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1 Harv. Hum. Rts. Y.B. 77 (1988)
Political Participation as a Human Right

handle is hein.journals/hhrj1 and id is 83 raw text is: Political Participation as a Human Right
Henry J. Steiner*
In the postwar construction of human rights law, the concept of
political participation has been an indispensable building block. The
right to such participation figures prominently in the full range of
international instruments: declarations, resolutions, regional and uni-
versal treaties. Countries with markedly different political systems
have termed political participation the vital human right. In its ab-
sence, it is said, all others fall to a perilous existence. I Governments
invoke it to justify their own political systems and to delegitimate
those of their opponents. National groups struggling for political
participation draw broad international support. No one doubts that
success in their struggles would open avenues to basic change.
For a right regarded as foundational, political participation suffers
from serious infirmities. The norms defining it are either vague or,
when explicit, bear sharply disputed meanings. Within the framework
of human rights law, the right expresses less a vital concept meant to
universalize certain practices than a bundle of concepts, sometimes
complementary but sometimes antagonistic. On occasion this human
right serves as a universal rallying cry against a friendless outlaw
nation. But more often it becomes another weapon of rhetorical battle,
a convenient, even authoritative concept through which each of the
world's ideological blocs, infusing the right with its own understand-
ings, attacks the others for violating those understandings.
I intend to explore this controversy over the character of the right,
both its reasons and consequences. My central concern is whether this
right of political participation, in the light of its vagueness and the
plural meanings attributed to it, expresses any shared ideal, or serves
any useful purpose in the developing international law of human
rights. Such questions suggest a broader issue. Although distinctive
in some respects, the right of political participation forms part of a
complex of related rights set forth in the international instruments.
It shares with them an essential characteristic of the new human rights
norms-the claim to a universal validity, if not quite efficacy. That
* Professor of Law and Director of Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School. I owe
special thanks to Lewis Sargentich for his criticism. I benefited from his comments, and from
those of Harold Berman and Detlev Vagts, on a draft of this article.
1. In Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 17 (1964), a decision finding malapportionment in
Congressional districts in violation of the Constitution, the Court stated: No right is more
precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the
laws under which, as good citizens, we must live Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory
if the right to vote is undermined

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