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  • Special Document
  • Roland Rich

United Nations

On 11 September 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a "Guidance Note on Democracy." Extensive excerpts appear below, preceded by an introduction by Roland Rich, head of the United Nations Democracy Fund, that briefly describes the character and significance of this document:

While the "Guidance Note on Democracy" is an internal document of the United Nations Secretariat intended to guide UN officials in the conduct of their work, it is also a public document, and the Secretary-General is deeply conscious of its potential normative impact. The "Guidance Note" recognizes that the Charter of the United Nations does not contain the word "democracy," but argues in favor of the instrumental indispensability of democracy, which is "ultimately a means to achieve international peace and security, economic and social progress and development, and respect for human rights—the three pillars of the United Nations mission as set forth in the Charter." It recalls the conclusion of the 2005 World Summit—the largest gathering of heads of state and government held to date—that "democracy, development and respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing." And it recognizes the context of the controversy surrounding democracy promotion in recent years by stating that "given the intensive debate surrounding democracy assistance, it is more important than ever to find an effective and acceptable universal framework for conducting such support."

The full document may be found at, but for reasons of space only excerpts can be presented here. Sections I, II, and V are included in full, but only brief selections from Sections III and IV. In the full document, each of the "Guiding Principles" listed in Section III and each of the "Areas of UN Focus" listed under Section IV is followed by one or more paragraphs of elaboration.

The Secretary-General's "Guidance Note on Democracy" is a forthright document that deals with some of the more difficult issues faced by the international community with regard to the democratization process. It does not privilege the role of government, but sees it as part of a broader process. It does not shy away from some of the more contentious issues, such as the need for a multiparty system. It does not adopt the facile view that threats to democracy are chiefly external, but rather identifies such internal factors as bad governance, abuses of state power, and endemic corruption as more pressing problems. It does not accept cultural relativism, but rather aims at local ownership within [End Page 182] the context of internationally agreed norms and principles. It gives a central place to the rule of law. It views democratization as part of the ongoing process of self-determination. It carves out a critical role for civil society and the media.

Many UN delegates have made the point that it would not have been possible for member states to have reached consensus on a document of this kind. It took the leadership of the Secretary-General to adopt this principled stance. It is now up to the UN staff to implement this Guidance Note in its work around the world.

I. Introduction: At the World Summit in 2005, as in the Millennium Declaration in 2000, Member States of the United Nations (UN) recommitted themselves to protecting and promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy, recognizing that they are interlinked and mutually reinforcing and that they belong to the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations. This commitment was reiterated by Member States in 2007 in General Assembly resolution A/RES/62/7.

The majority of States in the world today describe themselves as democratic. However, democracy is a dynamic social and political system whose ideal functioning is never fully "achieved." Democratization, furthermore, is neither linear nor irreversible and thus both state institutions and citizens must monitor and maintain oversight of this process. Accordingly, all countries, as well as the international community itself, could benefit from continued strengthening of, and support to, their democratic processes.

In the twenty-first century, we continue to be confronted with the...


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