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There is No Human Right to Democracy: But May We Promote It Anyway?

Matthew J. Lister

University of Denver Sturm College of Law

February 1, 2012

Stanford Journal of International Law at 48.2 STAN. J. INT'L L, 257 (2012)

The idea of “promoting democracy” is one that goes in and out of favor. With the advent of the so-called “Arab Spring”, the idea of promoting democracy abroad has come up for discussion once again. Yet an important recent line of thinking about human rights, starting with John Rawls’s book The Law of Peoples, has held that there is no human right to democracy, and that nondemocratic states that respect human rights should be “beyond reproach” in the realm of international relations. This is, for obvious reasons, a controversial view, especially given the powerful and important arguments purporting to show that democracies do significantly better than nondemocracies in promoting internal peace and equality, and in engaging in peaceful international cooperation. Both proponents and opponents of the Rawlsian view of human rights have argued that the view implies that democracies may not “promote democracy” in nondemocratic societies. But, given that all parties to this dispute agree that democracy is necessary for justice, and given the important instrumental goods provided by democracy, the Rawlsian view has seemed deeply implausible to many.

In this paper I blunt this challenge to the Rawlsian view by showing how, even if there is no human right to democracy, we may still rightfully promote democracy in a number of ways and cases. Showing this requires investigation of what it means to “promote democracy”, and a more careful inspection of when various methods of promoting democracy are appropriate than has been done by most political theorists working on human rights. When we look carefully, we can see that in some instances acceptable forms of promoting democracy are compatible with the Rawlsian view of human rights, and that this view is therefore not vulnerable to the “instrumentalist” challenge. We also see how, if political philosophy is to be useful, it must be less abstract and look closely at actual cases.

This paper posted by permission of the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For information visit the Stanford University website.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 20

Keywords: Human Rights, Democracy, Rawls, Democracy Promotion, Intervention

JEL Classification: K33

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Date posted: February 7, 2012 ; Last revised: August 8, 2012

Suggested Citation

Lister, Matthew J., There is No Human Right to Democracy: But May We Promote It Anyway? (February 1, 2012). Stanford Journal of International Law at 48.2 STAN. J. INT'L L, 257 (2012). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2000224

Contact Information

Matthew J. Lister (Contact Author)
University of Denver Sturm College of Law ( email )
2255 E. Evans Avenue
Denver, CO 80208
United States
HOME PAGE: http://www.law.du.edu/index.php/profile/matthew-lister
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