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

20 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2012 Last revised: 8 Aug 2012

Date Written: February 1, 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.

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

JEL Classification: K33

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:

Matthew J. Lister (Contact Author)

Deakin University School of Law ( email )

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Building BC, 6th Floor
Burwood, Victoria 3125


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