Today, 15 September 2020, is the United Nations International Day of Democracy. A day to celebrate the ideas and principles of democracy that should be the framework for how we develop our societies in a peaceful manner, recognizing that we disagree on many issues, but understanding that we need to find ways to deal with the difficult challenges facing humanity.

I would have liked to see the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Jeppe Kofoed, send out a message on this particular day, considering his recently stated effort to base Danish foreign policy on Danish values – and I would like to believe that our version of democracy is one of those values. But I have found only silence coming from the ministry today.

I would also have liked to see my old place of work, the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, which is dedicated to support political parties around the world become more democratic, highlight what the institute and the Danish political parties consider to be important on this day.

Fortunately, there are other institutions that have not forgotten that 15 September is a special day if you are concerned about the situation of democracy. Unfortunately, as we have discussed for some years now, democracy is not at its best right now. In some countries it is seriously threatened. And as we have seen in recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure on both principles and institutions. If you want to see what other institutions think on this day, you can look at the following websites:

The United Nations Secretary General

Not surprisingly, the UN Secretary General, Mr. António Guterres, in his message focused on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:

As the world confronts COVID-19, democracy is crucial in ensuring the free flow of information, participation in decision-making and accountability for the response to the pandemic. Yet since the beginning of the crisis, we have seen the emergency used in a range of countries to restrict democratic processes and civic space. This is especially dangerous in places where democracy’s roots are shallow and institutional checks and balances are weak.

The crisis is also highlighting – and aggravating – long-neglected injustices, from inadequate health systems to social protection gaps, digital divides and unequal access to education; from environmental degradation to racial discrimination and violence against women. Along with the profound human toll, these inequalities are themselves threats to democracy.

Well before the pandemic, frustration was rising, and trust in public authorities was declining. A lack of opportunities was driving economic unease and social unrest. Today, it is clear that Governments must do more to listen to people demanding change, open new channels for dialogue and respect freedom of peaceful assembly.

On this International Day of Democracy, let us seize this pivotal moment to build a more equal, inclusive and sustainable world, with full respect for human rights.

Disconnect between Democracy and the Economy

While the COVID-19 situation is important, so is the ability of democracy to deliver the livelihoods people have a right to expect. This is what Mark Heywood, the Editor of the South African publication “Maverick Citizen” focuses on today. The following is a short version of his message, which is relevant not only for South Africa and other countries in the global South:

Rather than activists satisfying ourselves with glib platitudes, we should ask deeper questions about what’s going wrong. One obvious area we should look at is the disconnect between democracy and economy.

Until recently, one of the greatest weaknesses of social justice activism in South Africa, and internationally, was that it paid little attention to economics. Activists and organisations frequently launched campaigns for human rights into a void, paying little to no attention to how their legitimate demands would be financed.

Let’s be clear: the legitimacy of human rights does not depend on whether governments claim to have money to pay for them. In terms of the Constitution, there is a binding legal duty to respect, protect, promote and fulfil all rights. However, if activists don’t link human rights claims to a demand for the fiscal reforms needed to fund them, the result is that they are often not financed at all.

Witness how long education rights activists have waited for the implementation of norms and standards for school infrastructure, including safe toilets, in spite of the “immediately realisable” nature of the right to basic education.

And, now that the government is once again cutting the education infrastructure budget, they will wait even longer. Probably indefinitely.

On the other hand, those economists who seek fairer distributive and less planet-damaging outcomes from economic policy, have rarely made common cause with the human rights movement. They do not seem to appreciate that actual power resides in human rights law against financial systems that have largely dispensed with fairness.

The result is that they, too, are largely impotent.

Greek economist Yanus Varoufakis points out in a recent article how “for the first time in history, financiers don’t give a damn about the real economy” and warns how, as a result of this period of what he calls post-capitalism, “the demos (people) is ostracised from our democracies”. However, Varoufakis doesn’t indicate how we can put the “demos” back.

Similarly, Oxford economist Kate Raworth, in her bestselling book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, describes the inner ring of the doughnut as the 12 “basics of life on which no one should be left falling short”, and acknowledges how “since 1948, international human rights norms and laws have sought to establish every person’s claim to the vast majority of these basics, no matter how much or how little money or power they have”. Raworth declares “we are all economists now” and calls on “economics to step back from soloing in the limelight and join the troupe instead”.

But when it comes to using the legally binding nature of the international human rights regime and its power – if only it was utilised – to force changes to economic organisation, she has nothing to say.

Unbelievably, therefore, neither discipline has yet taken advantage of their mutual dependence.

In the last 30 years, there has been a global shift to recognise socioeconomic rights and make them binding in international law. However, the changed approach of law has not been followed by economic or fiscal policies. The result is that the promises of 21st century democracy are still-born.

One obvious result was our vulnerability to Covid-19 and the enormous toll this has taken on the already poor. This failure to adapt economic policy has been scathingly criticised by experts within the UN system, such as the former Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston. In a 2016 report to the UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/32/31), Alston warned presciently that “the constitutional recognition of economic and social rights may well be overshadowed or undermined by parallel and far more effective processes involving the constitutional and legal enshrinement of austerity measures”.

These issues are neither academic nor theoretical.