What Is Democracy? UNDEF hosts High-level Political Forum event with DSG, Naidoo, Carothers

UNDEF organized an unprecedented discussion at UN Headquarters on 15 July on what constitutes democracy, as well as on ways to energize the momentum around Sustainable Goal 16. A side event to the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, it featured UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed as keynote speaker; remarks by Martin Chungong, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; a panel discussion with leading experts and practitioners; and a substantive exchange with Governments, civil society and youth on the core elements of democracy as well as challenges on the road to 2030. The event was held in in cooperation with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The event was held amid a global democracy debate increasingly marked by distrust of democratic institutions, processes and elected representatives. Yet with Sustainable Development Goal 16, a global effort is underway to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. This presents an opportunity to encourage a thematic, more constructive debate on democracy than merely reiterating the ways in which democracy is under strain; that while there is no one-size-fits-all model of democracy, and each country must find the model that works for its circumstances, there are fundamental characteristics these models need in common to qualify as democracies. Thus, demonstrating that democracy is a global good for people helps step up engagement around advancing Goal 16.

The UN Deputy Secretary-General said in her keynote speech: “I thank the UN Democracy Fund for bringing us together. Since the signing of the UN Charter, democracy has been a core concern for the United Nations, for it is perhaps the most fundamental building block for advancing peace, human rights and development. But today democracy is being challenged worldwide. Human rights are being sidelined in favor of populism and intolerance. In many places the ability of private interests to influence elections is unfettered and the capture of the state by elites is warping the functions of state institutions.” The full speech can be read here.

UNDEF Executive Head Annika Savill highlighted UNDEF’s role as the only UN entity with the word democracy in its name, and the only UN entity with the primary mandate to support democracy through civil society. “A unique model in the UN family, working to do transformative things with grants in relatively small amounts, using direct support to create enabling environments for civil society around the world.  That goes for all that is crucial on our way to 2030. Youth, gender equality, rule of law, media freedom, electoral support”. Her full speech can be read here.

Inter-Parliamentary Union Secretary-General Martin Chungong said that as “democracy optimist”, he saw the question as one not about the democratic concept of government, but rather about the institutions, the systems, and approaches that have been put in place to implement democracy. The public perception of parliaments was often negative, one of “self-serving individuals, corrupt, not working for the people, and most often throwing chairs at each other during parliamentary debates”. But there were incredible things being done by parliamentarians worldwide that needed to be built upon, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s role was developing and disseminating widely indicators of democratic health of parliaments.

The panel discussion brought together Jay Naidoo, veteran of the anti-apartheid movement, founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and former member of Nelson Mandela’s first Cabinet; Jyotsna Mohan Singh, regional coordinator of the Asia Development Alliance; and Thomas Carothers, Senior Vice-President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and acclaimed democracy scholar. The discussion was moderated by Claudia Chwalisz, policy analyst at the OECD Open Government Unit and author of The People’s Verdict and The Populist Signal.

Jay Naidoo spoke of his experience on the front lines of South Africa’s struggle for democracy, and declining trust in democratic institutions, especially among young people. “These institutions are being undermined, the systems are being undermined, by money and those that carry vested interests. I think that it’s taken away trust. Trust is for me indispensable in ensuring the legitimacy of the system. If people lose trust then what do they believe in? If I look at the issue of democracy it is about the legal obligation on governments to deliver on the political, social, and economic goals that our citizens have a right to expect.”  What was needed was a renewal of the democratic model. While the basic values of “human rights, social justice, accountability…integrity, and honesty”  remained key, there was a need for open discussion with the younger generation.

Jyotsna Mohan Singh spoke of the “need to protect civil society and expand civic spaces. Global trends show that this space is shrinking. Human rights and justice defenders are increasingly under attack, and last year was the most dangerous year on record… Civil society spaces must be expanded to create an enabling environment in which we can freely organize and express ourselves and safely operate, assemble, and ensure accountability.” Singh argued for an expansive role for civil society in SDG 16 implementation, calling upon civil society actors to take the lead in “official policymaking, planning, implementation, budgeting, and reporting processes across goals and sectors”.

Tom Carothers summed up three essential elements of democracy, “the right of citizens to choose their leaders, in processes that are genuine, fair, and open”, “a political life generally informed by freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of speech, and non-discrimination”, and “the importance of having leaders that are constrained by law and not law that is constrained by leaders”. Carothers emphasized the need for a balance between openness and judiciousness in debates about democracy, distinguishing between issues raised that he sees as justified -- the impact of inequality on democracies, how new forms of democratic governance can coexist with traditional cultures); and issues he saw as problematic or even dangerous -- the presumed role of democracy in fomenting division, the possibility of ‘the will of the people’ overriding formal democratic rules and norms.