Opinionista Chris Jones 10 September 2020

Democracy is under siege everywhere – we must defend and champion it

If we’re serious about democracy, we also have to put the rights of vulnerable people centre stage. In 2018 the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million. In 2019, the UN tracked 357 killings and 30 enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in 47 countries. Almost 50 countries lack laws protecting women from domestic violence. More than 1 billion children around the world are victims of violence.

In a speech at the 2017 Athens Democracy Forum, the late Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Kofi Annan, defended democracy by calling it “the political system most conducive to peace, sustainable development, the rule of law and the respect for human rights – the three pillars of any healthy and democratic society”.

But he also warned us against complacency. To ensure democracy remains the world’s most popular form of government, Annan suggested we champion it, and make it more effective and inclusive by tackling economic and political inequality.  

It is, therefore, fitting that the UN has designated 15 September as the International Day of Democracy to provide “an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world” and to emphasise that “only with the full participation of and support by the international community, national governing bodies, civil society and individuals, can the ideal of democracy be made into a reality to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere”.

This day is also observed to raise public awareness about the need to promote and uphold the principles of democracy, which in addition to the respect for human rights, include freedom and free and fair elections. These values are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and further developed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It’s also noteworthy that many of the targets of the UN’s 16th  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are precisely geared towards the protection of democratic institutions by promoting the rule of law at national and international levels, ensuring equal access to justice for all; substantially reducing corruption and bribery; developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions; ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels; ensuring public access to information; and protecting fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

It has to be said that these targets will only be achieved if we can eliminate conflict, insecurity, weak institutions, limited access to justice and corruption, which remain great threats to sustainable development and democracy. 

For example, among the institutions most affected by corruption are the judiciary and police. It’s estimated that developing countries lose about $1.26-trillion per year because of corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion. This money could be used to support those living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 a day) for at least six years. In South Africa, we’ve seen how corruption has become a “threat to our rights … [and] to the democratic project”, as advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi remarked recently.

If we’re serious about democracy, we also have to put the rights of vulnerable people centre stage as they often can’t fend for themselves. Sadly, there are many instances where this is not happening.

For example, in 2018 the number of people fleeing war, persecution and conflict exceeded 70 million, the highest level recorded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in almost 70 years. In 2019, the UN tracked 357 killings and 30 enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists in 47 countries.

What is also shocking is the violence perpetrated against women and children: 49 countries lack laws protecting women from domestic violence. In our own country, hardly a day goes by without yet another incidence of violence against women. 

More than 1 billion children around the world are victims of violence, which costs societies up to $7-trillion a year. 

Every seven minutes, somewhere in the world, a child is killed by violence. 

Nine in 10 children live in countries where corporal punishment is not fully prohibited, leaving 732 million children without legal protection. Many children also experience sexual abuse and cyberbullying.

These are just some of the statistics that show we cannot relent in our efforts to defend and cherish democracy, and also to advocate it in parts of the world where it’s still being resisted. 

People and organisations that are at the forefront of such endeavours should be lauded. According to global think-tank The Millennium Project “self-organised human rights movements for sustainable global democratic systems are taking place all over the world”. Unfortunately, at the same time, “anti-democratic forces are increasingly using new cybertools to manipulate democratic processes

The long-term growth of democratisation has stalled over the past decade, as Freedom House has pointed out. It reported that “105 countries are experiencing a net decline in freedom while 61 are improving in net freedom and … 67 countries declined in political rights and civil liberties, while 36 registered gains. Of the 195 countries assessed, 87 were rated free, 59 partly free, and 49 (36% of the world’s population) not free”.

We are fortunate to live in a free and democratic country. 

Since it took much struggle and many sacrifices to achieve this, we shouldn’t take our democracy for granted. We should hold accountable those who try to undermine it, because failure to do so would place us on a slippery slope towards anarchy. DM

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  • Democracy is certainly the best of many bad options. However, I do not understand how, since its inception more than 2000 years ago, it has not evolved into something more meaningful and specifically to put the power in the hands of the people and not in the hands of a few powerful politicians. This is an issue almost everywhere.

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