Direct Democracy and Human Rights as Partners

Parliaments and governments must listen closer to citizens and less to lobbyists of the military-industrial complex, transnational corporations and special interests. Ultimately, modern direct democracy is the best path for demanding and securing changes that will advance human rights for all, explains a top United Nations expert on democracy and human rights.

Alfred de Zayas was a senior lawyer with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Since 2012 has worked as the UN independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. He reports to the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly on matters such as self-determination, rule of law, tax justice and trade. Simon Bradley from our media hosting partner swissinfo.ch met him in Geneva for this interview.

Simon Bradley: Your latest report to the UN Human Rights Council rings alarm bells over the secretive mega international trade deals under negotiation with zero oversight from parliaments, such as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) or the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) or the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). How can such treaties and laws be made more democratic?

Alfred de Zayas: My opinion is that you have to go back to the drawing board. In view of the millions of people who have taken to the streets and continue to demonstrate, the politicians have to listen if they want to be considered democratic. The European Commission (EC) conducted an inquiry in 2014 in which 97% of the 150,000 participants said no to the asymmetrical investor-state dispute settlement mechanism. 3.3 million EU citizens wrote letters against TTIP, and the only answer from the EC was the rebranding exercise known as ICS, which is essentially a labelling scam.

Politicians and parliamentarians are not listening to the people nor to independent experts - but mostly to the corporate lobbyists. President Obama is trying to push through the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) and TTIP programmes and he remains oblivious to all the arguments of Nobel Laureates like Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and economic experts like Jeffrey Sachs. The opposition has developed momentum and I think the TTIP can be defeated. However, one can win many battles but still lose the war. Civil society must demand referendums in all countries concerned and remain vigilant right to the end.

Alfred de Zayas

Alfred de Zayas (31, May 1947-) is an American lawyer, writer and historian who is a leading expert in human rights and international law. He was appointed as the first Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order by the Human Rights Council, effective May 2012. He is currently professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. De Zayas practiced corporate law and family law in New York and Florida. As a Human Rights Council´s mandate holder, he is independent from any government or organization and serves in his individual capacity.

Mounting populism, low turnouts at the ballot box, influential lobbyists, a sound-bite culture where facts are drowned out. These are difficult times for democracy.

Why are we where we are right now? Because the established parties have ignored what the people want and have avoided acting in many situations thus creating a vacuum.

If you don’t address situations like immigration, unemployment, housing, education and think that the problems will go away, you create a vacuum and populists will comfortably go in and use it in ways contrary to human rights.

In Europe, the US and in other developed countries, the lobbies are wielding power, focused on short-term profit and ignoring the public interest. It is out of a sense of disenfranchisement that people move to extremist parties, as established parties are not doing their job. There is a failure in most European countries of listening to the people or proactively informing the people and consulting them to arrive at sound political solutions.

On International Day of Democracy, September 15, you called for more direct democracy worldwide. Why?

I called for more direct democracy but not for dealing with banal issues. Let’s not exhaust the constituents by asking them things that by common sense a parliamentarian could do.

Trade Deals

Mega trade treaties A number of mega-regional treaties are being negotiated or awaiting ratification, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). A new round of TTIP talks is due to start in October, and US President Barack Obama says he wants the deal to be concluded before he leaves office in January. However, there is opposition. Critics say the TTIP will lower European standards on food and environmental protection, and could lead to outsourcing and job-losses. Tens of thousands of people protested in cities across Germany recently against the TTIP. A similar but smaller trade deal between the EU and Canada, called the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), is due to be signed in October. The TPP, which was signed in February 2016, but awaiting ratification, aims to deepen economic ties between Pacific nations (the US, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru), slashing tariffs and fostering trade to boost growth. TISA is a proposed international trade treaty between 23 parties, including the EU and US, which is being negotiated secretly. It aims at liberalizing the worldwide trade of services such as banking, health care and transport. 

I prefer the idea of a modern representative democracy with strong elements of direct democracy, a system in which those things that really matter are subjected to public approval and discussion. This means things like TTIP and CETA, decisions on just taxation, on the sale of arms to countries engaged in gross violations of human rights.

I’m in favour of consulting the people, but I wouldn’t use the machinery of a referendum for everything. The downside of too many referendums is absenteeism. Say only 30% of the population vote on an issue. Is that really an expression of the people´s will?

Swiss direct democracy is often viewed as a model. What are its strengths?

The population has a sort of feeling of ownership. If they want, they can collect the necessary signatures to get a legislative initiative going. And if they dislike something the government has done they can collect 50,000 signatures and challenge it by referendum. This sense of participating and being taken seriously by government is worth a great deal and contributes to social peace. People don’t feel disenfranchised.

But the Swiss democratic system is not perfect. Switzerland has been criticised, for example, for its lack of national disclosure laws about who is behind the financing of parties and elections.

This is super important. In the US the Supreme Court came up with a horrendous decision six years ago [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission] that allows unlimited contributions to political parties or candidates. So the bottom line is you can actually buy an election.

There has to be full disclosure on who is giving money to parties and candidates and you need limitations so that you have a level playing field.