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  • Documents on Democracy

United Nations

The most prominent victim of the August 19 terrorist bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Iraq. This highly respected international civil servant from Brazil, who had a long and distinguished career serving in a variety of UN posts, was at the time of his death on leave from his regular position as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Below are excerpts from the Third Annual BP World Civilization Lecture, which he delivered in London on 11 November 2002, shortly after his appointment as High Commissioner:

I have made it clear that helping to foster the rule of law will be the overarching theme of my work as High Commissioner. The rule of law is the lynchpin of human rights protection; without it, respect for our dignity and for the equality and security of all human beings is meaningless. Human rights work, in other words, is not just about morals or politics, but about responsibilities, legal obligations and accountability. Through the framework of the rule of law, human rights provide individuals with recourse when decisions are made which may adversely affect them. They also provide a means by which to attempt to ensure that those adverse decisions or actions are not taken in the first place.

Rights aim to empower individuals by allowing us all to use them as leverage for action. They legitimize our voices, placing emphasis on the participation of individuals in decision making. They seek to avoid discrimination through their equal application to us all.

Effective human development can only be achieved where people are free to participate in the decisions that shape their lives. The free will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of their lives, is something that to me is axiomatic. It is, in short, inherently "civilizing." Democratic governance is based on the extension of civil and political rights: in particular the right to participate in political life. It is [End Page 183] basic form of organisation or political order whose underlying principle is a recognition of the equal dignity and worth of every human being. Democracy provides the most appropriate framework for the realization of human rights. By allowing a voice in political decisions, it is instrumental in enabling us to realize other rights.

I do not suggest that democracy is the solution to all problems. It is vital to recognize and address democracy's shortcomings: Democratic rule does not automatically correlate with respect for human rights, nor does its presence necessarily lead to economic and social development. The vast majority of democratic countries still limit important civil and political rights, and many often neglect economic and social rights, partly because this neglect is less obvious and does not hurt the electoral outcomes for those in power.


On May 25, Néstor Kirchner was sworn in as Argentina's new president. For more information on the presidential election, see Steven Levitsky and María Victoria Murillo's article on pp. 152-66 of this issue. Kirchner's inaugural speech is excerpted below.

The women and men of our fatherland, exercising their popular sovereignty, chose to progress decisively towards the new. Turning a new page of history has not been the work of one or several leaders. It has been, above all, a conscious and collective decision by Argentine citizens. The people have shown a strong preference for the future and change. The level of participation in the elections showed that, thinking differently and respecting diversity, the vast and total majority of Argentines want the same things. . . .

The central part of our plan is to rebuild national capitalism, which will generate alternatives that will allow us to restore upward social mobility. It is not a matter of shutting out the world, it is not a matter of reactionary nationalism, but of intelligence, observation, and commitment to the nation. . . . This is why it is necessary to promote active policies that will foster the country's development and economic growth, the creation of new jobs, and a better and fairer distribution of our revenues. You...