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Judicial Interpretations of Democracy in Human Rights Treaties

Jure Vidmar

Keywords: human rights; democracy; political participation; elections; interpretation

Human rights treaties contain provisions for the so-called democratic rights. These provisions are textually almost identical in various regional and universal human rights treaties, yet courts and other judicial bodies have constructed diverse understandings of democracy through interpretation. The main questions that arise are whether human rights treaties require a multiparty political setting and how they accommodate limitations on the will of the people. This article analyses developments in the context of the ICCPR and the three regional systems. It demonstrates that human rights courts have clearly established a requirement for multiparty elections and have even attempted a more robust, substantive definition of democracy. However, a new problem has arisen in recent case law. The electoral process has become dominated by political parties and electoral systems have often proven to be unable to accommodate independent candidates. The result is that candidates wishing to run at elections may be forced to associate with others. The contemporary interpretation of human rights treaties does not necessarily provide for suitable avenues to take part in elections outside of the framework of party politics. If it was once questionable whether human rights treaties guarantee the right to associate in political parties, it now seems that parties have become too central in the exercise of the so-called democratic rights.

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