Secretary-General’s Message on Democracy

The following is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ message on democracy:

The values and ideas at the centre of advancing democracy and human rights have also been at the centre of my life.

They are not abstract concepts or academic topics.

They are personal.  I have lived them.

I grew up under the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal.

I saw that dictatorship oppress not only its own citizens, but also people under colonial rule in Africa who endured a bloody war on three fronts that lasted 13 years.

I understand what it is like to live in an atmosphere of constant fear — of arbitrary arrests, torture, censorship, and the wholesale denial of human rights.

I know the human suffering that goes with it.

I did not experience democracy until I was 24 years old.

The Portuguese democracy — like all democracies — did not just emerge from thin air.

We had to fight against powerful forces who wanted to build a new dictatorship.

I was a part of that struggle, mobilizing supporters of democracy in the streets of Lisbon and around the country.

Like so many others, I was engaged in the final victory of the Carnation Revolution and actively involved in the consolidation of Portugal’s democracy —as an activist…as a member of Parliament…as a political leader… and ultimately as Prime Minister.

I am proud of the democratic achievements of my country.

But I also know those efforts are a constant work in progress.

Today – on this Human Rights Day -- I am deeply worried by the risks facing our societies.

The values of the enlightenment are the bedrock of modern democracies.

But in many parts of the world, we see people drifting far from those values.

Some seem to live in a post-enlightenment era.

Irrationality is gaining ground.

Populism, nativism, white supremacy and other forms of racism and extremism are poisoning social cohesion.

Polarization is undermining democratic institutions.

Science and reason are under siege.

All of this is eroding trust between people and democratic leaders and institutions.

The assault on truth and facts is often abetted by digital technology and social media networks with business models driven by addiction, outrage and anxiety.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added even greater stresses to democracy.

Now is the time to reaffirm shared values and strengthen democratic resilience.

That requires deepening social dialogue, tackling inequalities, combatting corruption, renewing the social contract, investing in quality education, and expanding opportunities for women and girls.

That also requires a firm condemnation of all forms of populism, nativism, and extremism — including by using all the tools made available by the technological revolution.

The digital world must be regulated, so that it is a force for good.

It is time to embrace genuine participation in decision-making.

These principles are at the heart of my people-centred vision for the future, outlined in my report, Our Common Agenda.

Democracy depends on people being seen, heard and understood – not neglected or even abandoned, as they were in recent decades, in the Rust Belts of this world.

Unless it is properly managed, the digital transformation of societies risks intensifying this experience of isolation and alienation.

People don’t need leaders who summon the darkest impulses of humanity by stoking fear, insecurity and outright lies.

They need leaders who summon the best in us — by honouring human dignity and drawing on the talents, ideas and energies of every person.

This event is especially meaningful as it coincides with the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Bunche – a legendary champion of the freedom struggle both in his own country, the United States, and around the globe as a United Nations official.

Ralph Bunche reminded the world that, and I quote: “In this modern age, the virility of any democratic society may be measured by the extent to which it gives its citizenry a real stake in both its political and economic systems.”

It is essential to reaffirm the universality of all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural.

To reinforce the rule of law.

To safeguard the principles of equality, participation and solidarity.

The United Nations is an organization that includes all the countries and, of course, with political systems that are very different from each other around the world.

They have resolved to come together, based on the power of dialogue and the values of the United Nations in its struggle for peace and security, inclusive and sustainable development, and full respect for all human rights.

Now more than ever, it is time to recommit to the Charter and our common pledge to build a better and more just world for all.

Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.