Strong Democratic Societies Can Enable Non-Violent Change, Secretary-General Tells Summit, Calling for New Social Contract between Governments, Their People

Following is UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ message to the virtual second Summit for Democracy, held virtually, today:

Democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights are hallmarks of resilient, inclusive, and peaceful societies.  But, today, these values are under assault.

The walls are closing in on civic spaces.  Constitutional rights are being curtailed and civil liberties are being eroded.  Freedom of expression is in freefall.  Dissenting voices are silenced.  Human rights defenders face persecution while prosecutors fighting corruption face reprisals.  Journalists confront censorship, detention, and violence. The number of media workers killed across the world last year rose by a horrific 50 per cent.

Engulfed in crises, people are being easily seduced by promises of simple solutions.  In these times of turbulence and turmoil, the siren songs of so-called “enlightened despotism” are resonating.  But, today, we see more and more despotism and less and less enlightenment.

History has shown time and again that autocratic leadership is not a guarantor of stability; it is a catalyst of chaos and conflict.  We are in the midst of dramatic upheavals:  technology is reshaping life as we know it; the tectonic plates of geopolitics are shifting; and global threats cannot be solved by any one government or organization acting alone.

Strong democratic societies are places that are capable of self-correction — and self-improvement.  They can enable change — even radical change – without bloodshed and violence.  And crucially, they are centres for broad-based cooperation, rooted in the principles of equality, participation and solidarity.

Today, however, these principles are strained to the breaking point.  Polarization is being supercharged by social media.  Irrationality is running rampant.  Science is under siege.  Minorities and migrants are scapegoated.  On current trends, full gender equality is 300 years away.  The foundations of social cohesion and trust in democratic institutions are being rocked to the core.  And setbacks towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals are amplifying despair and discontent.

To harness the power of democracy, we must strengthen its defences.  This means:  investing in a new social contract between Governments and their people to rebuild trust and social cohesion; bolstering the system of checks and balances; tackling inequalities, combating corruption, prioritizing education and expanding opportunities; setting up guardrails in the digital world to protect against its perils while realizing its promise; and realizing the universality of all human rights — civil, cultural, economic, political and social.

Growing up, my own country Portugal was ruled by dictatorship.  I have seen how the repression of human rights is like a poison in the national bloodstream — dulling the vibrancy of society, robbing people of their dignity and potential.  And I have lived to see democracy flourish:  expanding horizons of hope and opportunities.

Human rights and democratic values are our ultimate tool to help societies thrive in freedom to achieve equality for women and girls; to vanquish xenophobia, racism and hate; to advance sustainable development; and to forge peace.

These goals are at the heart of the United Nations.  Democracy flows from the United Nations Charter.  Its opening invocation of “We the Peoples” reflects the fundamental source of legitimate authority:  the consent of the governed.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reinforces this through the assertion that:  “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”  This year, as we mark the Declaration’s seventy-fifth anniversary, let us give life to the principles it enshrines for everyone, and together build a better, more just world for all.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.