Human Rights and Elections

By: Sr. Marianne Sennick | Main Representative for the Congregations of St. Joseph’s NGO

There are two international foundations of humanitarian law which form the basis for the right to hold free and fair elections. When the United Nations adopted its Charter on October 24, 1945, the member states quickly initiated the process to create a Declaration of Human Rights to accompany the Charter. The Universal Declaration was adopted on 10 December 1948. Two other documents were adopted in 1966: the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Together they are the pillars of International Bill of Human Rights.

The two documents that describe the related rights of voting and elections are:

Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his or her country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

…The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 2 of the Internal Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR): Each state [country] party to the covenant undertakes to respect and ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Charter without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 25 of ICCPR: Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions…to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. The ICCPR provided for the creation of a human rights committee of independent reviewers which is empowered to evaluate compliance with the Convention.

The UN Human Rights Committee has expanded on the meaning of Article 25 with the following explanations:

  • 1. the ICCPR recognizes and protects the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs, the right to vote….
  • 3. …No distinctions are permitted between citizens in the enjoyment of these rights on the grounds of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or status….
  • 5. The exercise of these rights may not be suspended or excluded except on grounds which are established by law, and which are objectionable and reasonable
  • 11. States (countries) must take effective measures to ensure that all persons entitled to vote are able to exercise that right. To such requirements should not be imposed. If registration of voters is required, it should be facilitated, and obstacles should not be created and if exists must be removed.
  • 12. …Positive measures should be taken to overcome specific difficulties, such as illiteracy, language barriers, poverty, or impediments to freedom of movement which prevent persons from exercising their vote.

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and SDG #16 are other UN norms to ensure the right to vote and election integrity:

UPR is a Process of the UN Human Rights Council in which UN Member States review a country’s compliance with protecting its citizens’ human rights The UPR was created in 2006 when the UN Human Rights Council was created to replace the UN Human Rights Commission. The UPR provides an opportunity   to ensure that all persons are entitled to vote  and are able to exercise that right.  States must declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries.” Countries are reviewed by the 47 member states of the UN Human Rights Commission in different cycles, (usually every five years). NGOs can attend the sessions and can submit reports and make statements.

2030 Agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals SDG #16:

Provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Target 7 of SDG 16 ensures responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels,

According to Article VI of the US Constitution, “This Constitution and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof, and all Treaties made or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the Supreme Law of the Land and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” The US has failed to create domestic law for compliance with the standards of the treaty. When a country state ratifies a Convent US Senate ratified the ICCPR in 1992., It also provided a statement of reservation regarding the first 27 articles including those regarding voting and elections. It stated   that the ratification is not self-executing, meaning that unless Congress passes specific laws to carry out the treaty it is not obligated to comply.

In 2015, the Carter Center and the UN High Commission of Human Rights came together with election officials as well as representatives of UN member states to create a Plan of Action for voting and elections which underscore the foundation of democracy.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and President Jimmy Carter, announced their Plan of Action: “Respect for human rights is a legal obligation for all states (countries), it underpins the legitimacy of governments and political leaders. It builds states that are strong and secure because they are respectful of their people.” In 2017, the Human Rights and Election Standards Plan of Action was adopted by the UN. The U.S. has not utilized the Plan of Action.

(Note: UN documents were used as source material for this article. The featured photo is from the UN. Denise Brown, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, visits voting centers in two constituencies of Bangui’s 3rd district during the second round of legislative elections in the Central African Republic. She was accompanied by Force Commander of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), Daniel Sidiki Traoré, as well as the Director of the Mission’s Electoral Assistance Division and the President of the National Elections Authority (ANE). The first round of legislative elections was cancelled in the two constituencies owing to technical problems.)