15 September 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on WorldPublicOpinion.org Global Survey on Political Tolerance


There was a marked discrepancy between the global demand for democratic governance and its supply, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said at a Headquarters press conference this morning to launch a new global poll on political tolerance.


Despite massive public support in favour of democracy and pluralism, the international community continued to be confronted with a lack of political tolerance “virtually everywhere”, he said.  That manifested itself in the conduct of political leaders and, at times, in the culture of political parties.


Also presenting the “World Public Opinion on Political Tolerance” study on the occasion of the International Day of Democracy today were Anda Filip, Permanent Observer of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; Steven Kull, Director, WorldPublicOpinion.org; and Craig Mokhiber, Deputy Director, New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


Sponsored by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, the study involved a poll of 21,285 respondents in 24 nations.  As explained by Mr. Kull, the surveys had been conducted between 5 April and 30 June this year.  The questions sought to evaluate the ability to express diverse political views; the freedom to express unpopular views without fear of harassment or punishment; opposition parties’ ability to influence Government decisions; legislators’ freedom to diverge from their parties’ positions; and representation of women and minorities in legislature. Not all questions were asked in all nations.


Presenting the study, Mr. Kull said that when the respondents were asked about the freedom to express unpopular views in their countries, without fear of being harassed or punished, in no nation did a majority say they were completely free.  On average across all nations polled, just 24 per cent said they were completely free in their country in that regard, 42 per cent said that they were somewhat free, and 30 per cent said that they were not very free.


He explained that the study found a remarkable consensus, around the world, that a diversity of political views should be tolerated, together with a widespread perception that such diversity was not fully tolerated in society in general, or even in the legislatures.  People who supported greater political tolerance were also more apt to support democracy.


Regarding women’s participation, on average, a modest majority of men thought that women were fairly represented, but a plurality of women thought they were not.  There was also a wide variation in perceptions of how fairly ethnic, religious or national minorities were represented in national legislation.  Eight nations had a plurality or majority saying that they were fairly represented, ten nations said they were not fairly represented and five were evenly divided.


One of the most important findings was that 90 per cent of the respondents felt that democratic governance was important, yet in none of the polled countries did the majority of people say that they were completely free, Mr. Taranco said.  The study provided important food for thought as to how the United Nations could use its findings in its concrete work on the ground.  It also demonstrated the importance of working jointly with the Inter-Parliamentary Union on matters related to democracy.


He added that the report was based on a now widely acknowledged insight that elections alone did not make for democracy and that a large number of ingredients were required to make democracy real.  The United Nations was increasingly called on to support numerous elections, and that support was increasingly accompanied by efforts to promote good governance and fundamental freedoms.  Political tolerance was of particular importance to many of those efforts, especially in conflict resolution and post-conflict situations.  Many peacekeeping and political missions were now asked to address polarization of society, stemming from historical, ethnic, religious or other perceived differences.  There was much focus on the linkages between democracy and achieving sustainable peace and security.  Also of great importance were issues of good governance and inclusive national dialogue.


Emphasizing the importance of understanding of the term “democracy”, which had been misused over the years, Mr. Mokhiber said that constitutional parameters of democracy went far beyond what the majority thought or wanted.  For instance, the survey’s findings on the perception of women’s representation demonstrated that simply asking the empowered group about the degree to which democracy had been realized was inadequate.  The survey helped the United Nations see “where we are”, by promoting a holistic view of democracy and looking at the views of both the majority and minorities.  It looked at human rights and fundamental freedoms, non-discrimination, free expression, association and assembly, and equality before the law, as well as limitations on human rights.  It clarified some of the parameters of a meaningful concept of democracy, while underlining what was needed to promote democracy as the United Nations understood it.


Ms. Filip said that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, like the United Nations, had learned a lot from the poll.  She also drew attention to today’s statement of the Inter-Parliamentary Union President, Theo-Ben Gurirab.  He had expressed serious concern about the tremendous gap between public perception and reality on the ground and asked for serious action to be taken to guarantee respect of the rights of the opposition and ability of parliamentarians to express themselves freely, to foster political tolerance through education, improved communication, and upholding high standards of ethics.  He had also called upon parliaments to work with political parties to make themselves more representative of social diversity and to consolidate constitutional and legislative reforms along those lines.


She added that while figures were available on gender representation, not much was known about the representation of minorities.  For that reason, the Inter-Parliamentary Union would be undertaking a mapping exercise on the global level.  With many members of parliaments reluctant to express views that differed from the official line, the Inter-Parliamentary Union would consider what could be done to return to the legal norms that protected the free representation mandate, where members of parliaments were elected to speak and to vote their conscience.


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