SECRETARY BLINKEN: So it’s a pleasure to be with everyone this morning – and for some of you, this afternoon, this evening – and to introduce two distinguished leaders who will open today’s session on bolstering democratic resilience. Each of them is going to offer us, I think, unique vantage points on the challenges and opportunities that we’re facing as a community of democracies.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and threatened New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ensured public health while respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. I think she demonstrated how effective government leadership that preserves civil liberties, elevates voices of the marginalized is critical for gaining public trust at a time of crisis. And we so we very much appreciate having the prime minister with us to share insights on how democracies can build back better together from the pandemic through increased resilience, solidarity, accountability, and to deliver broadly for their people. These are invaluable lessons, and we look to the prime minister to share them.
PRIME MINISTER ARDERN: (In Māori.) Mr. President, Secretary Blinken, thank you for bringing us together for this session on strengthening democratic resilience. My distinguished fellow panelists, heads of state and government, the many civil society, academic, and private sector leaders here today, greetings from Aotearoa/New Zealand. (In Māori.)
Democracy, pluralism, and partnership, underpinned by human rights and the rule of law are essential to our identity as a nation. Aotearoa/New Zealand is one of the oldest democracies in the world and it’s held regular elections since 1854. In 1893, we became the first self-governing country in the world in which a woman had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Since 1867, there has also been dedicated seats to ensure our indigenous people, Māori, have a voice in our parliament. But our democratic system is not just about voting. It took almost a century longer for governments to address equality and justice issues for Māori and for women, and this work continues today.
While we can reflect positively on progress to date, we need to be conscious that democratic systems and the progress they make can be fragile. They need certain things to thrive, among them high-quality institutions, a clear social contract that binds people together and underpins their relationship with governments, an unwavering commitment to human rights and the rule of law, a real voice for marginalized people, and the ability to make decisions and respond to pressing economic and social issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging impacts on us all. From millions of deaths around the world to hundreds of thousands of new daily cases, this is having a lasting human impact on those who have been sick or lost relatives and friends, on the way we all live, on our workplaces, and on how we communicate and connect. COVID-19 has exposed institutional and social deficits, mental health issues, access to housing, social displacement and inequality, the distrust many marginalized groups already had in governments. COVID has made difficult social justice issues into urgent priorities, and it’s seen brave people, essential workers put their well-being on the line for the rest of us.
Our work, economic, and social lives have been pushed online. This has accelerated digital transformation in exceptional, innovative ways, and it has also thrust many into an environment that can be isolating, unfamiliar, and lacking the social norms that govern offline behaviors. For some, it has deepened economic and social distance, highlighting problems of inclusion. This, in turn, feeds into questions of democratic resilience.
Digital developments are having profound effects on many of our democracies. Many of those are enabling and strongly positive. Some, though, require careful thought because of their impacts on society and democratic institutions. As we think about democratic resilience, we need consciously to engage communities on how we nurture and maintain democracies in a digital environment. That will be key part of building back better.
Aotearoa/New Zealand is committed to a free, open, secure, and globally connected internet as a powerful vehicle for social progress, democratic participation, and economic and technological advances. The internet connects people across our borders, between our legal systems and our distinctive democracies, cultures, and values. Keeping it free, open, and secure means making certain conscious tradeoffs in the way we pursue other objectives.
Governments alone don’t possess all the expertise or legitimacy to operate in that space. Multistakeholder approaches are essential if we’re to chart a durable, rights-respecting path forward. I’m a firm believer in embracing the strength of our diversity. Open, multistakeholder approaches can be powerful, effective, and importantly, enduring.
I’ve seen the progress made through the Christchurch Call to Action where governments, the private sector, and civil society work together to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online. We’re delighted this year to have the United States of America join the Christchurch Call. The U.S. has joined more than 50 other countries, a global network of civil society organizations, and many of the world’s largest tech companies in this work. This is a vote of confidence in the idea a safer internet does not have to compromise on openness, nor on human rights.
On a related note, as artificial intelligence and emerging technologies play an increasing role in our lives, we need to develop ethical, human-rights-based frameworks to understand the impacts and govern them. Those frameworks need global perspective, countries small and large, and voices and expertise from across society. Aotearoa/New Zealand is pleased to work on these issues and the global partnership on AI, the Christchurch Call, the Freedom Online Coalition, and here at this summit.
These frameworks need to focus on effective solutions. Our digital future, democratic resilience, respect for human rights and each other demand no less. This week is critical to ensure technology enhances and contributes to free and open societies rather than acts as an instrument for oppression or to undermine human rights.
I also believe as elected leaders we have a responsibility to act when we see emerging challenges to democratic resilience. In New Zealand, we saw that COVID-19 was affecting traditional media models already under pressure from rapid changes in technology and consumer demand. We’ve also seen the spread of misinformation on COVID-19, particularly through social media. We had to act, so we made it a priority to establish a public interest journalism fund to help our media continue to produce stories that keep New Zealanders informed. Underpinning this action is a recognition that a vibrant and trusted media sector is a vital component of a healthy democracy, and especially during times of crisis.
In these challenging COVID times, the world’s democracies have a unique opportunity to come together to ensure global health settings and our domestic health systems are better prepared for the next pandemic. Aotearoa/New Zealand will work with partners to promote global cooperative and evidence-based approaches to responding to disease outbreaks, so we can ensure equitable and sustainable outcomes for all countries and prevent deepening inequalities.
This opportunity to protect the health of our people, the health of our economies, and the health of our democracies should not be lost. This is what building back better is all about.
Once again, thank you, President Biden, for convening this summit and the invitation to open this panel discussion on strengthening democratic resilience. I look forward to continuing this important conversation for us all. (In Māori.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you so much, Prime Minister Ardern, for the very powerful example that you set and for the call to action that you’ve issued to all of us today.
We’d like to turn now to Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, who’s helped lead the way to highlight the essential role that workers’ rights and organized labor play in democracies’ ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic and chart a course to build back better. We very much welcome her insights on how the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact actually offer opportunities to build a more equitable and sustainable economic future. And we also welcome insights on how governments across the globe can strengthen democratic resiliency by advancing the economic security of all of their citizens and ensuring that democracy benefits employers and workers alike.
MS HENRY: Thank you, Secretary Blinken. I’m honored to be with you all today. And I want to thank President Biden for including a U.S. trade union leader in this democracy summit. I am the president of a two-million-member organization of service employees who’ve been on the frontlines of this pandemic as essential workers in nursing homes, janitors, airport workers, city and county workers, home and childcare providers, and city and county workers and fast-food workers fighting for 15 and a union.
We believe there is a clear link between strong unions and a vibrant democracy. Unions equalize power in politics and the economy and are one of the most important tools to fight fascism, authoritarianism, and plutocracy. Unions were essential to fighting fascist power in Europe, to weakening Apartheid’s grip in South Africa, and re-establishing democracy in Brazil, among other examples.
Unions and government are the two key vehicles for working people to hold the wealthy and corporations accountable. Unions have played a significant role in challenging the concentration of wealth in America, fighting to give working people of all races a fair shot at a decent life. Unions are a source of significant power for workers.
But recent related crises threaten our democracy and democracies around the world: soaring inequality, widespread poverty, discrimination and racial injustice, and the looming threat of climate change. The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic have intensified these problems at a time when many working people in the U.S. have not yet fully recovered from the 2008 recession. Unchecked corporate power and continued systemic racism threaten working people’s ability to join together for the power to improve their lives. These problems are exacerbated by the rise of autocratic politics whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning.
Few civic, governmental, or private institutions remain capable of holding the power of concentrated wealth in check. Building strong unions is one of the most effective measures that we can undertake to increase voter participation. Institutions like unions allow people to practice democracy and provide a check on corporate power. There’s a strong argument that giving ordinary Americans a say over how their workplaces are governed is just as fundamental to democracy as giving working people access to the ballot.
I’d like to point to our member leader, Reverend Harriet Bradley, a home care worker in Atlanta for 12 years who’s been fighting for investments in care work. Her leadership in Georgia mobilized record numbers of voters to participate in both the 2020 general election and the January ‘21 Senate runoff. Reverend Harriet continues to lead the fight every day to improve her $12 an hour wage and to expand benefits for home care workers and services for elders and people with disabilities.
We see a revived interest in organizing trade unions all around the globe. There are certainly many countries where a revival of international solidarity and direct support for trade unions could help bring democratic change from Myanmar to Hungary to Zimbabwe, and we need to have a genuine revival of trade unionism here in the United States and also a realignment of more concrete support for mass-based worker and political organizations. It is such organizations and movement that can both bring about and institutionalize democratic change.
As a democratic and independent voice of workers, it’s obvious why the labor movement poses a threat to leaders with autocratic tendencies. Unions have resources, internal democratic structures, access to people and communities, and various platforms. Unions are a critical tool in the fight against fascism.
President Joe Biden has been directly supported of trade unions in public declarations, executive and administrative action, and federal legislation. The Build Back Better legislation will be a major breakthrough in the revival of labor unions in the United States by creating and improving jobs for over a million women of all races who provide home care services to millions of American families and who have been excluded from our labor laws for far too long. The Build Back Better Act is a critical step toward unrigging the rules and giving working people the ability to join together in unions no matter where they work.
But we can’t stop there. Yesterday the U.S. Secretary of Labor announced a new global initiative, the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing Worker Empowerment and Rights, the MPOWER initiative – the biggest financial commitment ever made by the USG to advance workplace democracy and union rights around the globe. We need to continue to fight to raise the minimum wage, to pass laws at every level of government that expand collective bargaining – this includes the PRO Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act – and encourage government to find creative ways to get multinational corporation like Amazon and McDonald’s to agree to set national collective bargaining table for millions of workers in the U.S.
Workers also need the freedom to vote in free and fair elections, which has been increasingly under attack in the United States. The autocratic efforts attempting to suppress our voting power are very similar to the efforts to destroy unions (inaudible) harder for unions and to keep power in the hands of corporations and billionaires.
In this moment of profound hope and possibility, we cannot allow these attacks on our democratic norms to stand. Worker power depends on being able to collectively bargain through a union and to freely vote to elect our representatives that pass laws that improve the lives of every worker and all communities. Now is the time to stand up to authoritarianism by building the collective power of working people. To strengthen our democracy and our economy, we must strengthen unions. Thank you.
MR ACEVEDO: Thank you to Mary Key Henry, the president of the international – the Service Employees International Union for that powerful message on workers’ right and how essential it is to democracy. I am Enrique Acevedo, a correspondent with 60 Minutes Plus and CBS News, and I’ll be moderating the rest of our panel discussion on bolstering democratic resilience.
For 15 consecutive years, the world has experienced a decline in global freedom and a recession in democracy. The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse by creating an environment ripe for exploitation by governments and non-state actors keen on consolidating power. In many countries, historical checks and balances have eroded, fostering the need for this robust reflection on how democracies endure and carry on in the face of the core challenges that threaten them.
The global consensus, as we’ve seen in our conversations today, on democratic norms has shown signs of fraying in recent years with increased polarization, disillusion, and authoritarian patterns of governance, including in advanced Western democracies. How serious are the strains on democracy, and more importantly, what steps can be taken to reinvigorate democratic societies and institutions?
We will explore how the rise of strongman states, internal and external conflict, rising inequity, polarization, and the COVID-19 pandemic challenge the future for more participatory models of government. Today we’ll learn from our panelists’ diverse experiences about what makes democracies more resilient.
But first, let me take this opportunity to formally introduce the 71st U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. For over three decades and three presidential administrations, Secretary Blinken has helped shape U.S. foreign policy to ensure it protects U.S. interests and delivers results for the American people. He served as deputy secretary of state for President Barack Obama from 2015 to 2017, and before that as President Obama’s principal deputy national security advisor. He was nominated by President Biden on November 2020, confirmed by the U.S. Senate on January 26, 2021, and sworn in as Secretary of State by Vice President Kamala Harris the following day.
Mr. Secretary, thank you for hosting us today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Enrique, thank you so much. And it’s wonderful to be with you, to be with everyone, and good morning, at least from here in Washington to everyone.
Maybe the most urgent challenge facing our planet right now is ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Any world summit, and especially any Summit for Democracy, has to address this challenge. Because democracies at their best are resilient, creative, capable of overcoming complex challenges, and adapting quickly when it’s called for, and most of all, deeply committed to meeting people’s needs, especially in times of crisis. And the COVID-19 pandemic calls upon governments and citizens worldwide to show all those qualities and more.
That’s why I believe democracies are uniquely suited to lead this fight. Stopping COVID requires transparency, sharing data, being forthright with citizens. It requires accountability, using public resources responsibly, acknowledging mistakes, stepping forward to take on the hard work rather than blaming others or passing the buck. It requires inclusivity, devising strategies that will help all citizens no matter their income, their race, their religion, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, gender identity, because we won’t stop the pandemic unless everyone is protected.
And more broadly, fighting COVID requires the free exchange of ideas and solutions. Government officials, public health experts, scientists, civil society members, citizens all working together across the entire pandemic response, from contact tracing to public health campaigns to vaccine distribution. These are vital tools in the fight against COVID, and they also happen to be core democratic values. And we need to stay committed to them in the months ahead to bring the world together behind them as we keep pressing hard to bring this pandemic to an end.
That’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of cooperation and coordination. We set the goal of vaccinating at least 70 percent of the world by next September with quality, safe, effective vaccines. To do this, countries must step up our efforts to boost production, to increase vaccine donations, to fulfill the pledges made to COVAX, and help solve the last-mile challenges that actually turn vaccines into vaccinations. For example, figuring out the logistics of storing and delivering millions of vaccine doses safely, helping countries plan and implement mass vaccination campaigns, supporting health care workers at a time when they’re badly over-stretched.
The United States is making good on our commitments. To date, we’ve donated more than 300 million vaccine doses to 110 countries, primarily through COVAX to ensure their equitable distribution. We’re on track to meet our goal of donating 1.2 billion doses by next fall. We’re investing billions of dollars in increasing vaccine manufacturing here at home so that we can significantly boost global vaccine production to meet the world’s needs, both now in the face of COVID-19 and in preparation for future pandemics. And we’re supporting countries as they increase their own vaccine manufacturing, because local manufacturing makes it a lot easier to deliver and administer vaccines, and that saves lives.
Our goal across all these lines of effort is to end the pandemic, and to put the world on stronger footing ahead of the next one. COVID-19 has revealed how badly we need to strengthen global health security so that we can prevent, detect, and respond to future health emergencies more effectively.
And again, we need democracies to lead, because we’ve all seen the tactics that authoritarian governments have used under the guise of fighting COVID. We’ve seen how they’ve imposed harsh and unnecessary states of emergency, placed severe limitations on people’s freedom to peacefully assemble or associate, and try to postpone or cancel elections, taking advantage of this crisis to consolidate their power by any means necessary.
We’ve seen the expanded misuse of spyware and other surveillance technology to monitor citizens far beyond what’s needed to fight the virus. We’ve seen the rapid spread of disinformation and misinformation. We’ve seen vulnerable groups targeted, and civil society, journalists, and opposition figures threatened, silenced, imprisoned. And we’ve seen corruption increase significantly, with extortion, procurement fraud, mis-invoicing, counterfeit products, the diversion of funds meant to save lives.
Democracies need to stand together against these dangerous trends, because if we don’t, no one will. To that end, the United States will be taking new steps on corruption in particular. We’re establishing a new role: coordinator on global anti-corruption issues. This senior official will integrate and elevate the fight against corruption across all aspects of American diplomacy and foreign assistance, and they’ll lead our efforts to implement the first U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, which the White House announced just this week.
We’re also increasing our financial support for the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, which brings democracies together to support media and civil society groups worldwide that are working to expose and deter corruption. And Denmark, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the Open Society Foundation have stepped forward with support, too. We’re calling on others to join us. Our goal is to provide $10 million in new funding by next year’s Summit for Democracy so the consortium can take its work to the next level.
On this and every front, we look to others – other governments and civil societies worldwide – to be our partners. When it comes to COVID-19, fighting corruption, renewing democracy, and so much else, there’s only so much one country can do alone. We have to work together.
And in that spirit, I’m looking forward to hearing from all of our panelists today, and I’m grateful to everyone here for being part of what is a vital endeavor.
Thanks for joining us.
MR ACEVEDO: Thank you, Secretary Blinken, on these important commitments to support democratic norms around the world. And now I would like to introduce our panelists, which include several heads of state and heads of government, as well as governmental and nongovernmental leaders. They will be providing three-minute remarks each on bolstering democratic resilience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
His Excellency Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana, it’s an honor to have you join us, sir. Let me start by asking you: What are the lessons other countries can learn about democratic resilience from Ghana’s robust and longstanding tradition of competitive multi-party elections and peaceful transfers of power, sir?
PRESIDENT AKUFO-ADDO: Thank you very much indeed for having me on this very important – to participate in this very important conversation. I think that the American government and President Biden is to be – are to be commended for the initiative of bringing together this summit and bringing together people from all different aspects of the social spectrum to look at this – the challenges that democracy is in this first part of the 21st century.
Clearly the COVID has made – has been a major source of challenge because of the consequences of it and what has to be done. I’m not so sure that people can necessarily learn from Ghana, but I can speak a little bit about we have been doing in Ghana. We stopped short of announcing a state of emergency. We took certain important measures of a restrictive nature. We – the obvious one was to close our borders to both land and air and sea, because initially the virus came from outside. We also took some decisions that restricted the movement of people in workplaces, et cetera. These – but those were explained to the people, and I was on national television, on – sometimes weekly if not fortnightly basis explaining every single step the government was having to take to make sure we could keep the pandemic at bay.
Fortunately, the people in Ghana understood and appreciated and supported the initiatives that government had to take, and I think that that – for me, if there is a lesson to be learned, that is the lesson that is the most critical, that the people themselves appreciate that measures of a relatively stringent – have to be taken in as a matter of collective self-preservation, and that it is not being done as a way of getting government to have more power and control over the lives of people, but it is being done in order to preserve the lives of people and preserve their health and safety.
The communication between the government – i.e. myself as president, because we have an executive president situation here in Ghana – and – was a very important aspect of our strategy. And at all times we needed to keep the Ghanaian people fully abreast, fully informed about each one of the steps that were being taken and the why – that is, if people’s certain rights and habits and practices were being curtailed or being modified in the interest of collective safety, why they were having to be done.
And I think that that has so far succeeded, and it has meant that we have not had to take any drastic decisions – shutting down the press, shutting down media – during the period of the pandemic we’ve had strikes in Ghana. Trade union rights have not been curbed. The rights of assembly, the rights of free speech, the rights of association, none of those have been abridged in this period, largely because this ongoing dialogue between government and the people has been at the heart and the very center of our strategy of how we can handle the pandemic and at the same time maintain the democratic institutions and values that have become a very important part of Ghana’s life and body politic.
It took us a long time to arrive at democracy in Ghana. We had the periods immediately after independence of authoritarian government, a series of military coups. That’s why we are now fourth republic. But I think at the end of that process 30 years ago, there was a collective decision on the part of the Ghanaian people that we were going to go down the democratic (inaudible) and we’re going to keep engaged on that, and that has united the body politic. It is – it’s a consensus that has been forged across the broad spectrum of Ghanaian public life and the political actors of – we’ve had, what, eight elections, five presidential transitions, three occasions when there have been changes of power from one party to another. All of these have taken place without disturbing the foundations of the Ghanaian state, and it is that attachment to democratic values and institutions that we’re determined to protect, even during this crisis that we’ve been going through with the pandemic.
And fortunately, and by the grace of God, it’s been more or less under control. Today the active numbers are well under a thousand. We’ve tested millions of our people. We are now happily vaccinating a large – 6, 7 million people have been vaccinated in Ghana in a population of 30 million. Our goal is to vaccinate by the end of this period 20 million people.
One very important matter that has emerged out of this is our determination that in the future we’ll no longer be dependent on foreign sources for vaccines, because at a certain moment we couldn’t get our hands on any because we don’t produce them here. We made the decision that we are going to go ahead and establish our own facility for producing vaccines. A national vaccine institute has been established and work is taking place at a very rapid rate so that we also become self-sufficient in the production of vaccines. We don’t want to be dependent again for – in this critical area of public health.
So this is one of the most important lessons that we have learned from this vaccine, and because of the way that certain powers and countries behaved in the world that there is no substitute for self-reliance. And the self-reliance has boosted our capacity to manage things within the democratic context that we have.
MR ACEVEDO: Thank you so much, Mr. President. I just want to emphasize the free flow of information and transparency as a key component of Ghana’s strategy to fight the virus.
Now we go to Her Excellency Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr. She’s the mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone, the capital. Welcome to our panel, ma’am. As the mayor of the largest city in Sierra Leone, you have a tremendous responsibility to your citizens, yet the national government’s policies, politics, and budget significantly impact what you can accomplish. How have you been able to innovate at a local level to ensure that democracy delivers for your constituents during the pandemic? And how can democratically elected leaders, regardless of political affiliation, ideology, and level of government work together more efficiently?
MS AKI-SAWYERR: Thank you so much. And I’d like to also thank President Biden for giving me this opportunity to be part of this discourse today. Indeed, as a elected official, mayor of the capital city, we clearly have a role to play and had a role to play ongoing within the pandemic. And these concepts, these tenets of democracy, particularly citizen participation, has really been a key part of how we’ve done this. The pandemic happened within our ongoing context of rolling out a program called #TransformFreetown, a community-centered, inclusive approach to urban development. So we were already engaging residents, had met with 15,000 as we built and determined what our targets would be over these three years.
And that accountability, that engagement served us well in terms of coming in and engaging residents with the specifics of what was going to be our contribution to the pandemic. Key to that was the fact that we have 35 percent of our residents in informal settlements, and needing to understand in the absence of water, the space for social distancing, what could effectively be done. And we came up with some great initiatives which have really made an impact. But when we talk about democracy, we don’t do it in a vacuum. And that question of the social contract, that trust which is so critical for how residents will respond, how citizens will respond in a time of crisis, is actually already planted in times prior to the crisis.
So in our context, as we talk about democracy being government of the people, for the people, key to that is the people choosing their government. And one of the sort of dilemmas we’ve had, one of the challenges, is that we’ve been in a situation where in 2019, nine elected parliamentarians were removed from parliament by a court order and replaced not by the vote of the people but by another court order. Similarly, in this current time, we’re also facing a situation which is challenging that trust, where the auditor general, very key for fighting corruption, has been unconstitutionally suspended indefinitely.
So you have this sort of – there’s a need to work together, central government, local government. There’s a need to ensure that democratic tenets are held strongly and that residents have confidence and the trust, because if there’s one thing that’s key to fighting a pandemic, as we’ve seen all around the world, it’s having that trust of residents. So when trust is eroded or challenged, it actually means that in a time of crisis, building that collective engagement, that belief – whether it’s for taking the vaccines, accepting the truth of the virus – it makes it harder. So as President Biden said earlier in his opening remarks, democracy is not a state, it’s an act. And our continued actions need to be leading us towards the direction of strengthening democracies.
One last thing I’ll just say is that we’ve seen on our continent a reversal for the first time in 15 years of good governance. This is not just about Sierra Leone, but it’s about Africa. And in a country where 40 percent of our people are living before the – below the poverty line, democracy is not an option, it’s a must. So we use the pandemic as a lever to see what can be done, how democracy serves us, but we mustn’t forget that democracy and the act of democracy and the acts against democracy will take us either one way or the other. We must continue to invest in actions that strengthen democracy at all levels of government.
MR ACEVEDO: Mayor Aki-Sawyerr, thank you. Mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone with an emphasis on the fight against corruption, of course, strengthening rule of law and checks on government, trust as a main theme in your participation. Thank you so much.
Now we go to Her Excellency Sylvia Hernández Sánchez. She is the president of the Legislative Assembly in Costa Rica. Bienvenida a esta conversación. Evidence shows that independent legislators are critical for democratic resilience and accountability. What actions did your legislature take to contribute to Costa Rica’s success in pandemic response, and how have politicians and parties in Costa Rica demonstrated democratic resilience during this crisis?
MS HERNÁNDEZ: Thank you, Enrique. Well, first of all, I would like to congratulate the United States and President Biden and Secretary Blinken for this timely summit to defend democracy and send my greetings to the distinguished leaders in the panel today.
Costa Rica democracy is not perfect, and of course, we do not have all the answers, but we do have the commitment to make our democracy better. So I would like to begin by referring to our experience, experience in Costa Rica where, from the onset of the pandemic, congress met without interruption and the lines of communication and coordination between the executive and the legislative branches were completely open. In general, actors understood the gravity of the situation and avoided politicizing the pandemic, standing behind the government in the implementation of necessary measures.
We did not, however, provide a simple stamp of approval. We pushed back against measures we thought were fiscally irresponsible. We scrutinize and demand accountability on everything from aid packages to emergency procurement. And we did not allow the pandemic to bring government to a halt. We continued to work on projects and, of course, projects for economic growth, improvements in governance. And one of the recent examples was the process of the accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and so on.
Still, the pandemic has evidenced and exacerbated existing cracks in democracies around the world, from gross inequalities that translated into power imbalances and unfair distribution of cost and sacrifice to widespread corruption, to low interpersonal trust and trust institutions, and to the limited reach of the state in the lives and outcomes of large segments of population because of informality, porous welfare systems, and deep horizontal inequalities, including, of course, gender and race disparities.
To many people around the world, the pandemic has underlined a sense of the state that is distanced, slow, clunky in its response, and deaf of the needs and realities of the average person. Per the latest Regional Human Development Report from the UNDP, 8 out of 10 Latin Americans believe that their countries are governed in the interests of few powerful people, few powerful groups, highlighting just how deep the crisis of representation runs. Only about half of the population expressed support for democracy, while in many countries more than a third of respondents are indifferent of the type of regimes in which they live. In other words, the pandemic has deepened a sense of disappointment regarding the real, tangible consequences of democracy in everyday life – this on the demand side of the democracy.
To conclude, on the supply side, the pandemic has provided an opportunity for all authoritarian tendencies to creep back to the surface, such as a limit on individual rights and freedoms, concentration and abuse of emergency powers in the hands of the executive, the erosion of checks and balances, and the use of the state, including the security forces, for political, partisan, and clientelist purposes. Thank you.
MR ACEVEDO: Thank you, Ms. Silvia Hernández from Costa Rica. Really a shining example of democratic resilience in a region that has seen more than its share of democratic backsliding in recent years.
Now we go to Her Excellency Violeta Bermúdez, the former prime minister of Peru. Women have been disproportionately affected by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and especially in Latin America. How have women in Peru overcome these profound challenges, including gender-based violence, discrimination, threats related to advocacy for human rights, loss of income, and death and sickness of friends and family members? How did government agencies and women’s advocacy groups stepped in to help in this very difficult time? And in what ways can democratic institutions bolster opportunities for women beyond the pandemic? Welcome.
MS BERMÚDEZ: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much. First of all, I would like to commend and thank President Biden for the opportunity to be a part of this important summit. The pandemic has indeed specifically affected the lives of women. Isolation measures kept them in their homes together with their families, and this meant burden when it came to caretaking, and some were exposed to violent situations without effective protection due to the limited reach of responsible institutions, especially during the first phase of the pandemic. In poorer areas, women have always become organized collectively to help the most vulnerable people in their families, and they have had the support of the state. But unfortunately, this support is never sufficient. Women’s organizations and civil society, specifically feminist groups, have been trying to respond to the needs of women and help end the situation.
We need to remember that the first lines of defense, the presence of women, has been significant in all of our countries, not just in Peru. Over 70 percent of health care staff are women, but only few of them are actually in decision-making positions. The pandemic has shown that one of the main pillars of democracy, which is equality, has not been sufficiently dealt with because there are situations of inequality and discrimination that have been deepened by the pandemic. Poor women are now poorer than they were, and there are many gaps that have become significantly and unfortunately deeper.
So what can we do to strengthen democracy in this context? I think that we must take into considering the situation of women. We can’t ignore the fact that there was discrimination and inequality even before the pandemic and this has become more acute, and therefore the actions required from states need to be much stronger in order to close the gaps of discrimination and exclusion.
First then, I think that we need to acknowledge that the weaknesses of democracy are not just a result of the pandemic. Inequality and discrimination against women existed before then. So we must find global, sustainable solutions, and we must specifically pay attention to everyone’s different realities. Not all women are in the same boat or in the same position. We need to invest resources. We need to support each other, find a way out of this. And we need to find ways to close gender gaps and march towards equality. We must strengthen democratic institutions that ensure the right to equality.
As I was saying just a minute ago, this isn’t just a work to be done by government. Civil society organizations, the media, the private sector, and also political parties have huge responsibility when it comes to facing this challenge. Each actor has a significant role to play. Before the pandemic, for example, in our country we worked together to find solutions, and altogether we have coordinated among countries to find solutions, for example, of better distribution of vaccines.
We can translate this type of teamwork into work to be done to strengthen our democracy with equal participation of men and women in every area where decisions are made. Women have been present and we still are present on the frontlines, but we also want to be present on the frontlines when it comes to decision making. Thank you very much.
MR ACEVEDO: (In Spanish.) Thank you for reminding us how equality, gender equality, is a pillar of democracy. Thank you to our translators as well.
Mr. Douglas Rutzen, the president of the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, Global COVID-19 pandemic really impacted civic freedoms. The Civic Freedoms Tracker reports that all but 20 countries have adopted emergency measures to respond to this pandemic. While some are appropriately limited in the scope and duration – like we’ve heard from our panelists – and subject to appropriate oversight, many of these measures put restrictions on fundamental freedoms of expression and association, among others. How can governments work to administer and ease these measures in a way that bolsters public health while also protecting human rights? And if I’m allowed another question, which models of combatting the virus while protecting civic freedom have worked better and which have not?
MR RUTZEN: Thank you, Enrique. I congratulate President Biden and Secretary Blinken for hosting this summit and this session. I am honored to join this distinguished panel.
Last weekend, an ambassador asked me if the pandemic will be like 9/11, a crisis that negatively impacts human rights for decades to come. And there’s reason for concern. Once the pandemic struck, governments had to move quickly. I understand that they prioritized decisive action over democratic deliberation. And some measures were waved through so quickly that citizens and legislatures had no time to read them, much less debate them. As a result, some responses were disproportionate. Secretary Blinken has talked about this. Others gave the executive branch vast power, undermining democratic checks and balances. And in too many countries, over-broad measures were used to surveil and then arrest democracy activists. Building on Secretary Blinken’s opening remarks, pandemic response has been used to lock up activists and lock down democracy.
Now, I know the pandemic is far from over. But COVID first struck two years ago, and we have to be careful about conditioning ourselves to a state of perpetual emergency. As UN Special Rapporteur Ní Aoláin has documented, emergency measures can seep into the legal framework and harm human rights. And this is particularly true when a threat doesn’t have a natural end date. Think of terrorism, or pandemics.
Using a medical metaphor, emergency powers are like fevers that strike the body politic. They initially provide protection, but if they’re too severe or they last too long, they cause great damage.
So Enrique, you asked: How do we ensure democratic health while responding to a crisis? Three Ps. One, prevention. Let’s prevent further harm to human rights. During the Year of Action, governments should engage with legislatures, civil society, public health experts, and others to review both pandemic responses and the overall framework for emergency powers.
Two, promotion of democratic values. There are plans for a pandemic treaty, a global health threats council, and even a $10 billion financing mechanism. We need to embed human rights, civic engagement, and transparency in the international architecture for pandemic response.
Three, preparedness. During the pandemic, nearly three dozen parliaments suspended sessions. Over 75 democracies limited court operations. Let’s work together to develop emergency preparedness plans for democratic institutions.
So three Ps: prevent harm, promote democratic values, and prepare for the next emergency. And how do we advance this work during the Year of Action? I understand that there will be democracy cohorts on specific issues, including, importantly, civic space. Let’s use this cohort to share and scale good practice, including from the distinguished members of this panel.
In closing, the ambassador raised an interesting question: whether the pandemic is this generation’s 9/11. Are we ushering in a new era of surveillance, of travel restrictions, of the compression of civic space? But as we heard from other panelists, we have the power to safeguard public health and human rights. Let’s learn from history, let’s create our own legacy, and let’s build back better. Thank you.
MR ACEVEDO: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Douglas Rutzen. I’ll stay with the three Ps: prevention, promotion of democratic values, and preparedness.
That concludes our panel discussion. I want to thank all of our panelists – of course, the president of Ghana; the mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone; the president of the assembly in Costa Rica; Professor Bermúdez, the former prime minister in Peru; and Douglas Rutzen. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. Secretary, we were talking about the need for a robust reflection, a robust conversation on democratic resilience before we started our panel. I think we learned a lot from these experiences.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, Enrique, I think we did, and I really appreciate the – not just the interventions that our panelists made, but the thought that went into them, driven from experience, and also even as we continue to deal with the pandemic, trying to draw some lessons from what we’ve already learned and figuring out how we implement them going forward. So I really want to thank each and every one of you for taking part in this conversation this morning.
I think the discussion has driven home how vital it is that as we fight COVID-19, we also defend democratic values. In fact, in order to fight COVID-19, we must defend these values, because they’ll actually make the difference. They’ll help us prevent corruption from draining resources that should go to this fight, deter repressive leaders from using the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on political opponents and deny people their rights, make sure that there is transparency and accountability so that we have the data we need to protect our citizens, and the capacity to fix mistakes when they occur.
So playing off of this discussion, I would just urge all of us to recommit to these values and carry them forward as we keep pushing to end the pandemic and set ourselves up better for the next time. This is actually how we’re going to save lives. It’s how we’ll prove to citizens that we can deliver for them on the challenges that actually have the greatest impact on their lives, on their futures. And ultimately it’s how we’ll strengthen our global health security after the pandemic has ended so we don’t just build back, but yes, we build back better.
So again, I really appreciate each and every one of you taking part. Thanks for your commitment. Thanks for your candor. Thanks for your partnership. Good to be with you.