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United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Statements

Deputy Secretary-General: Statements

Berne, Switzerland, 25 November 2015 - Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at the Annual Democracy Forum 2015 - "Accountability is a Central Element of Deepening Democracy" [as prepared for delivery]

Director General Sager, Secretary-General Leterme, Distinguished Participants,

I thank the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the Government of Switzerland for inviting me to this event.

I am proud to have been part of, during my service in Sweden, the creation of IDEA in the 1990s. You have over the years become a respected actor, voice and feature in the discourse on democracy around the world.

I am especially glad to see your focus at this year’s Democracy Forum on accountability, which is of course one of the fundamentals, one of the core principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The world needs such principles today more than ever. Why do I say that?

When we look at the world around us today, it is regretfully easy to feel that we are living through an unusually uncertain, troubled and difficult period.

The migration and refugee crisis stemming from unsolved conflicts and horrific living conditions is a dramatic sign of the times, felt not least on this continent. More people – 60 million – are displaced than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  An arc of instability and conflict stretches from the Sahel, across the Maghreb and into the wider Middle East.  The threat of terrorism grows ever more serious, as we have seen in recent days and weeks in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, Bamako, Nigeria, and yesterday, in Tunisia.  My condolences to all of you in this room representing these countries.  

Also, around the world, far too many people still struggle to feed their children, find decent work, fight disease and live a life of dignity. It reminds us of the full agenda ahead of us.

To this should be added the existential threat to us all, to our children and our grandchildren that we are not at peace with Nature. Global warming may change our world and lives completely.

But let us remember, there is also hope.  We must not despair.

Two months ago, a historic agreement was reached in New York.  The Sustainable Development Goals were unanimously adopted by over 150 world leaders.

This new “2030 Agenda” is our blueprint to leave no one behind – to ensure that every man, every woman and every child can have freedom from poverty and hunger; can see health and education; live with gender equality; access to clean water, sanitation and energy; decent work; effective and honest institutions – and not least, peace and justice.  It is truly an ambitious agenda.

The new goals are transformative and universal.  Every country has agreed to be bound and led by them in charting the road ahead.

At their core is the concept of sustainability. 

Three days from now in Paris, world leaders will come together again.  This time they aim to reach an agreement on tackling one of the biggest threats of all – climate change. 

Together, the SDGs and, hopefully, a strong and universal climate agreement will give us an historic basis for collective action.  The fact that Member States can come together like this, at a time of great turbulence, turmoil and trouble, sends a powerful message of a common desire to set a new course for the world and the future.

At the same time, we must continue to address the acute conflicts and instability around the world which threaten to block progress and reverse the gains we have made.

The global landscape may be changing, but the principles which underpin the UN remain as relevant as they were when the Charter was written in 1945. It is vital, as we adapt to keep pace with a changing world, that we do not lose sight of the values and fundamental principles which must guide us. This brings me to what we see around us today.

We must not be provoked by terror and violence to limit freedoms, to shut out the outside world, to disregard refugee conventions, international humanitarian law or human rights. If we do so, the forces of extremism have achieved what they wanted – to prove that democratic societies are weak and will bend under pressure.

Dear Participants,

The UN General Assembly has recognized that democracy is a universal value. The 2012 Declaration of the Assembly’s high-level meeting on the Rule of Law reaffirms that human rights, the rule of law and democracy are mutually reinforcing. They are indivisible core principles of the United Nations.

Member States have acknowledged that democracies share common values and principles grounded in the UN Charter and in international human rights instruments. These include participation, equality, justice, peace, development and human rights.

Democratic systems are underpinned by the rule of law. Governments and individuals are accountable to laws that must be in conformity with international human rights norms and standards. 

Indeed, if normative frameworks are not consistent with human rights, the rule of law can end up becoming a tool for arbitrary and oppressive use of power. And this, even as States keep proclaiming that they are upholding the rule of law.

Accountability is essential to make sure that institutions are responsive to the will of the people. We all know that resilient democracies need institutional checks and balances. This they need for protection against impunity, corruption and abuse of power.

Today,  I would like to focus on three aspects of accountability, which have an important place in the work of the United Nations: electoral systems, human rights and the participation of civil society.

Let me start with electoral systems.

Elections are of course always important milestones, not least in countries emerging from crisis and conflict and transitioning to democracy. Elections are now often part of peace agreements and constitutional transitions. They also promote the participation in public affairs of women, marginalized groups and under represented segments of society.

The credibility of electoral processes and results is crucial. Sometimes we face situations in which contestants refuse to engage in the electoral process or allege misconduct and procedural flaws after elections. There is reason to be particularly concerned about elections in which contestants refuse to accept outcomes which are largely considered to be legitimate.

The credibility of elections is closely related to the degree to which international commitments are respected and the election is fair, impartial and transparent at all stages. At the same time, the connection between the technical quality of an election and the legitimacy of its outcomes is complex. Let us recall that most elections produce results that are accepted even in the face of minor imperfections.

The responsibility for a successful and credible election lies not only with the electoral management body but also with the entire range of political parties, civil society – and, of course, voters.

Overriding responsibility lies with our political leaders. They are in a position to demand from their supporters proper and peaceful behaviour - before, during and after. They can choose to challenge results, only through legal means. They are the ones who can accept final outcomes, as officially declared. And they must be both gracious in defeat and magnanimous in victory. This includes offering political space for the opposition.

I will now turn to the cause of human rights.

There is an obvious and close link between human rights and democracy. Both place people at the centre.

As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”

The protection of human rights is intrinsic to a democratic system. It is a measure of the strength of any democratic system. At the same time, democracy constitutes a natural environment for the realization of human rights.

International law enshrines many rights that are essential to democratic accountability. These include the rights to:
- freedom of opinion;
- freedom of expression, which protects the work of journalists and other media professionals;
- access to information;
- peaceful assembly, which guarantees the right to convene and participate in protests and demonstrations;
- the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, to vote and to be elected; and
- the right to be free from discrimination.

All these self-evident rights are, in various ways, in danger, or at risk, in several parts of the world.

Respect for human rights is an indicator of the condition of a democratic society. Violations of human rights are often early warning signs of more serious problems ahead.  That is the concept behind the Secretary-General’s and my Human Rights up Front initiative of 2013, which aims to identify risks of human rights violations at an early stage.

We aim to make sure that early action is taken to prevent such violations from turning into mass atrocities. By responding in time to human rights violations, we can prevent conflict and protect people in need and at risk.

The third aspect of democratic accountability is the participation of civil society.

In the world’s most stable and successful democracies, the State and civil society work together for common goals. Civil society plays a critical role in representing the diverse interests of the population, including its most vulnerable groups.

When governments limit the participation of civil society, they suppress the voices of the people. In so doing, they weaken democratic accountability. Today we are seeing precisely that: an alarming number of Governments have introduced restrictions which limit the ability of NGOs and civil society to work, or to receive funding, or both. 

The world must do more to preserve the precious space for civil society and the media.  To have a strong State and strong civil society at the same time is not only possible, it is necessary.

There is no context in which accountability is more important than in fragile, post-conflict countries, where democratic institutions often are embryonic and fragile.

Accountability is a way to overcome fragility, ensure legitimacy, build confidence in governments and avoid a relapse into violence. Yet, to build resilient democratic institutions in fragile and conflict-affected states is a complex, arduous and time-consuming exercise. One of the central objectives, over the long term, must be to help those states develop a culture of democracy, rooted in trust in institutions and in democratic practices.

Indeed, people’s trust in institutions is essential for a democracy to work. 

Dear Participants,

Let me conclude with a few words about the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals.

Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda breaks new ground in the world’s pursuit of sustainable development. It acknowledges the centrality of peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice for all and the importance of strong institutions. People across the world are rightly demanding a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives. Goal 16 calls for responsive, inclusive and representative decision-making at all levels. 

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) themselves were developed in an extensive process of consultation with civil society, academia, the private sector and citizens around the world.

The accountability of institutions is a goal in itself. But success in the implementation of the integrated new development goals will depend greatly on effective and robust accountability mechanisms, and on adopting a horizontal approach in its implementation. 

The monitoring and review framework has to match the level of ambition of the SDGs. Such a framework must be firmly grounded in the principles of universality, participation, transparency, equality and non-discrimination.

I am certain that the discussions you will have during the next two days here in Berne on democratic accountability will be a valuable contribution to translate the democratic aspirations of the peoples of the world into realities on the ground.

Let us constantly recall the first three words of the UN Charter “We the Peoples”. It is to the peoples of the world we are ultimately accountable.

Thank you.

Statements on 25 November 2015