Council of Europe Forum for the Future of Democracy
Stockholm/Sigtuna, Sweden 13–15 June 2007
Hosted by Sveriges Riksdag – the Swedish Parliament,
the Government of Sweden and
the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions
Forum for the Future of Democracy
(Stockholm/Sigtuna, 13-15 June 2007)
the General Rapporteurs1
1. The Forum for the Future of Democracy is an inclusive process under the auspices of the Council of Europe, associating all main stakeholders of a genuine democratic society (parliaments, governments, local and regional authorities, civil society, media and academia), aimed at the promotion of democracy at all levels across the continent and furthering pan-European reflection on its multifarious aspects. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Committee of Ministers, the Congress, the INGO Conference and the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) play a leading role in this ongoing process. It is open to the active participation of the European Union, the OSCE and other international partners. Following the decision on its establishment by the Third Council of Europe Summit of Heads of State and Government in Warsaw, in May 2005, the Forum, with its annual sessions is steadily becoming a permanent feature of the European political landscape.
2. Since the previous session in Moscow, in October 2006, devoted to the role of political parties in the building of democracy, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has adopted a resolution containing key elements for a Code of Good Practices for Political Parties and calling on the Venice Commission to elaborate such a code. Civic participation, which was the theme of the launch meeting of the Forum in Warsaw, in November 2005, has, for its part, been central to the current concerns of the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe.
3. The third session of the Forum, held in Stockholm and Sigtuna (Sweden), from 13 to 15 June 2007, under the general title “Power and empowerment - the interdependence of democracy and human rights”, addressed issues such as the role and responsibilities of the opposition, representative democracy at the local and regional level, empowerment of the individual and non-discrimination, respect for freedom of expression and association for civil society, and fostering democracy, human rights and social networks. This session has laid emphasis on new forms of dialogue and innovative methods.
4. The process will be carried forward at the next sessions of the Forum. It is essential that all stakeholders involved in this process combine their efforts to define the most efficient ways of transforming the output of the Forum’s sessions into concrete action.
5. The interdependence between democracy and human rights is enshrined in the Statute of the Council of Europe to which 47 European states have subscribed. This interdependence is underscored in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which is, today, a constitutional cornerstone of European public order.
6. Democracy is not only about casting a ballot every few years. Without an open debate and freedom for people to meet and organise, the formal requirement of free and fair elections would be meaningless. Human rights, such as freedom of expression and association, are not only conditions of a democratic system of governance based on the rule of law, but are also best protected within such a system. Civil and political rights interrelate with economic, social and cultural rights. They are part of the same whole; they are indivisible. Democracy is the best form of government for all human rights.
The role and responsibilities of the opposition
7. The Forum emphasised there could be no strong democracy without a strong opposition. The strength of opposition is an essential element for measuring the quality of democracy. Every country has a government; only democracies have an opposition.
8. Establishing a fair legal framework and material conditions enabling the opposition parties in parliament to have the means to fulfil their functions is a prerequisite for the good functioning of parliamentary democracy. Among the means of securing the existence of an effective and responsible opposition in parliament is the possibility for opposition parties to chair key committees with control functions, such as finance committees, as well as to set up investigative bodies, to initiate draft legislation, to contribute to the drafting of the order of business of parliament and to call the ruling majority to order.
9. The critical evaluation of government action is one of the essential tasks of the opposition and contributes to the quality of the political debate, thereby improving the capacity of the government and the majority to manage public affairs in the public interest as a whole.
10. Both the majority and the opposition have every interest to keep in mind that no one belongs to the majority or to the opposition for ever and that a majority will sooner or later be part of the opposition and vice versa. Hence, it is in the interest of the majority not to take decisions before the opposition has had the opportunity to scrutinise proposals and put forward alternatives. Conversely, the opposition should not perceive its role as a mere mechanism of obstruction and should contribute substantially to the decision-making process.
11. The lack of a strong opposition in parliament may lead to a form of extra-parliamentary opposition in which protests may be expressed in violent forms on the streets, thus diminishing the quality and relevance of the parliamentary debate and affecting the decision-making process as a whole. One means of avoiding situations in which opposition is essentially extra-parliamentary is to lower the thresholds for parliamentary representation. In a developed democracy, thresholds should be low, in order for the rights of all citizens and all political views and interests to be represented in parliament.
12. Opposition is not simply a question of party politics. In a healthy democracy, opposition cuts across party lines to embrace issues on which members of both the majority and the opposition have the courage to challenge their party’s main positions.
Systematic and structured work on Human Rights and Democracy
13. Respect for human rights cannot be dissociated from democracy and good governance. The Forum welcomed the initiative of the Parliamentary Assembly to hold the first annual debate on the State of Human Rights and Democracy in Europe, at its 2007 April part-session, and expected that the Resolution and Recommendation adopted on this occasion would be acted upon at both national and European levels.
14. Public authorities should seek ways to secure the systematic implementation and monitoring of human rights and democracy at the different territorial levels, in a structured and comprehensive approach.
15. National human rights action plans can be a tool for identifying problems and weak areas on a regular basis in order to address these in a constructive manner (possibly by means of indicators of performance), as well as identifying strengths and good practices which can be celebrated and disseminated. As such, they are a powerful instrument for mainstreaming a human rights perspective into governance, including the gender perspective and the empowerment of groups in vulnerable situations. Different actors, such as NGOs and national human rights institutions, should be involved in all such processes at an early stage and on a regular basis. The Council of Europe should contribute to these efforts by preparing a base-line study on the added value of national human rights action plans and the possible use of human rights indicators.
16. Council of Europe member states might usefully consider developing links between their own national human rights action plans and the Parliamentary Assembly’s annual evaluation of the State of Human Rights and Democracy, including mechanisms for feeding the results and findings back into the national processes. The Forum encourages national parliaments to hold regular debates on the findings of the Assembly’s assessments and identify appropriate remedial action.
17. Decentralisation processes and the transfer of competences from central governments are making local and regional authorities increasingly important actors for the defence of human rights. They place greater responsibilities on them to respect human rights in the exercise of their functions, in particular by responding to the people’s needs in terms of housing, education, health, environment etc. Therefore, it is important to mainstream a human rights perspective into governance at the local and regional level. In addition, local and regional authorities are urged to engage in action plans for human rights and to consider elaborating indicators for their implementation.
18. Independent national human rights institutions, including Ombudsmen and national Human Rights Commissions, are crucial partners in the development and implementation of national action plans. Their action could be amplified through the establishment of similar institutions at local and regional level, bringing them closer to the people. The Council of Europe, and particularly the Congress and the Commissioner for Human Rights, could further engage in promoting the creation of offices of local and regional ombudspersons and enhancing networking efforts and exchanges of experience between them.
19. The Forum pays tribute to the efforts of the Council of Europe and its Commissioner for Human Rights in promoting the establishment of national human rights institutions in member states as non-judicial means for the effective protection of human rights. It encourages the Council of Europe to further promote similar institutions with specific mandates, for example, for the protection of children or other groups in vulnerable situations.
20. The Forum calls on national policy-makers to enhance their democracy strategies. This would mark the beginning of a more systematic effort to structure national initiatives aimed at promoting democratic development and thereby ensure a more coherent and concerted approach. In this context, the proposal of the Parliamentary Assembly to draw up guidelines on the elimination of democratic deficits in the functioning of democratic institutions could offer a useful reference tool. The development of indicators for the quality of democracy should also be considered in this context. The Venice Commission is encouraged to pursue this matter.
21. People have the right to manage their own affairs at the local level. The European Charter of Local Self-Government lays down the fundamental principles governing the framework within which this right can be exercised. The Congress is encouraging elected representatives at the local and regional level to make a difference in enhancing human rights and democracy in their respective territorial communities.
22. The Council of Europe’s proposed new strategy for innovation and good governance at local level holds promise. It aims to place the individual at the heart of democratic institutions and processes and to incite local authorities constantly to improve their governance in accordance with twelve principles. The strategy should inter alia promote a more effective dialogue and consultation between civil society and elected representatives at all levels. In each member state an action plan for good governance at the local level should be drawn up. A quality label of good governance certifying respect of standards will recognise the efforts made by local authorities. The Forum, which involves all partners, could offer a useful platform for examining the progress achieved in the implementation of the strategy.
23. The sovereignty of the people should not be limited to the election day. Elements of direct democracy should therefore be integrated into the democratic process. At the same time, participation should not be limited to nationals as excluding a large number of people from democratic citizenship is highly detrimental to the representative character of democracy and thus to the democratic process as a whole.
24. The increasing difficulties of individual states to find solutions to the global challenges facing today’s societies, inevitably results in disappointment and further indifference towards democracy at local, regional and national levels. This can be countered by the development of transnational democratic processes which transcend the “nation state” and which would draw their legitimacy from the existing levels of power (local, regional and national). The Forum could serve as a platform for further reflection on that subject.
25. Education for democratic citizenship and human rights is an essential element for empowering the individual and for combating discrimination. All stakeholders of the Forum should actively participate in concerted action to promote education for democratic citizenship and human rights. The Council of Europe should intensify its efforts in elaborating instruments and tools to this effect, building on its earlier efforts in this field.
26. It is vital to promote a culture of democracy and human rights among children and young people, as attitudes and behaviour are shaped at an early stage and can be decisive in determining their future involvement in public affairs. The Forum calls on all stakeholders to implement the Council of Europe Charter on the Participation of Young People in Public Life at Local and Regional Level, which offers an excellent basis for such action.
27. Information and communication technologies can be a powerful tool for the promotion and protection of human rights and democracy. They have the potential to create more transparent and responsive government and to facilitate participatory democracy. Human rights should be respected in a digital as well as in a non-digital environment and should not be subject to restrictions other than those provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights simply because communication is carried in digital form. E-governance policies, embedded in an appropriate regulatory framework, should enhance democracy and respect human rights with a view to empowering all individuals, in particular those in vulnerable situations.
28. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that increased participation will not be brought about simply as a consequence of progress in information and communication technologies. The growing feeling of political discontent and disaffection among people must be addressed, if such technologies are to facilitate the empowerment and participation of individuals.
29. The Forum welcomed the proposal that the next session in Madrid, in 2008, should examine the issue of e-governance and e-democracy and further noted in this connection the ongoing work of the Council of Europe, including that of the Parliamentary Assembly, on e-democracy and e-voting.
Empowering the individual through non-discrimination
30. Equality between citizens is a fundamental principle of any genuine democracy. In reality, however, in Europe today not everyone appears to be given the same opportunities to get their causes heard and to have their interests represented in decision-making processes. Visible and invisible barriers of different kinds appear to make it difficult for persons in vulnerable situations - in particular on grounds of ethnic origin, religion, social condition, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or age - to plead their own case and to participate in public affairs on equal terms.
31. Efforts to facilitate and encourage participation by all persons in society must be based on a human rights perspective. People who are socially, economically, culturally or otherwise marginalised are usually less able to claim and exercise their civil and political rights. Realisation of all human rights is therefore crucial to people’s chances of assuming control of their own lives – to empowerment and effective participation in democratic processes. Therefore, concrete measures to overcome discrimination and to promote effective access by all to human rights should be central to human rights policies and action plans.
32. The Council of Europe has developed legal instruments, monitoring mechanisms and awareness-raising initiatives designed to underscore the central objective of combating discrimination. These include such instruments as Protocol No. 12 to the ECHR, the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the Campaigns “All Different – All Equal” and Dosta (for the rights of Roma communities), as well as the forthcoming White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue. Member States should make the optimal use of these tools to consolidate their own action to eradicate all forms of discrimination.
33. The Forum invited the Council of Europe to pursue its ongoing efforts to combat all forms of discrimination by continuing its “All Different – All Equal” Campaign on a longer-term basis and by targeting it towards different groups of persons in vulnerable situations. It invited all stakeholders of the Forum process to contribute to this.
Representative democracy and civil society at local, regional and national level
34. Participatory democracy complements representative democracy in involving the people in decision-making processes. New forms of political engagement are not an alternative to elected representation but can contribute to empowerment and enhanced support to the democratic process as a whole. Authorities should respect and support the role of a broad and free civil society; they should engage in dialogue based on transparency.
35. The Forum calls on the INGO Conference of the Council of Europe to follow up actively the proposals made at previous Forum sessions to elaborate a Code of Good Practice for Civic Participation. The Code should be addressed to public authorities and civil society in all Council of Europe member states and should cover questions such as equal opportunities to set up NGOs, mechanisms for NGO participation in decision-making processes and other forms of citizens’ involvement.
36. The Forum expects that the Recommendation on the legal status of non-governmental organisations, to be adopted soon by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, will offer an effective framework for the smooth and equal development of the activities of the civil society sector in all Council of Europe member states. The INGO Conference could play a significant role in promoting and assessing the implementation of the recommendation in member states.
37. The Forum stressed the crucial importance of the work of human rights defenders in protecting and promoting human rights at the grass roots level and in engaging in human rights advocacy, sometimes at serious risk for their physical integrity and lives, as acknowledged by the Third Summit, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Congress and other actors. The Forum urged all competent national and international authorities to engage all necessary action to ensure that human rights defenders can perform their mission in full security and independence.
38. The Forum expressed its appreciation to the Swedish authorities for the excellent organisation and innovative methods of the 2007 session and its gratitude for their hospitality. The Forum welcomed the invitation by the Spanish authorities to hold the 2008 session of the Forum in Madrid.
1 MM. Andreas Gross, Keith Whitmore and Daniel Tarschys.