New York

15 July 2019

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at ECOSOC side event "What is democracy? Stepping up engagement around goal 16" [as prepared for delivery]

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. 

And, in some quarters, the very relevance of the rule of law as a springboard for sustainable development is being questioned.

The time has come to talk openly and frankly about democracy; to re-establish what we mean by it, and to better understand how we respond to today’s threats, including through our work on SDG 16.

The question of what constitutes democracy is an important yet complex one.

Theoretical debates go back millennia and practical debates have been ongoing since the founding of this Organization.

A country’s democracy, after all, is a reflection of a history and a culture, and no history or culture is the same.  Each country must therefore design a governance model that best reflects its culture and needs. It must administer matters of representation and justice in a manner fit for its people.  

Too often, for example, democracies have been simplified down to holding free and fair elections.

Critically important as free elections are, democracy is about much more than this.

Overtime, we have come to see democracy as the building of state institutions that reflect the will of the people they govern, with fair and balanced rules determining the relationship between them – between people and state, as well as between state institutions themselves. 

The will of the people must always be respected. Checks and balances must be in place to prevent those in power from servicing only those who elected them. 

Once in power, all leaders and institutions must be inclusive and responsive to the needs of all people under their jurisdiction, all of the time. 

Democracy is therefore a political system that is not just built on public participation and representation alone, it is also built on the equal treatment and respect for all. It needs a commitment to safeguard people’s rights and human dignity.

It is this expression of democracy that we find enshrined in the articles of international human rights covenants and in the targets of SDG 16. 

They call for inclusive and non-discriminatory state institutions, justice and the rule of law. These are the ingredients of democracy, and of a path to ensuring human rights and sustainable development.

Yet, less than four years after world leaders agreed to the critical importance of achieving SDG 16 for the overall goal of sustainable development, some of the key principles in this goal are being challenged and undermined in deeply concerning ways.

In far too many countries, ethno-nationalism is growing and hate speech, intolerance, discrimination and violence against those perceived to be different or “other” are on the rise. 

Another worrying development is shrinking civic space. Around the globe, civil society organizations report an increasing number of cases in which legal and political barriers are suppressing and weakening civil society. 

This is a major driver of diminishing trust between people and state and risks halting and even reversing progress towards the kind of inclusive participation called for in SDG 16.7. 

Moreover, the protection of freedom of expression is being threatened by violations of the safety of those who gather and report information to the public, principally journalists, media workers and human rights defenders. 

Media freedom, journalist safety, freedom of assembly — not to mention an independent and effective National Human Rights Institution in accordance with the Paris Principles — are all prerequisites for meeting SDG 16.6 and establishing effective, accountable and transparent institutions. 

These three elements in SDG 16 – inclusion, information and accountable institutions – reflect some of the key ingredients of democracy.

But a focus on SDG 16, alone, will not make the cut. 

If we see democratic disenchantment in many places around the world, it is also because – in some cases – democracy has not fully delivered on its promises of a more prosperous and stable future. 

Job creation, strong education and health for all citizens.

In other words, achieving sustainable development in a way that leaves no one behind is critical to the social contract at the basis of democracies. 

Many people are deeply frustrated by growing inequalities, and find themselves ill-prepared for the sweeping changes that globalization and technology have brought to their societies.

They do not believe that those in positions of power have their interests at heart.

And in the face of protracted conflicts going unresolved, a climate emergency going unanswered, and corruption and injustice repeatedly met with impunity, they genuinely question the ability of the democratic process to deliver the change that is needed.

As we gear up for five major summits this September, and prepare for a decade that will make or break the SDGs, we must urgently find a response to these trends.

Allow me to kick things off with what I see as three key aspects of that response:

First, we must unite and bring decision-making closer to the citizens. 

We need to update our model of democracy through representation, to ensure more vibrant, dynamic governance models that reflect the realities of the 21st century. 

We must find ways to facilitate and support civil society and an engaged global and local public.

The youth and children’s climate emergency movement is among the most inspiring initiatives on the global scene today.

But to protect democracy and achieve the SDGs, we will need to see more activism and more engagement – one that couples a push for people with a push for our planet, built on the foundations contained in Goal 16.

New technologies offer great opportunities for citizen’s participation in the public life – new information technologies can also damage democracies, if not well managed. 

We need to harvest the potential of technology to ensure a more participative and vibrant democratic system. 

Second, we must do more to build trust in society. 

That means listening carefully to the concerns of communities that feel threatened by change or left behind by a changing economy. It means enacting policies and laws that respond to the inequalities and sense of impunity that are undermining social cohesion.

We also need to walk the talk in our own institutions – whether on gender parity, sexual harassment, inclusion, transparency and accountability. Indeed, that is why the Secretary-General has advanced reforms these past two and a half years, looking at both how we achieve results and how we live up to our core values.

Third, we must ensure that democracy delivers more.

While critical in its own right, the value of democracy is greatly diminished if it does not deliver peace, prosperity, freedom and security for its participants.

All of us in positions of power, all of us working in the institutions of democracy must therefore focus more on delivering results.  

We must also do much better at communicating those results to counter the alternative facts and increasingly loathsome rhetoric and bigotry that we see in on social media and elsewhere.

The UN Charter begins with the words “We the peoples”. And it speaks to development in larger freedom. 

We must carry those words forward when we work to advance the SDGs and defend democracy. 

The great theorists remind us that democracy is a work in progress.  

Let us continue to work together, to forge new alliances, and to build institutions that are reflective and inclusive of our societies. It is our best chance to ensure decisions and policies that truly leave no one behind.  Let us continue to push for these fundamental principles found in the 2030 Agenda – our best chance of a future of prosperity, peace, dignity and democracy. 

And let us to stand up and speak out for forms of democracy, justice and inclusion that reflect and defend the rights of all. 

Thank you.