Address by Mr Jean-Marie HEYDT, 1st Vice-President of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe
Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy
Madrid – 17 October 2008
Mr Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe, which I have the honour of representing, I should like to say how pleasantly surprised I have been by the progress of our discussions over these first two days – a point of view which I believe is shared widely by my colleagues from the Conference of INGOs.
As you are aware, the Conference of INGOs is one of the four pillars of the Council of Europe. As the representative of civil society, it brings together over 400 international federations of non-profit associations from throughout the Council of Europe’s 47 member states.
When the theme of e-democracy was chosen, I naturally consulted my colleagues and I have to admit that they, like me, were caught somewhat off guard, although that was probably because most of us have only limited experience of the subject.
In the course of the preparations for this Forum, however, I discovered that, as part of our contribution to the development of democracy, some INGOs had developed various practical projects, the implementation of which we have been able to discuss here.
I will not go into the details – the rapporteurs and the general rapporteur will do that afterwards – but I would like to present some of the thinking which guided us during the preparations for the Forum.
First of all, we believe that we should not misunderstand the lack of voter participation in public affairs by reducing it solely to the time of elections. Likewise, we should not play down this electoral deficit by taking refuge or hiding behind technological innovations.
I believe that it is the arrangements for implementing democracy that need to be reconsidered, through the prism of a new world vision.
And, in that connection, of course, e-tools not only represent a tremendous opportunity but are also a reality which the younger generations have already taken fully on board.
We really are in a situation where the generations are divided between great enthusiasm for and great resistance to new technologies.
For the time being, though, the figures we have heard here do seem to suggest that the penetration of e-tools remains fairly limited.
That is perhaps both an opportunity and a challenge: the opportunity is having the great advantage of being able to draw on existing trials to analyse the risks and benefits, while the challenge is to equip ourselves to address the issues without waiting for the development of the tools before taking action.
Managing change in a considered manner
The Council of Europe has the unique feature of being an organisation that offers a forum for “European thinking”, where local and national politicians, committed individuals from the voluntary sector, scientific researchers and academics all come together. Other international organisations lack such a forum and all too often have to take decisions in haste. The Council of Europe has the wherewithal not only for reconsidering the ways democracy is implemented, monitoring the outcomes produced and correcting them if need be but also for making public leaders aware of the necessary changes.
And there is much work to do in that area!
As we know, democracy and technology do not somehow stand apart; the two are closely interrelated. Technology can be a great tool working for democracy. A tool which will help us to understand and follow the development of democracy more easily, but it is just a tool. And any tools, especially new ones, demand that we know how to use them and, consequently, anticipate the risks they might involve.
A new right: the right to overcome the digital divide
We have spoken about the digital divide, which is a key challenge. Under the pretext of moving forward and wanting to overcome the digital divide, however, we must not once again widen the “social divide” to the detriment, this time, of the elderly, the poor, the disabled or the illiterate, who would be left out against their will and would have no bridges for overcoming the divide.
However, bridges or passageways are just what are needed so as to enable those concerned to make the choice of crossing the divide!
Other people definitely do not need such bridges, for the danger facing them is isolation. As it is an issue which is often raised, we are well aware within our INGOs that many people have “abandoned” social relations and withdrawn into a “cyberworld” in which computer screens have become their only window to the world, which sometimes even is a completely virtual one.
So bridges will have to be built for some people, while others will have no need for them whatsoever. At the same time, however, it will be necessary to take account of and respect a third category of individuals, who want to have the right not to use electronic technology. We cannot and must not aim at everyone overcoming the digital divide.
In this area, therefore, “new tools” must also mean “new rights” and, hence, new forms of protection. We must safeguard these rights in our various texts and propose an additional protocol both to the European Convention on Human Rights and to the European Social Charter.
This is all the more important since the current emphasis on security means that it is necessary to ensure the protection of the individual and, to this end, we must develop this new right, including an article on what some speakers called the right to be forgotten.
The need to build public confidence
There would be no point in offering a new tool if individuals were afraid to use it. As we are all aware, one of the difficulties facing our democracies is the loss of public confidence, with citizens feeling that they are no longer on the same wavelength as those who are supposed to represent them.
Nowadays, people expect to be able to take action not just at the time of elections but whenever an issue affects them in their daily lives.
However, it would be risky to use a tool which did not meet all the necessary requirements in terms of confidentiality and quality of procedure. The confidentiality and quality aspects are vital to building or maintaining public confidence.
Learning to use e-democracy and establishing an ethical framework
Confidence must go hand in hand with the ability to use the tool concerned. Just like democracy itself, e-democracy must enter into a learning process so as to avoid abuses and excesses of all kinds which would threaten users, especially children. The learning process would also enable those who did choose to overcome the divide to cross the bridge or passageway I mentioned before.
A legal framework, a climate of confidence and the provision of training provide a good foundation which must be supplemented by instilling responsible attitudes in all players.
It is against this background that I would remind you that the previous Forum asked the Conference of INGOs to draw up a Code of Good Practice for Civic Participation. The code is under preparation. We are going to continue our work in Stockholm next week at the invitation of the Swedish government with a view to producing an appropriate framework for responsible action by individuals. I will, of course, take particular care to make sure that the outcome of our discussions about e-democracy is fully reflected in the code. It will tie in perfectly with the activities for the 60th anniversary of the Home of Democracy and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In conclusion, I would say that we are facing a real challenge here, which is why the INGOs must also incorporate the new technology concerned in their own methods of operation, in a manner that complements the way our democratic organisations function traditionally. That is a commitment which we must make so as to help the whole of civil society and – you may rest assured – it is one which we will indeed make!