11 September 2003


NEW YORK, 10 September (UN Headquarters) -- Following is Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s message to the Fifth International Conference of New or Restored Democracies, delivered by Danilo Türk, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, 10-12 September:


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, democracy is more widely accepted and practiced than ever before.  At no time in history have so many people enjoyed the right to participate, through elections, in the government of their country.

But the spread of democracy should not tempt us into triumphalism; threats to democracy have by no means ceased to exist.  Recent experiences in a number of countries have shown that democratic processes still can and do suffer severe setbacks, and that such situations can create tensions leading to destabilization and even to violent conflict.

The greatest danger today may be the weakening of the substance of democratic government, even as its outward forms appear intact. Democracy does not mean simply holding elections.  Democratic governance depends on strong institutions and requires participation and accountability, with a free and vigorous public debate on the issues of the day, among an educated and enlightened electorate who have meaningful choices placed before them.  It also requires adherence to the principle of the rule of law, which is essential for the proper functioning of society.

Today, democracy is being rendered fragile in new ways.  In many countries, people feel that the decisions which affect their well-being are out of their hands, and even beyond the control of their elected representatives.  In several democracies, both new and old, there is an alarming decline in voter turnout.  As the world we live in grows increasingly complex and complicated, more and more decisions are taken by “experts” at a technical level.  As growing numbers of people feel they lack a say in the economic, environmental and even political processes that affect their everyday lives, there are ever stronger feelings of exclusion and marginalization, especially in the poorest parts of the world.  It is essential that confidence in democracy is strengthened and this conference can make an important contribution.

It is fitting that this year, your gathering takes place in Ulaanbaatar.  Mongolia has made an impressive transition to democracy in recent years, and we have much to learn from that experience.

It is also highly appropriate that you have chosen to discuss democracy together with good governance and civil society.  The formal institutions of democratic government mean very little unless they are underpinned by a strong and vibrant civil society.  The active debate and enlightened electorate that democracy thrives on require people to organize themselves freely, independent of the State, around ideals, issues and causes important to them.  If there is no space for civil society, the simple casting of votes becomes an empty exercise.

A principle underlying this conference is that while democracy cannot be imposed from abroad, it can be encouraged and assisted through international efforts. Since the future of democratic government cannot be divorced from the global context in which each society must function, a global dialogue is essential.  That means not only that new and restored democracies can learn from each other, but that old and established democracies can and should learn from newer ones; and that in exploring different forms of democracy, we should not lose sight of, but rather strengthen, its substance.  So let us not look at our work as the export of one form of government from one part of the world to another.  Rather, let us focus on common challenges to governance in the twenty-first century, and ensure that democracy is at the heart of our solutions.  In that spirit, I wish you a most productive conference.


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