Strasbourg World Forum: Debates on the Status and Definition of Democracy

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the World Economic Forum this year.
Photo: Flickr.com/World Economic Forum

Strasbourg, France was host to the Council of Europe’s first World Forum for Democracy, held for five consecutive days in early October.  The Council of Europe, not to be confused with the European Council, exclusively fights for human rights and freedoms around the world.  The Forum brought together 47 member states and most importantly, many reformers, global leaders, and members of civil society to identify possible answers to challenges arising in today’s societies.  Together, they shared their experiences and discussed democracy in the world today.

All those who participated analyzed the state of democracy in the world, understanding its challenges and its advances.  They considered what forces shape future democracies, and more specifically whether the emerging voices from Arab Spring bring about lasting stability.  Such a discussion stimulated European politicians to question and understand how current events in North Africa and the Middle East can be a source of inspirations for reforms in established Western democracies.

Former President of Portugal Jorge Sampaio stresses that democracy must be accepted and understood more broadly so that it can be applicable to many countries outside of western civilizations.  By taking a more global perspective, he questions conventional democratic concepts by claiming that the defining aspect of democracy should be “government by discussion.”  Therefore, he calls upon states to take public debate more seriously “by means of free and responsible information and communication.”  Sampaio concludes that democracy should not be the end  goal itself, rather it should be the means to the end of a just society.

As for the European continent itself, Sampaio says that its leaders and citizens need to grapple with their democratic values.  In light of the current euro crisis and growing nationalism, European nations are dealing with the future of the welfare state and their growing cultural diversity.  Developed democracies on the continent are still questioning their values of equality and social justice, because it is in times of crisis that democratic values are put to the test.

The former president adds that policies of excessive austerity that divide Northern and Southern Europe, “can interfere terribly with democracy because democracy is about hope.  And when you cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope goes.”

Leaders and activists who gave speeches at the Forum all took the opportunity to address democracy in the areas of the world with which they had personal experience.  Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, in his keynote address, chose to discuss the conflict in Syria, since this part of the world is currently receiving the most attention from the UN.  Mr. Ban pledged that he wants to make promoting political transitions the UN’s main priority, such passing from insecurity to stability and from authoritarianism to democracy.

Before specifically addressing the Syrian problem, the Secretary-General reminded everyone that today, we need to listen to the people saying, “one of the great strengths of democratic regimes is that they can adapt to new realities. But this adaptation necessarily involves the cooperation and participation of the greatest number.”  On this thought, he stressed that the Syrian government must cease the militarization of the conflict and work to develop a political settlement.  He called on Syrian President Assad, saying that leaders need to listen to their citizens “before its too late.”  Mr. Ban added that once citizens are given a voice, social and economic development is key to a stable transition.

In his closing sentiments, writer and Egyptian militant Nawal El Saadawi embodied the aims of the Council of Europe and the World Forum on Democracy by saying, “It is impossible to establish and to make democracy alive without valuing justice, liberty, dignity, and human rights.”  However, the question of how democracy reacts to political, economic, and social changes is something that politicians and leaders across the world should be constantly reminded of.

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