Trust is the foundation on which our societies are built.
Without it, our shared vision of society crumbles.
Every morning when you leave for work, you trust your neighbours will not break into your home during the hours that you are gone. You trust the bus driver to drive safely and get you to the office on time. You trust that schoolteachers will educate your children and they will find a job when they graduate.
Every day, we place our trust in each other.
It is on this trust that we have built our modern democracies. By placing trust in our elected officials to decide on behalf of the shared interests of all, for our common good. In essence, to govern.
In the past two decades, mistrust has seeped into the foundation of the social contract between the population and the institutions that are supposed to serve the people.
Trust eroded further during the COVID-19 pandemic. Misinformation, disinformation, and uncertainty, combined with loss of livelihoods and rapidly changing policy responses, shook even the strongest of democracies. Creating painful cracks in communities.
Pandemic-related challenges to human rights have had a detrimental impact on the proper functioning of democracies, and on civic space.
Every restriction chipped away at democratic norms.
A number of States used the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic to limit the rights to freedom of speech and access to information, to silence criticism. Emergency measures that went far beyond what was needed to protect public health were used to consolidate authority and clamp down on opposition, severely limiting the right to peaceful assembly and association.
Meanwhile, temporal suspension of activities by judicial and administrative institutions meant that those whose rights had been violated had no way to seek justice and reparations.
Today, there is a growing chasm between people and the institutions that serve them, with many feeling left behind and doubtful that the system is working for them. The rise in social movements and protests is a clear sign of this trust crisis.
As we rebuild from COVID-19, we must ensure that our foundations are strong and based on trust.
There are three critical elements to restoring trust between governments and the people they serve, as well as throughout society.
Strong institutions, genuine participation, and free civic space will serve as the scaffolding for rebuilding trust and, in turn, democracy.
To begin, reviving trust in government decisions and institutions is crucial for the legitimacy and functioning of democracies. This is only possible through genuine inclusivity, dialogue, listening to grievances, accountability, and, most importantly, adherence to human rights and the rule of law.
In accordance with international human rights law and States’ commitments to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, certain steps need to be taken. For example, combating corruption, improving bureaucratic efficiency, ensuring transparency and accountability of public institutions.
Second, inclusive and diverse participation is necessary to foster trust on our path to long-term recovery. We must ensure that those most affected are heard, that those on the margins are included, and that local communities play an active role in decision-making. Institutions that are stronger, more resilient, and transparent must be built on the systematic inclusion of people and groups that have been underrepresented in the past, such as women and youth, as well as minority groups.
We know free civic space, as well as an empowered and protected civil society, are essential for increasing participation.
Third, we require a secure environment for civil society actors conducive to the exercise of enabling rights. Civic space, in all its forms, is essential for building trust. A vibrant civil society, a free media, and an engaged academia are vital components of a healthy social fabric.
Safeguards to protect public freedoms and effective access to justice – are needed for democracies to thrive. Alongside, a political environment conducive to civil society work; access to information; avenues for participation in policy development and decision-making, and long-term support and resources.
This Forum offers an opportunity to exchange examples to drive change through the identification of specific tools, best practices, and new initiatives aimed at strengthening democratic safeguards.
I hope that concrete recommendations will come out of this Forum, and that Member States and other stakeholders will commit to implementing them.
We must create a new foundation of trust by rebuilding faith in democracy and each other.