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Your vote your right: the foundations of the right to vote in international law

2024 is a record-breaking electoral year with citizens from 64 countries around the globe casting their ballots this year. This includes the European Parliament elections taking place from 6 to 9 June, which will shape the EU for the next 5 years. Yet as a record number of people heading to the polls, these elections are taking place against a backdrop of global democratic decline, shrinking civic space and disinformation, with serious implications for human rights.

On 06 Jun 2024

International law and the right to vote

Participation in public affairs is more than just a right; it is an essential element of democratic governance. It enables individuals to express their will, thereby contributing to the consolidation of sustainable democracies. This includes rights to equality and non-discrimination, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, security, and an effective remedy.

The right to vote is protected by international human rights law such as Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaty provisions, notably Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Participation rights may only be subject to limitations that are established by law, are non-discriminatory and are based on objective and reasonable criteria. The right to vote may be subject only to reasonable restrictions, such as setting a minimum age limit. The Human Rights Committee has clarified these criteria in its General Comment No. 25 (1996).

Discriminatory limitations include but are not limited to economic requirements, such as those based on ownership of property; excessive residency requirements; restrictions on the right to vote for naturalized citizens (as opposed to citizens by birth); literacy or educational requirements; and excessive restrictions on the voting rights of convicted prisoners. Participatory rights are not to be unduly limited on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status. Other universal human rights instruments protect the right to vote and the participation of marginalized population groups such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (arts. 7–8) and theInternational Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (art. 5 (c)). Regional human rights systems, including the African, Inter-American, and European systems, have also recognized this right such as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (art. 39).

Challenges to participation

Elections provide people with the opportunity to freely express their will and exercise their right to participate in public affairs. However, elections can also exacerbate existing tensions in societies, particularly at times of complex transformations and crises, including climate change, rising inequalities and armed conflict, leading to a higher risk of human rights violations. Today, the right to vote faces new challenges, including disinformation campaigns, often facilitated by new technologies and particularly through social media, hate speech and negative discourse targeting marginalised and discriminated-against groups, including LGBTQI+ people, migrants and ethnic and religious minorities, have been weaponised for political gain, further polarising societies.

UN experts on strengthening democracy and human rights have stressed that “States must ensure free and fair elections, fully respecting and upholding their human rights obligations throughout the electoral process. Creating a safe and enabling environment for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association is essential for fostering participation and ensuring inclusive and credible elections with results reflecting the will of the people […]”

OHCHR and the right to vote

To address those challenges, over the years, the United Nations has developed international norms and standards relating to elections and political participation. Independent and expert mechanisms such as treaty bodies and special procedures of the Human Rights Council have played a key role in interpreting these norms and standards. Their monitoring, decisions, and recommendations have helped to clarify the applicable human rights norms and standards in various aspects of electoral processes.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights plays a critical role in promoting and protecting the right to vote. The Office strives to ensure that elections meet international human rights standards and that they are held in an environment in which everyone can exercise their fundamental rights.

The Office engages in comprehensive human rights work throughout the various phases of the electoral cycle. This includes monitoring and reporting on human rights violations before, during and after elections; advocating for peaceful elections; training national human rights institutions, civil society and media on key human rights issues around voting; providing technical assistance to bring national electoral laws in line with human rights; raising awareness of equal participation of marginalized groups, including women, youth, minorities, LGBTIQ+, Indigenous Peoples and persons with disabilities; and supporting human rights mechanisms.

OHCHR also supports other independent mechanisms in their research and reporting, for example the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’s report on freedom of expression in electoral processes (A/HRC/26/30) and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association’s report on freedom of assembly and association in the context of elections (A/68/299).

In response to these challenges, the United Nations has undertaken various measures. The organization is actively working to combat disinformation to uphold human rights and foster democracy. This commitment is evident in the UN Secretary-General's 2022 report (A/77/287) which outlines disinformation trends and counter strategies.

“Elections are a litmus test of civic space and of effective governance. States and societies cannot afford to fail this test.” - VOLKER TÜRK, UN HUMAN RIGHTS CHIEF

Voting is a right but also a responsibility. Let us all participate in the democratic process and exercise our right to vote!

Key resources:

- OHCHR and elections and human rights

- OHCHR Human rights and elections handbook (2021)

- 2024 EU elections website * (External link)

*This article does not reflect the views of OHCHR.