The following was published on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Web site in recognition of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2012. The focus of the 2012 Human Rights Day was “Inclusion and the Right to Participate in Public Life.” Social inclusion and public participation extends far beyond exercising one’s right to vote in elections. It entails having access to and being heard in a range of public settings, often at the community level. Everyday Democracy (www.everydaydemocracy.org) is an example of a group that seeks to foster such inclusive participation in community life. While in the United States this is often cast as civic engagement, it is directly linked to the right participate in public life as a human right. Read the following statement excerpted from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights briefing on the 2012 Human Rights Day and discuss the questions that follow.
Everybody has the right to have their voice heard and to have a role in making the decisions that shape their communities. Each one of us should be able to choose those people who will represent us in all governance institutions, to stand for public office, and to vote on the fundamental questions that shape our individual and collective destinies.
The return on that investment is a society tuned to the needs and aspirations of its constituents. Where this fundamental right is respected, each and every one of us is offered the opportunity to join in the debate, to offer ideas, to campaign for change—to participate.
Fulfillment of the right to participate in public life is fundamental to the functioning of a democratic society and an effective human rights protection system. Inclusion of ALL in decision-making processes is an essential precondition to the achievement of both.
Millions of people have gone onto the streets in the past few years to have their say, to protest the unyielding, unresponsive governments which have shut them out. They have demanded and continue demanding respect for their fundamental human rights, including their right to have a voice and for that voice to count.
Elsewhere, many remain silent, unable to take any part in the public lives of their communities. Often they cannot stand for office, vote for public officials or in referenda: at times they are prohibited from expressing their views at all.
Women, people with disabilities, individuals belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples, the poor, those with little or no education, remote rural communities, continue to be disenfranchised in many places, sometimes even prohibited from participation in public life or excluded on the basis of discriminatory laws or practices or because there is no appropriate infrastructure which would facilitate their inclusion.
The focus of this year’s Human Rights Day refers directly to the articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provide for the right to freedom of assembly and association, the right to take part in elections, in public life and decision-making institutions and the right to freedom of expression and opinion.
These values, endorsed by the international community, are legally binding obligations upon the 167 States Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which stipulates that the right to participate in the conduct of public affairs applies to “every citizen without exception.”
In the face of the extraordinary contemporary challenges for democracy, climate change, globalization, the on-going economic and financial crises in many countries, and the explosion of global Web-based communication, among others, participation and inclusion are critical in the development and implementation of durable, workable policy solutions.
Your voice, your right. Your voice counts ….
(Excerpted from: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Day2012/Pages/HRDay2012Intro.aspx).
Questions for Discussion
What does meaningful participation in community and public life mean?
What barriers exist for low income or other marginalized groups to participate in local, state, or national decision-making processes?
Is participation in governance and decision-making a human right? Why or why not?
What are some examples of effective participation by low income or marginalized individuals and groups?