacy, the question arises as to how extensive the list of human rights should be. In the recent debate in philosophy, there has been a tendency to resist inflationary tendencies in the identification of what counts as a human right and to endorse minimalist lists of human rights. The right to political participation, in particular, although prominent in the original human rights treaties and in contemporary human rights practice, often fails to get support or is even explicitly excluded. Against these views, I want to defend the claim that a right to political participation should have a place even on minimalist lists of human rights.

My argument aims to show that human rights will fail to secure political legitimacy if the right to political participation is excluded from the set of basic rights. It hinges on a distinction between two problems of legitimacy that arise with human rights. The first, which we may call the problem of standards, relates to the requirement that political institutions and decisions--nationally, internationally and globally--apply and satisfy a human rights standard. Since a human rights standard is not the only requirement of legitimacy, the first problem concerns the relationship between a human rights standard and other sources of political legitimacy. In the context of a democratic state, for example, the problem of standards gives rise to the question of how a conception of democratic legitimacy can accommodate both a human rights standard and a principle of democratic self-determination. In the context of the international recognition of states, to give another example, the problem manifests itself in the question of how to weigh respect of human rights against restrictions on third-party interventions. This problem of standards is a reason for favoring minimalist lists of human rights.

The second problem of legitimacy, which is often obscured, concerns the justification of a human rights standard itself. I shall argue that because of this problem of justification, a human right to political participation is necessary--though not sufficient--for political legitimacy and should figure even on minimalist lists of human rights.

I shall end the paper with a discussion of what a right to political participation entails. The current debate focuses on whether or not there is a right to democracy (e.g., Christiano 2011a). I shall argue that the right to political participation need not be interpreted as a right to democracy, and I will defend a weaker requirement rather than the right to democracy. In another respect, however, my argument has a demanding implication. In contemporary human rights practice, the right to political participation is framed as a right to participate in national political affairs. My argument in support of the right to political participation implies that the right should be expanded to include participation in the global political debate as well, and I will briefly discuss this issue.

In sum, my paper defends the following main claims: (i) human rights are best understood in terms of their connection to political legitimacy; (ii) political legitimacy requires not merely that a human rights standard is applied and satisfied, but also that the standard itself is justified in the right way; and (iii) a right to political participation, suitably understood, is necessary, but not sufficient, for political legitimacy. …

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