Opinion | ‘Our Democracies Need to Change’

Following are excerpts from a selection of panel discussions at the annual Athens Democracy Forum on global policy, held in association with The New York Times earlier this month. The panel descriptions are from the forum’s program. All the material has been edited and condensed.

Democracy in a Time of Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic and protests against racial inequality have tested leadership models around the world, and have brought unexpected changes. But it is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that democracy has collided with a crisis. This discussion examined historical precedents as well as how various political models have gained or lost legitimacy in the face of cataclysmic challenges.

PANELISTS Dubravka Suica, vice president, European Commission, Democracy and Demography; Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary general of International IDEA (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance); Hind Ziane, founder and chief executive, Génération Politique, a political strategy and public relations agency; and Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

DUBRAVKA SUICA At the beginning of the year, none of us could have imagined the multiple effects of Covid-19. So this crisis has shown us what we should value most in our union, namely, the need for unity and solidarity in difficult times. Also, we will make every effort not to raise this crisis but rather to learn lessons. You know that the European Union blazes a trail when it comes to the protection and deepening of democratic values, and this goes hand in- hand with human rights and the rule of law. … It is true that democracy’s having a hard time these days. People feel left behind. And what do they blame? They start blaming democracy itself. But democracy is still the best invention; there is nothing better. Still, we need to improve the ways to respond to citizens’ needs.

HIND ZIANE The very first point that I would like to make is that we are in a time of crisis. And I think this crisis that’s been going on for months all over the world has been telling us two things. The first thing is that our democracies are not equipped to face that kind of huge, cataclysmic event. The second lesson that we’ve learned, and that we actually have been knowing for some time, is that our democracies need to change. They are not able to operate normally anymore. … This is a great opportunity for us as a system — as a political system — to move forward and to change. So I do see it as a golden opportunity.

KEVIN CASAS-ZAMORA The odds for the survival of democracy are much better when [it proves] able to lower social uncertainty to manageable levels. And that’s why robust welfare states, solid rule of law and sustained fiscal prudence are so critical, because they reduce uncertainty.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI The reason democracy came to East Asia is because of the American model. South Korea went through this remarkable transformation, Taiwan went through this remarkable transformation, Indonesia went through a remarkable transformation. But they were guided by the gold standard of democracy, which is the United States of America. And the reason I highlight this is that in East Asia, what I see as the biggest threat to democracy in East Asia, is how the gold standard of democracy has now become really corroded very badly. The United States, which used to be a sort of a very high-functioning state — sending a man to the moon, massive middle class — suddenly, they’ve got all the attributes of a failed state in some ways, with reduced life expectancy, high infant mortality. I point out all these things to make the point that something fundamentally is going wrong here. And what I want to emphasize is that the United States has gone from being a democracy to what’s becoming a plutocracy, where the amount of money you have determines the outcomes that you get in the society. And that’s why not it’s no longer a government of the people, by the people, for the people — it’s a government of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.

The Strong and the Weak

Thirty years after the Berlin Wall fell, a new breed of strongmen has put up new walls built on nationalism, intolerance and fear. What is the antidote?

PANELISTS Andreas Bummel, executive director, Democracy Without Borders;Elhadj As Sy, chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation and former secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; Alison Smale, journalist and former United Nations under secretary general for global communications, and former executive editor of The International Herald Tribune.

ALISON SMALE On that joyous night in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was there and came through Checkpoint Charlie with the first East Germans to cross. I will never view the joy of that evening as a mistake, but it definitely serves as a reminder that we all must always work hard if we want to produce good results. And there’s a great deal of talk about togetherness now, a great deal of talk about the need to work to preserve democracy. And it sounds slightly sort of schoolmarmish to do this, but it definitely is something that takes a lot of work. And we can only really work against those who say they are strong but are, in fact, perhaps weak. And we can reinforce those who appear weak so that they stay strong. … If there is a strong, dare I say moral, belief in togetherness, then we have to be sure in not only being together, but being there to help the weakest people.

ANDREAS BUMMEL I believe there is a growing recognition of the fact that global collaboration is necessary. And not even only necessary, but actually not enough — that next steps are necessary for democratic institutions to actually be able to deliver. Because I guess that’s at the key here. People are not dissatisfied with democracy as a principle of government. What they are dissatisfied with is the performance of actual democratic governments. That’s the point. And so we need to ask ourselves, why are they not able to deliver the outcomes that I expected? And I think that has a lot to do with globalizing forces — you know, influences from the global scale, deregulated markets and such — that actually undermine the ability of established democratic institutions to deliver and to actually be relevant. So that’s why what is needed is more participation and better representation at the global scale. If we look at how the international system is run, you would have to acknowledge it’s completely undemocratic if it comes to the representation and participation of the citizens on the ground.

ELHADJ AS SY I think that democracy and the situations that we experience in different parts of the world remind us of what really it is about. And speaking from [Athens] in a democratic forum, it’s sometimes important to go back to the rules, which is about people. Democracy is not only about the system, it is not only about an ideology, it’s not about, you know, the West or East or the North and South; it’s about people. It’s about people’s lives, it’s about people’s well-being, it’s about people’s aspirations. And you can see throughout the globe, regardless of which states of economic development people are [at], they all aspire for something that all human beings have in common, which is the human dignity. So if democracy can develop on human dignity, if democracy can be the safe space where people’s voices count, and people themselves also count, it is a universal ideal to which I would say that everybody, you know, will be aspiring to.

Climate Change, Covid-19 and Human Rights

When the world came grinding to a halt this year, climate change and its causes were brought into stark relief. The panel discussed the importance of climate change as a global event with a global impact. What lessons has the pandemic taught us about what progress might be possible? And what are the implications for human rights?

PANELISTS Aron Cramer, president and chief executive, BSR (Business for Social Responsibility); Paul Polman, co-founder and chairman, Imagine, a consulting firm focused on environmental responsibility; and Clover Hogan, founder and executive director of Force of Nature, which enlists young people to take action on climate change.

CLOVER HOGAN The climate crisis is the symptom of broken systems, from the clothes I’m wearing to the food in my fridge or how I got here from London. The bedrock of these broken systems is a system of capitalism based on limitless growth, with finite resources, entrenched in a centuries-long history of the oppression of marginalized communities, of communities of color, of women, of Indigenous people, the custodians of our land. And it’s also based on a millenniums-long history of the commodification of nature, valuing the tree not for its ecosystem services and the oxygen that enables us to breathe, but for the table it provides, or the palm oil going into one of our chocolate bars. Now, ecological crises, of which the pandemic is one — the pandemic was caused by this exploitation of nature — show us not just how broken these very systems are, but how fragile and how ripe for disruption. We have an opportunity before us, as we’re forced to press “pause” on our hyperconsumptive, globalized lives to think about the future that we want to create, and to think about how each and every one of us — politicians, business leaders, concerned moms and dads, students — can step up to become custodians, to rethink so much of how we live, breathe and exist in the 21st century. And I believe that one of the most underutilized, and one of the most powerful, tools that we have is that of mind-set.

PAUL POLMAN What we’ve seen in the Covid crisis once more is the difficulty of global governance. Increasingly, the issues that we face — like the issues of the interdependence of the financial markets, cybersecurity, climate change and now also pandemics — require, without any doubt, a global response. These issues know no borders. And yet we’ve got about 86 countries putting export restrictions in place around [personal protective equipment] materials. We’ve seen a lack of cooperation between governments in terms of solidarity. The developing markets have gotten virtually zero support from the developed markets. So global governance is, without any doubt, at a low. And the reason it is at a low is that most institutions were created 70 years ago. And, frankly, unlike businesses that might have adjusted their strategies 10, 15, 20 times, global governance has not evolved.

ARON CRAMER One of the reasons that some oil and gas companies have begun to move on climate change more decisively is because they recognize that they can no longer attract the best and the brightest. They simply won’t have an employee base if they don’t contribute what’s needed in a very profound way on climate. It’s very unlikely that Amazon would have moved on climate without a very public display from its employees — and, mostly, it’s younger employees — to demand quite publicly that the company adopt an approach that is compatible with what we need to do on climate. Businesses have to understand that 21st-century talent expects that we can take on these big social issues, not least climate change, and without that, the pool of talent will not be available, and no company would possibly survive or thrive.

Information Wars

In recent months, the multifront battle between social media platforms, their users and the authorities who would regulate them has accelerated even further. What role does, or should, government play in keeping platforms honest and their users safe? And what tools can help citizens be more engaged?

PANELISTS Dan Shefet, lawyer, Paris Court of Appeal; Wietse Van Ransbeeck, co-founder and chief executive, CitizenLab, a citizen-engagement platform; and Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Israeli minister for strategic affairs.

ORIT FARKASH-HACOHEN Today there is no doubt that social media has become a haven for fake news, for incitement, for hate speech. What happens in my view is that in the name of, or on behalf of, freedom of speech, some groups spread fake news and violence around social media networks. And that is something that a state, every state, cannot overlook. As a minister, I started a process of engagement with the social media networks in Israel. We are conducting a round table with social media because I think that we can’t do it alone. Only enforcement and regulation will not do the trick. Social media networks must understand that they have power, and with power comes responsibility and accountability. And the fact is that, at the end of the day, they have the power to control the minds and to corrupt minds. This cannot be overlooked. So we’re implementing a program of four steps with the social media giants. We want them to create relevant and clear policies. They should enforce their policies without double standards. They should be transparent about the facts. And, lastly, [they should] remove problematic content.

WIETSE VAN RANSBEECK So we [at CitizenLab] provide a digital democracy platform. There are of course many other tools, or other platforms available. But what we do is we help citizens have a say in local policymaking within government projects, but also more from the bottom up, where citizens can bring up their proposals. What’s different, compared to social media, is that it actually starts from a broader question: How are we going to constitute the public sphere in the digital era? And social media are not a means to have a constructive debate. We all know about filter bubbles on social media networks, the echo chambers. So I think it’s also the responsibility of the government to rethink how we are going to create that digital democracy. And such [government-administered] platforms can be interesting because those platforms are owned by the government; they are the data owners. So when it comes to manipulation, the government is in control. They can also, when they procure those platforms, design the platforms in a way that some democratic values are safeguarded, in the sense that when we talk about transparency and openness, they can procure open-source platforms and make sure that the algorithms are open and transparent, but at the same time, when artificial intelligence is used, that it’s explained to the citizens in what way it is used. So I believe that probably the most important aspect is that those platforms can constitute a space where you have citizens from different backgrounds deliberate and have conversations with each other. And that is essential for democracy in the digital age, that we’re not only talking to people like us, but that we can have conversations with people who have different opinions.

DAN SHEFET I’ve had the opportunity of following almost all the cases before the International Criminal Court, the special tribunal on [Rwanda], the special tribunal on Yugoslavia and even the Nuremberg trials, dealing with incitement, and I can tell you that it is extremely difficult, even for the most trained judges, to decide whether something is illicit speech or not. There are many, many cases from these high-level courts, where somebody is either acquitted or convicted at the first level, and that decision is overturned on appeal. In other words, it’s extremely difficult. And I don’t see how we can oblige social media to be more clever than professional judges in terms of defining whether something is illicit speech or not, given, of course, that once we do that, we mathematically restrict not only free speech, but we also impose upon these organizations accountability sanctions, which are not related to knowledge. And that, to me, is not possible from a legal point of view.

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