Human Rights and Democracy

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Governments across the globe provide basic rights, laws and freedoms for the citizens of their countries to live by. These rights and freedoms vary from country to country with some countries being granted more freedoms than others. Democratic countries are known for granting their citizens a vast amount of freedoms and rights. Research has shown that the more democratic a country is the less likely they are to suffer from human rights violations. However, human rights violations still occur in democracies, especially during times of protest and civil unrest.

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So the question remains, what factors contribute to violent protests and human rights violations in democratic countries? Even though democratic countries are less likely to suffer from human rights violations, factors such as political condition, international pressure as well as population can all play a role in contributing to violations.

It is thought that once a country becomes a democracy the ability to violate human rights would be reduced. This can be assumed due to the fact that the constituents of that country can remove the political leaders who impose this type of repression. However, this is not always the case. Helen Fein discovered the concept of “more murder in the middle” which finds that the degree of democracy held by the political system directly correlates with the amount of human rights violations. Fein’s study found that “Transitional democracies are more prone to repression than stable democracies and even stable autocracies.” (Fein pg.18) Thus meaning that the more democratic a country is the less likely they are to violate human rights. There are a few different explanations behind this finding. With a stable democracy, politicians are voted in by the constituents of that particular country. If their rights are being repressed the constituents are willing to fight back and remove the leaders from office. Political leaders fear this therefore they support strong human rights protections. While on the other hand countries who are not free, autocracies, are prone to human rights violations. However the citizens of these countries cannot fight back because there is no legal system set in place.

Therefore inferring that the countries in the middle of the spectrum abuse human rights far more frequently than any other country. There are a few different arguments of why this occurs. One argument is that the democracy effect takes years to transpire. The countries that are stuck in the “middle” are countries who were once autocracies and have not had the proper time to stabilize. Researcher Youngsoo Yu argues that these political systems have been deep-rooted in violence for many years which makes it almost impossible to carry out proper human rights protections when the whole system of government is flawed with the horrors of the past governmental system. In order for more accountability, the political system and more specifically the political leaders must be overturned in order to instill the change that is needed. (Youngsoo Yu 417) Economy is another area that connects to the “more murder in the middle” theory. A study conducted by Samuel Huntington, found that “Wealthier nations tend to be more stable than those less wealthy, but the poorest nations, those at the bottom of the international economic ladder, tend to be less prone to violence and instability than those countries just above them.” (Huntington 1996) Huntington argues that the “people who are really poor are too poor for politics and too poor for protest.” Individuals of these poor countries do not have enough resources to fight against this type of repression. While on the other hand, countries who are considerably wealthy have a great number of political involvement which results in more protections of human rights. The freer a country is the more economic growth they have. When a country is economically sustainable access to prosperity becomes more available. A stable economy empowers political leaders which in return ensures that human rights are protected. Countries in the middle are stuck at a crossfire. In most instances, the countries that are stuck in the middle do not have the necessary resources needed in order to protect their rights freely. Government funds are often allocated to what is viewed as the more important issues therefore leaving human rights protections on the backburner. The allocation of funds and what takes priority often sparks controversy. Unlike the poorer countries, the countries in the middle often have the resources needed to protest. This is when things can become out of hand. Often times when the government tries to handle the protestors the repression is just furthered instead of terminated.

The compelling difference between a stable democracy and semi stable democracies (states in the middle) is the role that is taken when pertaining to the response of threats. In Davenports study, he argued that “states with different regime types respond differently to the threats they face.” (Davenport 1995) It was found that democracies were less repressive due to feeling less threatened than non-stable democracies. States in the middle recognize protests as a symbol of anti-government activity that directly threatens the sitting administration. When legislation is passed in a strong democracy like the United States for instance, citizens have the right to freely protest. The American government will not try to restrict this freedom unless protestors are causing harm to others or themselves. Strong democracies do not look at protests as a threat to the government, but instead as a way for citizens to participate in government and let their voice be heard. While, countries in the middle often do not have the luxury of protesting freely. Governments in the middle tend to increase their repression during times of enacting new legislation. “Political authorities increase their use of state repression when they are either trying to create or expand upon specific (political, economic, and cultural) practices and/or beliefs or when they are trying to defend these practices and/or beliefs from some challenge.” (Davenport & Armstrong 539) Protests can become out of control and become violent rather quickly. The administration often likes to suppress the protest as quickly as possible so that it does not seem that anyone disagrees with their decisions. Once these protest become out of hand, the government will do anything in their power to stop them even if that means repressing people’s rights. “Authorities are likely to increase their use of repressive action in an effort to establish and maintain control over the population.” (Regan & Henderson 133) Most of the time when this instance occurs, it tends to worsen the problem instead of terminating it. It is argued that governments repress their citizens in times of protest on the ground of protecting national security.

There are arguments claiming that international pressure has a positive impact resulting in less human rights violations. However on the other hand, arguments have been made proving this to not be the case. In 1948, the United Nations adopted a document known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which entitles all human beings basic rights and freedoms. In 2006, the United Nations created group known as the Human Rights Council. Their mission is to promote and create human rights while promoting the UDHR throughout the world. This council initiates treaties that encourage governments to not violate their citizen’s human rights. Most powerful democracies respect these treaties and sign them because more than likely they are not abusing these rights anyway. However, countries who are less democratic might be violating the rights that the treaty is promoting in the first place. Therefore, they will often not sign it. In this instance, the countries in the middle then begin to feel pressure from the more powerful countries to sign the treaty. A study conducted by Sonia Cardenas argues that it depends on the countries vulnerability if they are willing to sign the treaty. “In the case of human rights a target state’s vulnerability is the most important factor explaining the impact of international pressure.” (Cardenas 218) If a state has nothing to lose more than likely they will not sign. However, if a powerful ally is pressuring them to sign then they have a lot on the line. Most of the time the target state will not want to upset powerful countries because it could be detrimental to them therefore they will sign the treaty to keep the peace. However, it is found that just because a treaty is signed does not mean the rights enlisted in that treaty are enforced. Cardenas found in her study that “human rights violations arise when the conditions supporting compliance are absent or weak, that is when international norms are ambiguous, states lack the resources to comply or certain economic and social prerequisites are missing.” (Cardenas 218) Thus states violate the treaty out of choice or due to the incapacity they have to instill these rights.

The UN Security Council has the power to refer situations to the International Criminal Court which is an organization that has the ability to prosecute individuals who partake in international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Therefore even if leaders choose not to sign a treaty and continue to violate human rights, they can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Unfortunately, this does not always deter leaders from continuing to abuse their power. Many leaders refuse to even recognize the ICC as a real criminal court. They are also willing to take their chances in not being caught. The ICC has taken on very few cases, and have only prosecuted a few people. Therefore, leaders will continue to abuse their citizen’s rights until they are forced to stop or removed from power. Furthermore, leaders from the states that are stuck in the “middle” believe that since they have the title of ‘democracy’ that they are free from any type of prosecution. Which is not always the case.

In conclusion, studies have proven that states of all regime types abuse human rights. To recap, the amount of human rights violations directly correlate to how democratic a country is. The more democratic a country is the less likely they are to abuse rights. The less democratic a country is the more likely they are to abuse rights. Countries that are in the middle of the democratic scale are most likely to commit human rights violations. Other factors such as economy, political structure/history as well as international pressure can also play a role in how much states abuse human rights. The wealthier a country is the less likely they are to commit abuse. The poorer the country is the most likely they are to commit abuse. However, research has proven that countries in the middle of the economic spectrum commit the most abuse due to factors such as not having the sufficient time needed to stabilize as well as the political past of the country.

Nicaragua has long suffered from civil unrest, rigged elections, and human rights violations. To understand where Nicaragua stands today, their historical past must first be examined. Nicaragua is a country located in the southern portion of Central America. Nicaragua was founded by British colonials, but was soon taken over by Spanish rule. For about 200 years Nicaragua was under autocratic rule until 1821 when independence was finally achieved. However, democracy would not be instated until at least 100 years later. The first few years of independence were rather rocky for the Nicaraguan people. Power switched between conservative and liberal regimes which caused heavy tension. A new capital was then erected in hopes of keeping the peace, however tensions continued to rise. An American then came to power as Nicaragua’s president in hopes of stabilizing the county, but he was quickly removed from power. Following the American rule, the conservatives took office and remained in power for the next thirty years. Coups then began to bring disorder back to the government. A few years later the United States intervened in hopes of overthrowing an anti-American leader. The United States then stayed in Nicaragua for the next twenty years in hopes of keeping the peace.

During the time of American presence, Nicaragua began to instill democratic practices. Shortly after American forces left, an election was held. The election was rigged for dictator Somoza to win. For the next two decades Somoza wreaked havoc on the people of Nicaragua, clearly violating many human rights. He assassinated people who did not agree with him as well as implemented policies that repressed citizens. Even after his death, the Somoza family continued to rule Nicaragua for about forty years. After a crackdown on civil liberties, the people of Nicaragua had finally had enough. A rise of a group known as the Sandinista’s became to rebel against the government. Eventually, the Sandinistas overthrew the government. After the Contra War the government of Nicaragua agreed to have fair and free elections. Violetta Barrios was the first president fairly elected and it was a step in the right direction for Nicaragua. In 2007, Daniel Ortega was elected to power and is still ruling today. Even though Nicaragua is a democracy, civil unrest, violent protest and abuse of power still occurs today. Ortega continues to change the constitution in order to continue to remain in power, which is not an aspect of democracy.

This political background along with their economy sets Nicaragua up to be the perfect example of “more murder in the middle.” As their past has shown, Nicaragua has long struggled with human rights violations, however in more recent months these violations began to resurface. In April of 2018, forest fires were ranging in the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve area. Ortega refused to handle the fires, and then two days later he “introduced plans to cut pensions and social security, including decreasing pension payments by five percent and increasing worker social contributions by 0.75 percent. The change also increased employer contributions by 3.5 percent.” (Al Jazeera) This sparked protest mainly led by college students. A few days later, the Sandinista Liberation Front launched counter protests to show support of Ortega. The government then began to crack down on the protests. Several protesters were killed along with a police officer and journalist who was reporting via Facebook live at the time of his death. After this incident the government then began to censor all forms of media, preventing many news outlets from reporting on air. Roadblocks were set up to prevent protestors from certain areas. Protestors fought back with roadblocks, in an attempt to keep the government and police out of their villages. Businesses were shut down, waterlines and powerlines were also being interfered with. Two days later, Ortega announced that he would remove the plan to cut pensions which sparked this unrest.

Unfortunately, this did not seem to calm the protestors. Nicaraguans were tired of Ortega’s reign and abuse of power so they continued to protest, demanding he step down. Over the next few months protestors’ rights continued to be violated. Peaceful protestors were being attacked by pro-government individuals. While police officers used excessive force to try and stop demonstrators. According to a Human Rights Watch interview, “Witnesses and victims said that riot police officers fired rubber bullets and teargas at protesters who were demonstrating peacefully on the streets, as well as in front of universities and churches. They also said that pro-government groups violently dispersed peaceful protests by punching and kicking them and using blunt instruments to beat demonstrators and journalists covering the protests.” (Human Rights Watch) The UN Security Council called for the government “to protect the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.” (Human Rights Watch) Human rights organizations all over the world called for Nicaragua to halt their abuse. Unfortunately protest and abuse continued for the next few months, finally slowing down in early August. Ortega continues to rule today.

Nicaragua is a perfect example of the “more murder in the middle” concept. Their political past of civil unrest and autocratic rule gave them the foundation needed for a future of human rights violations. The Nicaraguan government was never fully overthrown and started new therefore their administration was still deeply rooted in violence. The economy was never able to fully stabilize because during the time of the Somoza reign, whatever the government did not own the Somoza family did. This caused for an economic decline. Having a strong democratic presence in the country proved to have positive aspects, however did not prevent human rights violations from occurring. Nicaragua has signed many treaties that the United Nations has promoted regarding human rights abuses, however hardly any of these treaties have actually been implemented. Thus confirming the argument that signing treaties does not always mean establishing better human rights in less democratic countries. To conclude, Nicaragua is a country that is stuck in the “middle.” Over the next few years we will continue to see events unfold that prove the theories that have been addressed in this paper to be true.

Works Cited

Al Jazeera. “Nicaragua Unrest: What You Should Know.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 17 July 2018,

Cardenas, Sonia. “Norm Collision: Explaining the Effects of International Human Rights Pressure on State Behavior.” International Studies Review, vol. 6, no. 2, 2004, pp. 213–231. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Davenport, Christian, and David A. Armstrong. “Democracy and the Violation of Human Rights: A Statistical Analysis from 1976 to 1996.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 48, no. 3, 2004, pp. 538–554. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Davenport, Christian. “Multi-Dimensional Threat Perception and State Repression: An Inquiry into Why States Apply Negative Sanctions.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 39, no. 3, 1995, pp. 683–713. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Fein, Helen. “More Murder in the Middle: Life-Integrity Violations and Democracy in the World, 1987.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 1, 1995, pp. 170–191. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“History of Nicaragua.” Centralamerica,

Huntington, Samuel P., and Francis Fukuyama.

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Human Rights and Democracy. (2019, Aug 23). Retrieved from