A rights-based approach to democracy

At the outset, it is important to highlight that democracy is an issue of degree, not something that you either have or do not have. In addition, the values and principles intrinsic to democracy have to be acknowledged. These principles include ‘popular control over public decision making and decision makers; and equality between citizens in the exercise of that control’ (IDEA 2005). The democratic quality of a government is determined by taking these values seriously in political practice. These issues are explored through the context of electoral politics in PNG.

Rights-based approach: A developmental perspective

A rights-based approach deliberately and explicitly focuses on people achieving the minimum conditions for living with dignity. It does so by exposing the root causes of vulnerability and marginalisation and expanding the range of responses. It empowers people to claim and exercise their rights and fulfil their responsibilities. A rights-based approach recognizes poor, displaced, and war-affected people as having inherent rights essential to livelihood security, rights that are validated by international laws. (CARE 2001, in Uvin 2004)

The above definition of a rights-based approach to development has important lessons for political life and in particular democratic governance. Addressing the root causes of vulnerability is a central concern in a rights-based approach (Uvin 2004: 135). This requires identifying the systemic and structural causes of vulnerability preventing people from meaningful participation and exercising free choice in voting for people who will represent their interests. A rights-based democracy means, in effect, recognising democracy as people-centred and as a representative, participatory and developmental process.

Analytical framework

The human rights community recognises two broad categories of rights (Uvin 2004; Heywood 2004): civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. In relation to civil and political rights, the important questions that must inform the discussion as well as the practice of democracy include:

  • Are civil and political rights guaranteed equally for all?
  • How effective and equal is the protection of the freedom of movement, expression, association and assembly?
  • How secure is the freedom for all to practise their own religion, language or culture?
  • How free from harassment are individuals and groups working to improve human rights? (IDEA 2005)

Economic, social and cultural rights encompass a range of special rights such as women’s rights, children’s rights and minority rights. This category accommodates the interests and needs of the vulnerable or marginalised, and they are given special consideration to overcome their relative disadvantage. The central purpose of a democratic system of government ought to be to serve the people and, in particular, how they can be empowered to participate in and benefit from processes of government.

Empirical reasons for a rights-based approach

Highlighted below are some observations that demonstrate the general disregard for rights in electoral politics and also provide a strong premise for a rights-based approach.

Does PNG enjoy free and fair elections? The highly competitive and volatile nature of elections in PNG is recognised widely by political commentators. Electoral contests are usually characterised by large numbers of competing candidates, averaging more than 20 candidates per electorate in 1997 and 2002 (May 2002; Okole and Kavanamur 2002). The 1992 national election signalled the beginning of violent elections in the Highlands. In his account of the Chimbu election in 1992, Bill Standish raised the first alarm relating to the harmful and destructive move ‘towards gunpoint democracy’. By 2002, ‘gunpoint democracy’ was well and truly established in electoral politics in the Highlands. Another commentator’s account of the 2002 election in Simbu reaffirms this point: ‘Many people were not able to cast a vote. They were deprived of their rights as citizens by the use of guns, money and pigs throughout Chimbu and the rest of the Highlands region’ (Dika 2003: 46). Lakane and Gibbs (2003: 109–13) also noted the widespread abuse of rights in the case of elections in Enga:

With so much at stake, voting becomes a matter of survival. Specific events of the 2002 election in Enga included hijacking of ballot boxes, the fire-bombing of ballot papers, shooting and killing …

The experience of the 2002 elections shows a political culture developing in Enga which is neither just nor democratic. It is a culture of violence and intimidation, with links to traditional means of waging war and establishing alliances, but with new kinds of tribalism and a new type of leader who has access to guns and the ability to open or obstruct access to money and resources. The stakes are high with large discretionary ‘electoral development funds’ available to Members of Parliament and access by governors to Provincial Government funds. Elections are a form of investment, with successful candidates rewarding their supporters and disregarding others …

Counting the cost of the last election, in money, soured relationships, and lives lost, people say that elections as experienced in 2002 are just not worth the trouble. For them, particularly the have-nots, it is not a question of money and miracles, but of poverty and a feeling of powerlessness.

Is political leadership determined through the exercise of democratic choice? To some extent, voters in PNG do exercise democratic choice in choosing their leaders. This is evidenced by the high turnover of MPs in all elections since 1977. In every election, two-thirds of sitting MPs have been voted out of office. However, in cases where guns, violence and intimidation are involved, as in most of the Highlands provinces, the choice of leadership is not democratic. Leadership choice is also gender-biased and discriminatory. The following testimony of a male voter’s preference of leader is a stark revelation of gender discrimination: ‘As much as I may want to vote for a woman candidate, the community and the tribe will despise or reject me, and even abandon me so I have to follow the way the community or tribe operates.’ One observer gave the following account: ‘During the 2002 national election in Enga, two women contested; one for the regional seat and the other for Wabag Open electorate. Most male candidates came out in public forums and said: “Women cannot climb a pandanus tree”.’ This metaphor means several things: women are not supposed to stand for election; women cannot win elections; and women cannot participate in politics and decision-making.