International Democracy Day: Speech by UN Resident Coordinator Nicola Harrington-Buhay at Moldova State University

16 Sep 2013

It is a privilege to celebrate this year’s International Democracy Day with three principal custodians of Moldova’s democracy:

  • Honorable Speaker, the function you occupy is the very embodiment of democratic accountability.
  • Distinguished Rector, the establishment you lead plays a pivotal role in education for democracy: thank you for hosting us today.
  • Esteemed students – as the future of Moldova, you have the responsibility to take your country forward.

Your presence indicates the importance you attach to democracy and we are delighted to share Democracy Day with all of you.

At the time the United Nations was established, many parts of the world were not even independent, much less democratic. Still, the UN Charter assumed that governing by the will of the people was the only way to secure the three interlinked goals of the United Nations: peace, human rights, and development for everyone. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights went on to identify the right of all people to take part in the government of their country as a universal human right.

So for the UN, democracy, human rights, peace and social progress have always gone together, while recognizing that the specific form a democracy takes depends on the choice of every sovereign state.

International Democracy Day was established as an opportunity to reflect on achievements and what still needs to be done. Democracy everywhere is always dynamic, and “work in progress”, because societies are constantly changing as they face new challenges - economic turbulence, natural disasters, effects of globalization - and opportunities, new technologies being one. So this Day is a moment to take stock and to consider the society we want and what more we can contribute to achieving that.

I invite you to consider the following aspects.

Democracy is not only the electoral event but the fostering of a democratic culture.

It is by now widely understood that achieving democracy means more than elections. This is not to underestimate the importance of guaranteeing, and exercising, the right to vote in free and fair elections.

Nor does it deny the intrinsic value of participation. However, for participation to be meaningful, it must empower people to help themselves, to shape their own destiny, and to influence the world around them.

Public institutions - the Parliament, judiciary, executive, local authorities - of course have a central role in fostering a positive environment for participation, one in which the transparency and fairness of their actions builds a relationship of trust with their people – the so-called social contract.

However, it is one thing to design democratic institutions, and another to persuade everyone to live by democratic precepts.  Yes, states have a key role – but so do each and every one of us.

Fostering a democratic culture is everyone’s responsibility.

It requires mindsets which are ready to practice democracy. Yes this means turning out to vote, getting engaged in one’s own society. However, to be meaningful, democracy needs to be practiced on a daily basis. The UN Secretary General cites apathy with the political process as one of democracy’s principal enemies.

Democracy can be seen to work when communities, and indeed entire countries, are prepared and able to address opposing points of view, engage in constructive criticism and forge compromises. This requires open interaction across all groups to generate shared values, commit to common goals, and identify the priorities.

Human rights are indispensable to a healthy democracy.  

Democracy is intimately linked to human rights and fundamental freedoms. Democracy provides the most obviously natural environment for the protection and realization of rights based on the rule of law. It is important not only to guarantee the civil and political rights that the very existence of a democracy embodies, but also to deliver on cultural, economic and social rights – water, sanitation, access to a decent living.

A rights-based approach lies at the heart of the UN’s work. Its core principles are participation, non-discrimination, transparency and accountability, to empower people and communities, and deliver equality in the opportunities for all people.

We have our own rights – but also the obligation to foster the rights of others.

We must recognize that advancing the rights of others in society is good for ourselves, since it strengthens the rule of law for everyone. Indeed, a democracy can be seen at its strongest when the society as a whole puts emphasis on protecting the rights of the weakest, those who are in most need of the promotion and protection of their rights.

Diversity matters.

Lack of adequate representation of all groups in a society plagues many many countries. To demonstrate this, I need only point to the unequal participation of women in political and civil life. Worldwide, women hold less than 20% of parliamentary seats and ministerial portfolios. Fewer than 5% of heads of state are women. Yet they - we - represent more than half of the population. In some cases, women are hindered by law. More typically, however, they are blocked by unwritten rules of the game – attitudes, customs and behaviour. The same and more is often true for minority groups.

Not only does this situation discriminate against those groups and individuals, it also impedes opportunities to achieve better development outcomes. Societies which increased women’s participation in politics saw trust in the society rise among the population. They witnessed significant changes in attitudes towards politicians, more responsive service delivery for both men and women, and a drop in perceptions of corruption. Beyond women and politics, the economic crisis showed that countries with a more equal distribution of assets and opportunities across the population were more resilient and better able to withstand external shocks.

How does the United Nations help?

We fully recognise that each country must craft its own democratic path and choose the model that best works for it. Where we can help is in building capacities, offering knowledge and experiences of other countries, and shedding light on needs of particular groups that may not be immediately evident.

In the Republic of Moldova, the United Nations supports the democratic process directly and indirectly, including in the following ways:

  • Supporting the internal functioning of Parliament and the Central Electoral Commission, strengthening their capacities to deliver on their vital democratic mandates;
  • Helping the state and other actors effectively promote and protect human rights;
  • Supporting decentralization, a proven means of more accountable government;
  • Promoting peoples’ participation in delivering services in the community;
  • Building confidence across the banks of the Nistru through cooperation  around economic and social development;
  • Fostering equal access to health and education for vulnerable people;
  • Empowering women – advocating their greater representation in the political, social and economic life of this country;
  • Putting a priority on youth.

Why youth?

In late 2012, the UN Secretary-General called on people everywhere to help define new international development goals. Over 7,000 Moldovans engaged through internet and face-to-face on “the Future Moldova Wants”. Your generation stood out for the clarity of your message and for being:

  • Acutely aware of the challenges other people face even when these do not affect you personally;
  • Wanting, and believe everyone is responsible for, creating a harmonious society;
  • Wanting your views and contribution to be taken seriously by state and civil entities;
  • Expecting to drive your own future.

The United Nations hears you. Existing UN programmes involve youth as peer leaders, advocates, confidence builders, and co-producers of development. We are committed to intensifying our engagement with you and your peers to help you to deliver “the Future you want” for Moldova.

Thank you very much.