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Op-Ed: Democracy and the UN: An Agenda for the 21st Century

Democracy and the UN: An Agenda for the 21st Century
September 2000
Mompati S. Merafhe, Maria Soledad Alvear, Anna Lindh

We will soon gather at the UN Millennium Assembly to discuss the organization's role in the new century. Given the inextricable linkage between democracy and the important work of the UN in peacekeeping, peace-building, development co-operation and the promotion of human rights, it is clear that one of the main challenges facing the UN today is finding practical means of integrating support for democracy into its work. In this context, moreover, the link between promoting democracy and preventing violent conflict is of paramount importance.

Over the past decade the UN has become increasingly active in assisting democratization around the world, both through its multi-dimensional peace operations and electoral and good governance assistance. The UN has been drawn into democracy support out of operational necessity, but it has done so without a clear strategic framework or established policy guidelines.

The reality, however, is that democracy-related issues lie at the heart of many of today's UN missions. This is because democracy - or, rather, the lack of it - is one of the root causes of today's violent conflicts, the majority of which occur within states. Democratization is central to a peace-building exercise, if peace is to become sustainable and post-conflict reconstruction and development are to succeed.

Democratic institutions and processes help manage competing interests by encouraging political compromises, thereby minimizing the risk of political disputes escalating into violent conflicts. Within a domestic political agenda democracy addresses issues such as minority rights, human rights violations, political representation and power-sharing, as well as distribution of wealth and resources, all of which are potential sources of confrontation. In this sense supporting the building of democratic institutional capacity is an important conflict-prevention measure.

In addition, there is an emerging consensus that democracy is the best form of governance with which to fight poverty and promote development. Sustainable development, in turn, is the most effective way of preventing and responding to humanitarian catastrophes and violent conflicts. In essence, the fundamental objectives of the UN's work cannot be achieved today without addressing the issue of democracy.

The changing context of peace missions in the new century demonstrates the need for the UN to adjust its strategies, approaches and organizational structures to the new requirements. These requirements include both an enhanced ability to respond rapidly to immediate humanitarian and peace-keeping needs, and a more process-oriented, longer-term commitment to peace and state-building, development and democracy support. We make the following recommendations to the UN for ways to become more effective in supporting democratization:

  • Adopt a broader, more open approach, and remember that there is no quick-fix solution. While elections are one-off events, democratization is in essence a process. The holding of elections should be seen as the starting point for longer-term democratization assistance, rather than the current widespread misperception of them as an 'exit strategy' for UN missions. In this regard, Kosovo and East Timor are current cases in point.

  • Design comprehensive strategies that are locally owned. The UN should design, at the outset of its activities in any country, a clear and comprehensive strategy that includes support for democratization at its core. A multi-dimensional UN strategy may involve various elements. These include everything from security measures to political ones, from humanitarian aid to development assistance, from restoring human rights to rebuilding the judiciary, from preparing and holding elections to creating and assisting democratic institution, all in a manner and timing that suits the particular situation. Country strategies must also be formulated in dialogue with a diversity of national actors, to ensure that they are locally owned.

  • Develop integrated UN programmes for democracy assistance. The importance of internal co-ordination has been emphasized in the past. Within the UN we must, however, also achieve more integrated programmes at the strategic level, sharing a common objective of peace, development and democratization expressed through co-ordinated actions for their implementation. In UN agencies and departments there is a need to go beyond narrow, compartmentalized perspectives, breaking through old barriers of strict interpretations of respective mandates.

Establish strategic partnerships with other organizations. It is clear that a wealth of experiences and expertise in democratization support already exist in various places, including in many developing countries. Recognzing this the UN should work more closely with regional organizations, financial institutions and other international organizations such as International IDEA, a new inter-governmental organization with a specific mandate to assist and support democratization, of which we are all member-states.

Democracy is a political system of government that embodies, in a variety of institutions and mechanisms, the ideal of political power based on the will of the people. Most UN member-states, North and South, attest to the value of democracy both for promoting their own internal stability and development and fostering peace between themselves.

It is therefore crucial that the importance of global co-operation is highlighted today, focussing more on the progress made in various areas of democratization. By enhancing democracy at the international level we will help redress the widening gap between the North and the South, contribute to the maintenance of international peace, and shape our common future.

The authors are the Foreign Ministers respectively of Botswana, Chile and Sweden

Press contacts:

Mark Salter
Senior Press and Information Officer
International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22
Monika Ericson
Assistant Press and Information Officer
International IDEA
103 34 Stockholm, Sweden
Phone: +46-8-698 3700
Fax: +46-8-20 24 22



International IDEA
Tel: +46 8 698 3700, Fax: +46 8 20 24 22
International IDEA, Strömsborg, S-103 34 Stockholm, Sweden