New York

25 September 2020

Secretary-General's remarks at High-level side event: "Participation, Human Rights and the Governance Challenge Ahead" [as delivered]

I welcome this event on the key question of equal participation and inclusion.
Today, political leaders face multiple crises:
The window to address climate change is almost shut. 

Inequalities and marginalization have reached new heights. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused human suffering on a massive scale, and brought economies to a standstill. 

Decades of advances in global health, development, poverty reduction, equality and human rights are at risk.
People across the globe are loudly expressing their discontent.
They lack confidence that the political process can work for them.
Women and young people have been on the frontlines of climate protests and the struggle for more inclusive governance, transparency and human rights.
Today’s crises have put a magnifying glass on the social and economic injustices that bedevil our societies.
They are an enormous governance challenge for societies and for the global community.
Overcoming them requires approaches driven by unity, solidarity and compassion.
For that, we need governance models and structures that work for the common good, with an intergenerational perspective.
We need to prioritize the rebuilding of trust between people, institutions and leaders.
And we need leadership that is representative of both men and women in our societies.  Recent studies show that women leaders have responded faster to the pandemic, adopted well-informed positions, led with empathy, and built inclusive coalitions that delivered better results.
The key to reinvigorated and reimagined governance lies with truly meaningful participation of people and civil society in the decisions that affect their lives.
I’ve always been very influenced by [Jurgen] Habermas since I started my political activities and one of the key aspects of Habermas’ thinking in relation to what a modern democracy is, is the importance he attributes to the permanent inter-flow of communication between political society and civil society and the fact that that inter-flow of communication has an impact on the decisions that are taken, which means participation is not just to vote, participation is a permanent interaction between societies and political power and societies having a permanent influence in the way political power decides.
The discontent we are seeing today reflects impatience with the status quo, but also a strong desire to contribute to positive change.
Participation in public affairs is a fundamental human right and an underutilized tool for better policy making.
It deepens our understanding of issues and helps identify better solutions.
It ensures that concerns are heard, reducing social tension and preventing violence.
It leads to a greater sense of ownership, allowing effective implementation.
It can be the difference between progress and disarray.
The meaningful participation of all segments of society in decision-making can help us face our daunting challenges, at the national level and internationally in our multilateral institutions.  Participation is a key element of the inclusive multilateralism we need for 21st century global governance.
Yet in many places around the world, participation is being denied and civic space is being crushed.
A global pushback on human rights has placed participation in its crosshairs.
We see repressive laws and restrictions on the work of journalists and human rights defenders, especially women -- often ending in murder or jail on spurious charges.
Governments, often operating under overly broad definitions of terrorism, abuse new technologies to curtail basic freedoms of media and civil society groups.
As civic space shrinks, so, too, do human rights.
The pandemic itself has seen measures that infringe upon the ability of civil society to do its vital work. 
But the crisis also demonstrates the importance of involving communities, particularly those most at risk, in designing and adjusting responses.
I encourage participants in this event to take a hard look at how we can reverse today’s alarming trends and make participation and inclusion --  online and offline -- a reality.
The Call to Action for Human Rights commits the United Nations to strengthening its essential partnership with civil society, and ensuring the protection, promotion and participation of human rights defenders and community leaders in the work we do.
It also prioritizes the use of Temporary Special Measures and quotas as a useful human rights tools to ensure the equal participation of women in all aspects of public life.
We should also be mindful that decisions today can have an impact lasting decades.  This is why we should find ways to allow future generations to be represented in decision making, at both the national and international levels.
We have finalized system-wide guidance for UN officials to support Member States in this area.
Let us nurture and draw on the knowledge, creativity and diversity of our communities.
Participation is critical if we are to strengthen societies and meet the urgency of our times.
Thank you.