UNDEF celebrates International Day of Democracy in Athens and New York

To mark the International Day of Democracy on 15 September, the Athens Democracy Forum 2015 was held for the third year by the International New York Times in cooperation with the UN Democracy Fund. The three-day programme included discussions at the Acropolis Museum, the Old Athenian Parliament Building, the Megaron Conference Centre and the Ancient Agora of Athens -- the birthplace of democracy. Among the speakers were His Highness the Aga Khan; Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6; Kishore Mahbubani; Giorgis Kaminis, Mayor of Athens; Paul Krugman and Roger Cohen of the New York Times; Sir Geoffrey Robertson; Paula Dobriansky; and Annika Savill, Executive Head of the UN Democracy Fund, whose remarks can be found here. 

To mark the event, the City of Athens lit Parliament in blue in honour of the flags of the United Nations and Greece.'

Themes at the Forum included migration and civil society; the question of whether liberal democracy is universally applicable; how the widening wealth gap impacts democratic governance; the rise of fundamentalist movements; new media and new access to public information.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message of support that "gatherings like the Athens Democracy Forum provide the much-needed oxygen of dialogue...  I am encouraged that you will discuss many complex issues that are at the heart of today’s democratic debate -- from multiculturalism to modern media and the role money plays in politics." 

At UN headquarters in New York, UNDEF and its partners in the UN Working Group on Democracy hosted a discussion event on the theme "Space for Civil Society" to address civil society's increasing importance amid today's challenges, and the growing restrictions on civil society organizations in a range of countries. Speakers included the Permanent Representatives to the UN of Bhutan, Poland and Sierra Leone; the Deputy Permanent Representatives of Chile and Sweden; Nilda Bullain, Vice-President of the International Center of Not-for-Profit Law; Arthur Larok, Co-Chair, ActionAid International Working Group on Civic and Political Space. The discussion was moderated by James Traub, author of the Freedom Agenda and columnist for Foreign Policy.   

Ambassador Kunzang Namgyel of Bhutan, whose remarks are linked here, stated that "there is clearly a need to strengthen the role and space of civil society organizations at the community, national, regional and global levels if we are to effectively address the many transnational challenges that confront us today". Ambassador Boguslaw Winid of Poland noted that "democracy is applied in various ways in countries, and should take into account cultural and local context while preserving the vitality of civil society". Ambassador Vandi Chidi Minah of Sierra Leone declared:  "Civil society organizations are the conscience of governments.”    

Ambassador Carlos Olguín Cigarroa of Chile, whose remarks are linked here, highlighted his Government's emphasis on citizen participation as “a process of cooperation in which the State and the society jointly identify political problems and discuss how to solve them“. Ambassador Per Thöresson of Sweden, whose remarks are linked here, stated: "Civil society is needed to channel the political will of people, to draw attention to problems and, not least, to permanently question and monitor power. ” 

From the civil society side, Ms. Bullain said "Civil society is absolutely vital to democracy because civil society consists of citizens who take responsibility for their country”. Mr. Larok said: "We are worried that often Governments may attempt to negatively impact public opinion against large NGOs that have financial resources".