Call for action against democratic backsliding

The Hague, November 10, 2022

On Thursday, Nov. 10, civil society organizations Foundation Max van der Stoel, PAX, Netherlands Helsinki Committee, More Democracy, Transparency International and others organized the Democracy Under Threat conference in The Hague. About 150 activists, officials and politicians attended. International guests from Ukraine, Belarus, Hungary and the Western Balkans also contributed. At the event, threats against democracy were discussed and an action plan was drawn up on how we want to strengthen and defend democracy together.

The urgency is clear

At the conference, the urgency was palpable. Worldwide, democracy is under serious threat. According to independent organization Freedom House, there has been a democratic decline for 15 years. Authoritarian regimes actively oppose democratic norms and institutions both within their borders and beyond. Russia’s war of agression against democracy in Ukraine is a latest expression of this.

Impression of one of the workshops in which input for the manifesto was given by participants

“If democracy is an airplane, we have to put thrust back into the engines or we will crash,” said Hungarian guest speaker Márta Pardavi in her opening remarks. Pardavi has seen for years in her own country how the democratic rule of law is being eroded. The other speakers – including former minister Tom de Bruijn, writer Eva Rovers, academic Richard Youngs and Belarusian activist Tasha Arlova – also underscored that it is time for action.

From left to right, moderator Naeeda Aurangzeb, Márta Pardavi, Eva Rovers and Hardy Merriman

Action plan with 15 points presented

In Theater Diligentia in The Hague, the hundred participants arrived at a joint action plan to call a halt to the erosion of democracy, a global trend that is also visible in the Netherlands. Through various workshops on themes such as human rights, war, democracy promotion, anti-corruption and the rule of law, various sides of democracy were highlighted. The result is a 15-point action plan with a variety of recommendations.

Bahia Tazhib-Lie (left) and Thomas Zandstra (right) receive the manifesto from Dion van den Berg (center)

This action plan or manifesto was presented to Bahia Tahzib-Lie, Dutch ambassador for human rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Thomas Zandstra, department head of Democracy at the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. In both of their responses, they stressed the importance of constant attention and concern for maintaining democracy. Tahzib-Lie cited the well-known statement that “those who fall asleep in a democracy wake up in an autocracy.”

There is also ample reason to look critically in the mirror. For decades, the Netherlands has failed to modernize democracy. Trust in our system has now reached a dangerous low. An important task therefore lies ahead for the Ministry of the Interior, agreed Thomas Zandstra.

Kati Piri (left) in conversation with moderator Naeeda Aurangzeb (right)

House of Representatives member Kati Piri (Labour, PvdA) also accepted the manifesto on behalf of the Dutch parliament. She underlined the points in the manifesto, and said she will bring the document to the attention of her colleagues. “If you send me the final manifesto, I will make sure my colleagues in the House of Representatives get copies,” she promised.

Democracy – a constant work in progress

Both Ministries and politicians are now being asked to actually start working on the 15 points. An important opportunity for this is the second Democracy Summit to be organized by U.S. President Joe Biden in early 2023. Probably about a hundred countries will participate in that summit, including the Netherlands.

The fact that the Netherlands is participating and will contribute offers our country a unique platform to stand up for democratic rights worldwide, and a moment to reflect critically on the state of democracy in our own country.

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