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Challenges to Democracy



Dear friends/ladies and gentlemen,

(In his introduction, the Foreign Minister reflected on the Helsinki Declaration, which linked peace and security matters with respect for human rights. He also honoured Lyudmila Alexeyeva (present), Russian historian, human rights activist and founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group.

Sometimes we lose sight of progress. In our eagerness to change for the better, adjust injustice, renounce brutality and inhumanity we sometimes forget to pause, look back and acknowledge progress.

That is why we need anniversaries, not to let them go by unnoticed, but like today, give ourselves a chance to remember the efforts, the sacrifices, the small steps and the giant leaps.

35 years, short enough for most of us to remember, but long enough for dramatic changes to occur: End of the Cold War, fall of the Berlin wall, collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China and Asia and the Arab Spring.

And let’s not forget that all these changes, including human rights progress and spread of democracy, do not happen on a meta-level, above us. No, they happen because of us, because of individuals, civil society, governments, people who want to see a better tomorrow.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is such an actor. 35 years of supporting civil society, monitoring elections and reporting on human rights achievement. Of campaigns and hard-fought victories against human rights violations, prejudice and ignorance, against injustice and repression.

Your work is impressive. Not always popular. But as important today as it was during the Cold War. One example is Golos, the worthy winner of this year’s Sakharov Prize, which is one of the organizations that has benefited from your cooperation. I wish to use this opportunity to congratulate Golos and honour your important work.




You know that a state of democracy and respect for human rights is fragile and cannot be taken for granted, even in countries with solid democratic foundations. We see that in Europe today. And we know what serious crises can lead to.

This is why we need to reflect on, contextualise and act upon today’s theme: “challenges to democracy”. What are the main challenges to promote participatory, accountable governance? What are the global trends? How can we contribute to the development of free societies based on human rights, on equal protection and equal benefit of the law?

The state of democratic development around the world: Important countries and regions.

I will start on a positive note.  

We have witnessed the power of popular uprisings for democratic change. In country after country, people have risked their lives to call for free elections, democratic accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights. We have been inspired by the courage and strength of the people of Syria and Egypt, and of Tunisia and Libya. They have shown us that only processes of reform that include accountable governance, human rights and the rule of law will bring long-term stability.  

This democratic wave has not been restricted to the Arab World. Around the world, people are showing that the desire for human rights and democratic values is not something that has been imposed by the West. No, it is rather the contrary: It is a reflection of the legitimate aspirations of people everywhere. Regardless of where they are born or what religion they practise, people have been taking to the streets with similar demands: dignity, freedom and human rights. 

In Myanmar, we see the beginning of what hopefully is an irreversible transformation. When I visited Myanmar (as State Secretary) in early 2011 I saw the will to democratic change and genuine reforms. During my visit later the same year, I saw the changes happening on the ground. There are still obstacles before the country blooms as a healthy democracy. But listening to President Thein Sein at the UN General Assembly a few weeks ago, where he spoke about Myanmar’s journey towards freedom and democracy, gives hope for a better future for the people of Myanmar. 

Dear friends, around the world today, democracy seems to be on the increase. But let’s not get too carried away. Because the sobering fact is that the rhetoric of democracy is advancing faster that its practice. There are countries that advertise their democratic form of government, while at the same time undermine and prohibit the activities of civil society and human rights defenders. There are countries that run elections – they may even be free and fair elections – but the next day they put their citizens in jail for their beliefs, and censor the media and the internet.

Trends and dilemmas that influence the spread of democracy today.

In the past decade we have witnessed a global shift of power to the east and the south. Parts of Asia, like China, have as you know a tendency to seek an “authoritarian capitalist” model (market without freedom). However, the dominant trend is that emerging powers are democracies, such as Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia. We see an increased engagement from these countries in multilateral fora. And they serve as sources of inspiration for other states who aspire to achieve economic and human progress.

To further complicate the picture, we see that political Islam is increasingly influencing democratic development. Western states must get used to the idea that democratically elected governments can be dominated by Islamist parties. We should judge the Islamist by what they do. The measure of their legitimacy, however, will be the ability and willingness to uphold human rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion. This entails, among other things, free speech and the right to criticize the convictions of the majority. It remains to be seen if political Islam and democracy will develop into a state of fruitful coexistence. Hopefully, countries such as Tunisia can find a way to combine religious conviction with democratic government and human rights.

Meanwhile, the West is increasingly constrained in its ability to effectively support democracies. Budgetary cuts in development agencies leave less means for concrete democracy assistance. Also, Western countries may not be as strong sources of inspiration to developing nations as they once were. Particularly now, when Europe is on its knees.

The financial, social, political crisis in Europe has led to a deterioration of social ties, growing religious radicalisation and inter-ethnic tensions. What effects will the crisis have on Europe’s democracies? Several worrying trends are surfacing: Take Hungary and their 2010 parliamentary elections. Economic crisis and lack of trust in the government lead to increased support to right-wing extremist forces. And Hungary is not unique in this sense. Neo-Nazis elected into the Greek parliament. The True Finns of Finland, who last year won 39 seats in the 200-member parliament. Anti-democratic forces seem to flourish in times of crisis. And we are witnessing increased insecurity and pressure on fundamental rights for many groups in our societies.

In Belarus, unfortunately none of the preconditions of democracy are in place. It is our obligation as European neighbors to send a clear message both to the Belarusian government and to the Belarusian people, that needs for stability and security never is an excuse for using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, clamping down on opposition figures and imprisoning of Human Rights defenders.

Let me be frank: I am also concerned about Russia. I am concerned about the negative developments related to conditions for civil society and political dissent. They pose a threat to the young Russian democracy, and put into question Russia’s readiness to stand by commitments the country has made as a member state in the Council of Europe and the OSCE.

We have addressed these issues with Russia, in bilateral consultations and in multilateral foras.

Russia, along with other countries, is concerned with what they claim to be “Western values based moral discussions”. They claim that these are undercutting their own values and that they are offensive (ex. discussions on LGBT rights).

In the Human Rights Council, Russia recently proposed, and successfully pushed through, a controversial resolution on the issue of traditional values. Tradition is often used to justify practices that undermine human rights, such as violence against women, restrictions to freedom of expression and assembly. We are concerned that this initiative serves to undermine the norms laid down under international human rights law. We have therefore consistently rejected this concept.

It is an ongoing challenge: the misconception that human rights reflect “a Western agenda”. They do not. We need to make that clear. Traces of this universal language can be found in the philosophies, ethics, laws and strategies of many great civilisations, from ancient to modern times.

Universal human rights are not imposed from “outside”. States themselves agreed on them 60 years ago. There are now 162 states parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That makes its standards almost universally applicable. We need to remain focused on this critically important point of departure: that we are dealing with humankind, that humankind is global.

Fundamental prerequisites for true democratic change

There are certain enduring factors that we know are essential if democracy is to be able to take root. Some constant, fundamental elements that must be in place if there is to be real democratic change. I will mention four such factors:

First, we must recognise that democracy is more than majority rule. Democracy is not sustainable unless the human rights of individuals are respected. Mahatma Gandhi once said: “My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest.” Respect for human rights places limits on the laws, policies and practices that can be pursued by a government, and that can be pursued by the majority in a society. The right to life. The principle of non-discrimination. The right to justice, a fair trial, protection against torture, the right to health, to food, to education, to having a faith, to an opinion. Human dignity, equality, and justice: these are core values for everyone, everywhere, always.

Establishing robust democracies is not a technical exercise. It is not just about holding an election. Fundamental changes relating to both society and culture are required on many levels. Democracy is only secured when a society has not only altered its laws and practices, but also its political culture and economy so that women and previously marginalised groups are included and the rule of law prevails.

Second, establishing robust democracies is not something that can be imposed from the outside. In the Arab world in particular, such attempts are met by strong resistance. Local society must develop into a democracy through its own free will. International support must be based on local demand, on genuine local interest and commitment.

Third, democratic change takes time. The World Bank has estimated that it takes an average of 41 years for the most successful countries to establish the rule of law ([1]). We must take a long-term perspective, both with regard to democratic development and to our support for it.

Fourth, we must realise that the transition to democracy can be fiercely opposed by influential local agents. Democratic transition inevitably also means that previously powerful elites will lose some of their influence. Naturally, they will try to hold on to their privileges. Military elites, for instance, can be reluctant to submit to a civil administration. This is currently one of the main challenges in Egypt, and was previously a major issue in Turkey. Conservative religious elites can also be reluctant to change, for example when it comes to the inclusion of religious minorities or women in politics.


So, how can we strengthen democracy worldwide? What can we do to support the process of democratic change? If we agree that democracy cannot be imposed, that it has to come as a result of the will of a country’s citizens, then what is there for us to do?

We can make visible, clarify, the benefits of democracy. Introducing democracy does not mean denial of a country’s culture and beliefs or a westernization of society. No, we have to contribute to visualise that democracies take many forms, but it is ultimately beneficial to the society in terms of individual rights, economic prosperity, and long-term stability and security.

In supporting democracy, the key is to combine outside pressure from the international community with bottom-up pressure from local civil society. At the same time, we must recognise that democratic change must be sustained by developing the society’s economy and human capital.

I will mention seven elements that I consider to be relevant in this regard.

First, we must convey a clear message in our public and political statements. In the UN and other multilateral arenas, we must continually press for democratic values and human rights. What we say and do in the UN and the Council of Europe sets the tone for much of the discourse in local societies.

One concrete example: Tomorrow Ukraine will be examined by the Human Rights Council in the Universal Periodic Review. Norway is seriously concerned about the development in Ukraine and will raise several issues with the government. We will for instance urge the government to take all necessary steps to ensure the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people to a free speech, and protection against violence. We also follow closely this weekend’s parliamentary elections, which look to be problematic indeed.

However, political statements must always be coupled with other initiatives. On their own, they cannot bring change. We know, for example, that when we raise concerns about human rights challenges, like we did in the UN in relation to Bahrain last year, local actors are encouraged to continue their difficult work for democratisation in spite of the odds.

Second, we must provide both moral and material support to human rights defenders and democratic agents of change at the local level. A free and critical civil society is crucial if democracy is to be able to take root. We have an obligation to support those who risk their lives fighting for values that we take for granted. Norway and other countries must continue to work through their embassies and local partners to support those actors on the ground who stress the universality of human rights, and who resist attempts to label such rights as “Western”.

Third, we must support free local media. Independent newspapers, radio stations and television networks are guarantors of inclusive political participation. Civil society actors must have independent channels through which they can disseminate their views. Norway supports a number of media initiatives. For example, we are providing training in human rights and security issues for journalists working for Al Jazeera, in partnership with the Norwegian Institute of Journalism and the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights.

Fourth, we must speak out against the enemies of democracy. These may be old elites that cling to their positions of influence, and are unwilling to share power. Or they may be new groups who, through fear of rival groups, seek to monopolise power. It is sometimes easy to appease such actors to achieve short-term gains. And, of course, there are times when compromises are unavoidable. But all the same, we must not lose sight of our principles.

Fifth, we must promote the Rule of Law, particularly in new or fragile democracies. A democracy will fail unless there is a minimum of trust in the general population in the fairness of the state institutions. This means that such institutions must have both the capacity and the willingness to address the legitimate concerns of the people. But even more important is that these institutions are governed by the principles of fairness, including equality before the law and zero tolerance of corruption. There is increased awareness about the importance of Rule of law internationally. This was the main topic of this year's High Level Summit in the United Nations in New York. Norway also put up inclusion and rule of law as the topic for this year's annual Trygve Lie Symposium on fundamental freedoms.

Sixth, economic growth is often important if democracy is to take root. In Europe, Fascism and Communism flourished when ordinary people experienced the hardship that came after the First World War and during the Great Depression. Democratic governments, once established, must deliver to their people in material terms. This means reducing unemployment, increasing trade, and combatting corruption. Development assistance can serve to support democratic development, by reducing poverty levels and increasing the availability of public goods and services.

The seventh and final point, education is probably the most effective way of supporting democracy. It is a truism that power cannot be given – it must be taken. Democracy requires that a critical number of people in a society are in a position to take their fair share of power. This requires economic strength and social capital, but also the knowledge base and the intellectual confidence that only education can provide.

Democracy has come a long way

It was a surprise to many that the Economist Democracy Index for 2011 noted a slight decline in democracy worldwide, in spite of the Arab Spring. But we have to expect setbacks as well as leaps forward. That is why we must recall how far democracy has progressed, after all. Going back in history twenty, fifty or a hundred years, there is little doubt that the legitimacy of governments is more and more measured by their ability and willingness to serve the people. Considering the development of democracy in a longer perspective gives grounds for optimism.

But we still need to engage in order to achieve our goals. We have to be guided by those who fight the battles on the ground. We can help by empowering them through assistance and encouragement, coupled with pressure on their adversaries.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has over the past decades played a key role both in terms of providing assistance, encouragement and pressure. You have contributed to progress over these past 35 years.

And to you and the many other countries and organisations represented here today, I will say this: Your contributions and our mutual cooperation is instrumental in the government’s efforts to promoting and placing human rights where it truly belongs: At the heart of Norway’s foreign policy.

Dear friends, dear members of the Helsinki Committee. Despite progress, despite the enormous efforts you have made and the work you have done, our work for democracy and human rights is still sorely needed. I look forward to our continued cooperation and congratulations on your anniversary.

Thank you.


[1] World Bank: The World Development Report 2011, p. 11.


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