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What is the right to political participation?

The right to political participation is a well-established principle of international human rights law and operative at both regional and national levels. It is a fundamental right that also facilitates the enjoyment of other human rights.

This right encompasses the right to vote and the right to be elected. However, it goes beyond formal democratic processes like participation in an election and includes broader participation, such as participation in decision-making on law and policy as well as participation in development and humanitarian assistance.

It was first set out in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and further elaborated in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees to all citizens the right and the opportunity, without unreasonable restrictions, to:

-take part in the conduct of public affairs directly or through freely chosen representatives;

-to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections; and

-to have equal access to public service. Every individual has the right to participate in politics and all other related activities.

1

What are the forms of the right to political participation?

Political participation includes all forms of actions taken by a person or group of persons to either express their opinions or influence a political process, decision, or government of their nation.

These forms of action or activities may range from campaigning to drive an agenda at the local, regional, or national level, trying to take part in shaping the decisions that affect their lives either through available spaces for engagement or the processes of formal politics which include but not limited to; joining a political party, voting, or standing for elections.

Everyone takes part in political activities at various points of their lives in one form or the other even without knowing it. The most common forms include:

  • Voting desired candidate during election,
  • Standing for elections,
  • Writing/Blogging about a political issue,
  • Volunteering for a campaign,
  • Volunteering to support an initiative,
  • Public consultations (meetings with politicians/ elected officials to make ones’ opinion known),
  • Leading or joining an activist or interest group,
  • Engaging in citizen’s action like protest, boycotts,
  • Holding a public office,
  • Signing a petition,
  • Donating to a cause/ campaign,
  • Writing a letter to a public official/ representative,
  • Joining or creating a political party.

The broad range of the various forms of rights to political participation come in different ways as long as it involves ordinary citizens expressing their opinions by contributing to the political process.

2

What are the reasons for the enforcement of the right to political participation?

The right to political participation is first a fundamental human right that enjoys the features of universality, inalienability, and interdependence.

The right to political participation is central in a democracy because democracy is a system of ‘leadership by the people’. In addition, democratic and socio-economic development requires citizen participation to drive change and ensure accountable government.

Without active citizen involvement in political life, public officials may be unresponsive to their constituents and the basic rights and freedoms of democracy can go unrealized. Reasons for the enforcement of the right to political participation also includes:

  • To protect or promote Individual-interest or communal/collective interest): enforcing these rights may be to promote issues or a particular cause that profits the individual, a collective of people or community at large.
  • To fulfil a Civic Responsibility: as a democratic citizen, it is our responsibility to enforce and promote active rights of political participation.
  • To address a breach/abuse or violation of right or a grievance: the right to political participation empowers citizens with certain autonomy to take certain actions, a breach or abuse of such right or grievances arising from a perceived breach of the right is sufficient reason to seek redress.
  • Civic activism; strong belief in a particular cause for a greater good, makes one enforce the rights to political participation.
3

What are other rights in relation to rights to political participation?

The right to participate in political and public life is interrelated, interdependent and indivisible with other rights.  This means that violations of the right to participate in political and public activities can lead to violations of the enjoyment of other human rights and vice versa. These rights are:

The right to freedom of association: Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular, he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests. This is the right of an individual, to join or create any group, formal or informal, in order to take collective actions. These associations may include clubs, civil society organizations, religious associations, political parties, trade unions, foundations, etc.

For more on the right to freedom of association, see the guide on freedom of association.

The right to freedom of expression: Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. This is the right of an individual to carry out critical analysis and voice out for or against state and non-state policies and to conduct advocacy to express and promote shared concerns in public.

For more on the right to freedom of expression, see the guide on freedom of expression.

The right to freedom of assembly: This is the right of citizens to gather publicly or privately, to collectively promote, express and pursue a common interest. This could be in form of demonstrations, meetings, sit-ins and strikes.

For more on the right to freedom of assembly, see the guide on the freedom of assembly.

The right to freedom of information: This right allows citizens access to government documents. An applicant is able to access or request for any information in the possession of any public official, agency, or institution, whether or not such information is contained in any written form. The FOI Act gives the right to institute proceedings in the court of law to compel any public institution to comply with the provisions of this Act. This Act promotes accountability, transparency, and allows individuals test the commitment of the government to accountability and good government.

Freedom of Information allows citizen the following:

  • They are able to see what information government holds about them, and seek correction of that information if they consider it wrong or misleading;
  • It enhances the transparency of policy making, administrative decision making and government service delivery;
  • It keeps the community informed, thereby promoting effective participation in the nation’s democratic processes.
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