30 November 2001


NEW YORK, 29 November (UN Headquarter) -- Following is the text of an address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C., on 28 November:

Thank you for that generous introduction. I am deeply honoured to receive the Averell Harriman Democracy award this evening. I have long admired the courageous and dedicated work of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in helping to promote democracy where it is absent and defend it where it is threatened. Madeleine [Albright], your own deep commitment to the cause of democracy is well known to all of us here, but I wish to take this opportunity to salute your bold leadership in helping advance the idea of a universal community of democracies that is open to all who share the values of democracy and good governance.

I would also like to pay particular tribute to Peter and Linda Biehl. Your foundation is carrying on the work to which your daughter dedicated her life, and she continues to be an inspiration to all who work for peace and reconciliation where they are most needed.

And where are peace and reconciliation most needed? The answer, in almost every case, is where democracy, too, has been trampled or threatened –- where citizens do not enjoy the basic right to choose their government, or the right to change it regularly and predictably. The principle of democracy is today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, universally recognized. The right of all people to take part in the government of their country through free and regular elections, enshrined in article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is not peculiar to any culture. People of all cultures value their freedom of choice, and feel the need to have a say in decisions affecting their lives. Increasingly, they understand that democracy, properly implemented, provides the best guarantee of a climate of free discussion, in which people can learn from each other's ideas, and reach agreement on solutions to their common problems.

One of the greatest challenges to humankind in the new century will be the struggle to make the practice of democracy truly universal. The NDI is rising to this challenge every day, by helping to build political and civic organizations, safeguarding elections and promoting citizen participation in government. Collectively, we have seen great progress in expanding democracy, and today more people than ever are able to claim the rights and privileges of living in a democratic system. And yet, as you in this audience know well, the work of democracy is never done. Too many people are still denied the most basic human rights, including the right to free expression and assembly, while too many democracies remain imperfect and vulnerable to subversion by ruthless leaders.

Democratic accountability requires more than just an electoral mandate. For elections to be genuinely free, and for people to feel genuinely represented in government, much more is needed: institutional checks and balances, an independent judiciary, viable political parties, a free press and the freedom of each individual to express his or her ideas without fear of retribution.

Democracy is betrayed, even if its forms are respected, when elected governments allow corruption to thrive, and fail to address the basic needs of the population. Indeed, some institutions of democracy –- in developed as well as developing countries -- can be abused to harm human rights, especially when minorities are excluded or marginalized -- whereas inclusive democracy is the best mechanism for advancing and securing human rights.

That is the lesson in almost every part of the world, but nowhere more so today than in Afghanistan -– a country devastated by decades of war, drought and political repression. We have learned from painful experience that authoritarian and highly personalized forms of governance, ethnic discrimination, and human rights violations have been at the root of that country’s conflicts. Conversely, we have also learned that only democratic governance -- by protecting minorities, encouraging political pluralism, and upholding the rule of law -- can channel internal dissent peacefully, and thus help avert the kind of civil war that has taken such a heavy toll on the people of Afghanistan for the last quarter-century.

In such a highly fragmented and factionalized society, the effort to create a democratic political order has too often fallen victim to a climate of winner-takes-all, where consensus and compromise find little support, and each faction is interested only in protecting itself, and enhancing its power. That is the challenge that faces the United Nations today in Afghanistan: to help the parties put this devastating past behind them, and to realize, finally, that they can all benefit from a politics of compromise and power-sharing that will address the needs of the people, rather than the narrow interests of factional leaders or neighbours.

The United Nations has long played a central role in addressing the plight of the Afghan people. The terrorist attacks on the United States of 11 September, and the consequent military action in Afghanistan, have created a new environment that presents daunting challenges to the international community, but also new opportunities.

First and foremost, we must do all we can to help meet the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. Winter has already set in, and we must feed and shelter as many of the up to 7.5 million vulnerable and suffering Afghans as possible.

Beyond this most urgent need, as you are all aware, my Special Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, is hosting talks in Bonn aimed at producing a basic agreement on the establishment of an interim administration that is acceptable to all Afghans and accountable to all Afghans. If all the Afghan parties –- as well as the neighbours and the wider international community –- give their full support, there is now a real opportunity to create the sort of broad-based, fully representative government which the United Nations has long been trying to help the Afghan people achieve. A stable Afghanistan – living in peace, protecting the rights of its people, carrying out its international obligations, denying terrorists a safe haven, and posing no threat to any of its neighbours and enjoying their respect and support -- must be our common objective. To achieve it, any arrangement arrived at must reflect the will, the needs and the interests of the Afghan people, and enjoy their full support.

The appalling 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States focused the world's attention on the reality that a collapsed and destitute State –- such as Afghanistan – provides fertile ground for armed groups to plan and prepare unspeakable acts of terror, at home and abroad. It must bring home a second reality, too -– that the answer to such violence and to sources of grievance which provide an excuse for such acts is more democracy, not less; more freedom, not less; more development aid, not less; more solidarity with the poor and dispossessed of our world, not less.

The solution to the Afghan crisis ultimately must come from the women and men of Afghanistan itself. And let me make clear our commitment to ensuring that an end is put to the long nightmare of women’s repression in Afghanistan. We are urging the parties to bring Afghan women into every stage of the political process; and we are recruiting Afghan women as quickly as we can to help us provide humanitarian assistance. I am pleased to say that many Afghan women have already registered with United Nations agencies to return to their old jobs.

We hope we will be able to rely on the expertise and initiative of Afghans themselves in the longer-term effort to rebuild and rehabilitate their nation, and here, too, women will have a prominent role. In Afghanistan today human rights means, above all, women’s rights.

Even as we are focussing our immediate efforts on helping the Afghan people create the kind of representative, accountable government they deserve, we are also mindful of the need for democracy in other parts of the world. The obstacles to democracy have nothing to do with culture or religion, and everything to do with the desire of those in power to maintain their position at any cost. This is, sadly, neither a new phenomenon nor one limited to a particular part of the world. Equally, however, democracy’s heroes can be found among all faiths and creeds. What they need to succeed is our help, and the clear message from the community of democracies that its doors are open to any people able to escape the cycle of tyranny, misrule and conflict.

Of course, the wounds of illegitimate, violent and repressive rule –- such as those inflicted on Afghanistan in recent decades -- will not heal overnight. Nor will they be addressed by words or good intentions alone. But if a society, like Afghanistan, is given the political and economic breathing space -- through democratic governance, human rights and a measurable improvement in the living conditions of ordinary Afghan women and men -– it can escape that vicious cycle, and become as free and open as its people desire.

Thank you very much.

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