8 - “You, the People”: pro-democratic intervention in international law  pp. 259-292

“You, the People”: pro-democratic intervention in international law

By Michael Byers and Simon Chesterman

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What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy? I assert in all humility, but with all the strength at my command, that liberty and democracy become unholy when their hands are dyed red with innocent blood.

M. K. Gandhi


There is now a considerable literature on “the emerging right to democratic governance,” arguing in essence that the democratic entitlements spelt out in human rights treaties are at last achieving more than hortatory status. For the greater part of the twentieth century, the relatively small number of actual democracies and uncertainty as to the precise content of such a right precluded general endorsement of a principle of democracy. Moreover, as James Crawford argues, the manner in which classical international law conceptualized sovereignty and the State was deeply undemocratic, or at least capable of operating in deeply undemocratic ways.

In the course of the 1980s, however, democracy came to assume far greater importance: the number of States legally committed to open, multiparty, secret-ballot elections with universal franchise grew from about one-third in the mid-1980s to as many as two-thirds in 1991; new discourses in international law and international relations stressing democracy as a value emerged; and the international community showed a greater willingness to encourage or apply pressure upon a State to hold or recognize the results of elections, or take part in election-monitoring.