Author: Christian Pippan
International Law, Domestic Political Orders, and the ‘Democratic Imperative’: Has Democracy Finally Emerged as a Global Legal Entitlement?
After the end of the Cold War, democratic transitions in many parts of the world, a significant increase in the number of signatories to global and regional human rights instruments containing participatory rights, and a growing interest in ‘free and fair’ elections on the part of the UN and other international organizations have led some legal scholars to assert the emergence of an internationally constituted ‘right to democratic governance’. In a certain sense, this was in line with the predominantly liberal reading of the events of 1989 in social science, which interpreted the demise of European communism as a confirmation of the superiority of Western-style democracy over other political regimes. In the controversial debate that followed its initial articulation in the early 1990s, the ‘democratic entitlement thesis’ was hailed by some commentators as finally giving substance to widely accepted but highly ambiguous international concepts such as self-determination, popular sovereignty and political participation, whereas others criticized it as a form of ‘liberal messianism’, or even as a ‘democratic jihad’.
The present essay aims to revisit the discussion in light of recent international developments, particularly within the United Nations. Following a general introduction (Section 1), it briefly recapitulates the major strands of the democratic norm thesis and the vivid critique it has received (Section 2). In order to better grasp the overall problématique raised by the thesis, the main section of the paper (Section 3) then addresses three interrelated, yet ultimately distinct, questions: Does the international legal system display any preference for democracy over other domestic political regimes and concurrent constitutional orders? If so, does the contemporary international order embrace any particular vision of democracy? Finally, provided the two prior questions can be answered in the affirmative, do any of the components of an emerging international vision of democracy have a universal legal character? The essay concludes (in Section 4) by arguing that, unless one (inappropriately) equates democracy with free and fair elections, no general rule of international law can be identified requiring states to design their domestic political and constitutional orders in accordance with a particular (e.g. liberal) model of democracy. Moreover, while the persistent refusal to allow for the holding of periodic and genuine elections may today be regarded as constituting a violation of a customary norm (an argument supported here), the responsible government usually does not forfeit its legal standing in the international arena. Notwithstanding these findings, it will be argued that an international regime on domestic democratic governance is progressively taking shape. This regime is comprised of principles, norms, rules, and standards with varying degrees of normativity, around which the expectations of international actors regarding efforts of states ‘to implement the principles and practices of democracy’ increasingly converge.
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