International Day of Democracy and its emergence

Today is the International Day of Democracy. Like other countries, Bangladesh is observing this Day with the global theme “Participation.”  As the theme suggests and indicates, this International Day of Democracy gives Bangladesh a unique and ideal opportunity to participate in such activities that defend and promote democracy. Moreover, in order to recall and respect democracy for people, Bangladesh has the opportunity to express her solidarity, unanimity and consensus with other global countries by celebrating the occasion with due fervor and solemnity.

The International Day of Democracy is observed to raise public and states’ awareness and consciousness about the emergence, need and importance of democracy for the citizens. The day aims to encourage the government to strengthen, reinforce, substantiate, confirm, consolidate, boost and bolster democracy for the people of the country, so that each and every person from all walks of life can enjoy, delight in and benefit from   democracy. The celebration of the Day for democracy gives a direct message that reminds the states of their duty and obligation to ensure safety, security and the fundamental rights of   their citizens. 

To strengthen and retain democracy in a sustainable condition, the United Nations Organization (UNO) believed that human fundamental rights and rule of law would be best protected and guarded in democratic societies. With this end in view and belief, the   UN General Assembly resolved and decided  on November 8, 2007 to make ‘September 15’ as the annual date to observe globally the International Day of Democracy. Thenceforward, many states and organizations around the globe held discussions, conferences, press conferences and other events, activities and progammes in order to cover the occasion and to  make people understand, comprehend and know the values, significance and emergence of democracy.

The link between democracy and human rights has been captured and shown in article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It  states, “ The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall 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.” Thus, UN initiated and orchestrated its remarkable and pioneering efforts to build, promote, support and defend democracy for the people.

The UN takes efforts to ensure and promote democracy in every state for the welfare and wellbeing of the citizens. Democracy literally means the rule of people in which the will of people is reflected and highlighted. Democracy is closely connected with fundamental human rights of the citizens. Without democracy, people cannot enjoy freedom of speech, movement, right to election and protection of law including all other fundamental and human rights. 

Democracy was defined about 25 hundred years ago by Herodotus. According to him, democracy is ‘that form of government in which the ruling power of the state is legally vested, not in any particular class, or classes, but in the members of the community as a whole.’ This definition still holds good. The most popular definition is given by Abraham Lincoln as, “The government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” However, the most practical definition is given by Sir Stafford Cripps He writes, “Democracy is a system of government in which every adult citizen is equally free to express his views and desires upon all subjects in whatever he wishes, and to influence the majority of his fellow citizens to decide according to those views, and to influence those desires.” 

From the definitions, it becomes clear and manifest that the citizens only of the democracy (democratic state) can enjoy fundamental and human rights. Moreover, democracy ensures respect for human rights, values of freedom, and principles of holding periodic and genuine election by universal suffrage. Democracy is the safeguard of human rights. This Day gives an opportunity to urge all government to respect their citizens’ rights to active, substantive and meaningful participation in democracy. True democracy ensures the rights and freedom of speech and expression.  Rights to join or quit an association, and rights to form political parties, are secure in true democracy.  It ensures rule of law which means every one must abide by law and none is above law.  Every one irrespective of rank and status is equal in the eye of law. There shall be the independent judiciary where people will get justice.

In a democratic country, there remains a very strong opposition political party. People can enjoy individual liberty, and can move and speak freely and uninterruptedly. They can participate in decision-making and selection for representatives. They can hold election or vote for the election.  Democracy makes sure the political participation and opposes any special political privileges for any class. It secures and emphasizes the idea of rule by the majority and the law as conforming to public opinion.  

The form of democracy that we find today did not occur overnight. Democracy took the present shape through a long process of change and modification. Its early origin was traced in ancient Greece and from there it began to develop as early as 500’s BC. Greek political thinkers stressed the ideas of rule by law. They criticized dictatorship as the worst form of government. Athens and some other states had democratic government. Athenian democracy was a direct democracy rather than a reprehensive one. While Roman political thinkers taught that political power came from the consent of the people. Roman statesman Cicero suggested that people had natural rights which every state must respect.

In the Middle Ages, Christianity taught that everyone is equal before God. This teaching promoted the ideal of goodwill among people. During the Middle Ages produced a social system known as feudalism. A feudal court system was established to protect individual certain rights.

Democracy in Britain further developed when the English nobles in 1215 forced King John to approve the Magna Carta. This historic document became a symbol of human liberty. It was used to support later demands for trial for jury, protection against unlawful arrest, and no taxation without representation.

American democracy took root in traditions brought to North America by the first English colonists. The Pilgrims, who settled in Massachusetts in 1620, joined in signing the Mayflower Compact to obey “just and equal laws.” The colonists wanted self-government and no taxation without representation. The Declaration of independence, adopted by the Continental Congress in 1776, is a classic document of democracy. From there we reached modern democracy gradually.

Modern democracy has some features and characteristics.  These features and characteristic may vary from country to country. Some of the modern characteristics are:

Free election:  Free election gives the people a chance to choose their leaders and express their opinions on issues. Elections are held periodically to ensure that governments, both national and local, truly represent the people. The democratic process permits citizens to vote by secret ballots, free from force or bribes.

Majority rule and minority rights: In a democracy, a majority of voters must often approve a decision before it may take effect. This principle called majority rule, may be used to elect officials or decide a policy. Democracy is practically concerned with protecting individual liberty and preventing government from infringing the freedoms of individuals.

Democracy cannot run, work and function without necessary political parties which are the parts and parcels of democratic government. Rival parties make election meaningful by giving voters a choice among candidates who represent different interest points of view. Democratic government is based on law and in most case, a written constitution. An essential characteristic of a democratic government is an independent judiciary. It is the duty of the justice system to protect the integrity of the “rules” and the rights of individuals under these rules, especially against the government itself.

Bangladesh is a democracy. Her Constitution guarantees the basic fundamental rights of the people. The Constitution enshrines and states:  “ The Republic  shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity  and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed in which effective participation by the people through their elective representatives in administration at all levels shall be ensured]” article 11. In addition, some other articles of the Constitution state:  Equality before law art 27. No discrimination on grounds of religion art 28.  Equality of opportunity in public employment art 29.  Right to protection of law art 31. Protection of right to life and personal liberty art 32. Safeguard as to arrest and detention art 33. Prohibition of forced labor art. 34. Protection in respect of trial and punishment art 35. Freedom of movement art 36. Freedom of assembly art 37. Freedom of association art 38. Freedom of thought and conscience, and of speech art 39. Freedom of profession or occupation art 40. Freedom of religion art 41, and so on.

In fine, we may say that the celebration of the International Day of Democracy strengthens and promotes human fundamental rights of the citizens.  This Day of International Demoracy globally makes the states and people aware of their rights. The observance of the Day encourages and heartens citizens for widespread participation in state activities. Democracy also heartens people to have education because education is needed to understand democracy. “The essence of democracy is the right to dissent.”—Nan (Vijay Lakshmi) Pandit. In addition, “Democracy without education is hypocrisy without limitation.”—Iskander Mirza. Therefore, education is crucial and vital for understanding democracy. From the discussion and elaboration, we may finally arrive at the conclusion that democracy is essentially needed to safeguard and ensure the fundamental and human rights of citizens. It is the responsibility of the state to create democratic situation and environment in the state for the betterment of its citizens. 

Md Matiur Rahman Khan  is a former Joint Secretary to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and regular contributor to Bangladesh Post