Dear participants to the World Forum for Democracy,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is my honour to welcome all of you to the ninth edition of the World Forum for Democracy.
My name is Rik Daems, and I am the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
These following days, policymakers, experts, and citizens from across the globe will be joining us both online and in-person to debate and discuss the functioning of democracy in a world which is seriously challenging its very principles.
2021 marked the 15th consecutive year of a decline in democracy globally, and democratic ways of governing are being openly questioned.
Less and less people are enjoying the freedoms that democracy and democratic systems have to offer – which is why this Forum is so important.
The importance of this year’s edition also has to do with its theme: the environment. The overarching question we will discuss and debate during these days is a fundamental one: Can Democracy Save the Environment?
To answer this, we must first look at what democracy is all about. For most of us, I am sure, the concept of democracy is about more than simply going to the polls and voting in elections.
Fundamentally, democracy is about values.
It is about recognising the dignity of all people, that everyone should have an equal say in society no matter where they are from, who their parents are, or what position they hold.
However, the privilege to exercise our rights granted by democracy and our democratic societies comes with a precondition: a healthy, safe, sustainable and clean environment. We cannot defend, strengthen, or advance democracy on a planet that is dying. It is therefore my view that a clean environment must be recognised as a fundamental human right.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is not just my opinion. It is an opinion that is rapidly gaining ground among policy and law makers, young and old people. And the good news is that it is an opinion fully shared by my parliamentary colleagues in PACE who in September, during the autumn session of our Assembly, adopted a series of texts demanding a paradigm shift in international and national law, as well as government policies, to ensure that a healthy environment is recognised as a basic human right.
One key adopted recommendation is that the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment be considered as a human right by the drafting of an additional protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and to the European Social Charter.
What does this mean in practice? It means that if governments fail to protect their citizens from the impact of a degrading environment and climate change, citizens could take their case to the European Court of Human Rights and seek justice and legal remedies.
This, I believe, represents just the beginning of a much-needed paradigm-shift in environmental protection. Putting in place the legal foundations we recommend would create a uniform and solid judicial framework, protecting the right to a healthy environment for 840 million European citizens.
I believe that what the work of the Assembly in the area of environment and human rights but also with regard to upholding fundamental principles in times of crisis, or on the issue of artificial intelligence, are excellent example of how we can make good use of our democratic bodies to uphold and further strengthen fundamental rights.
While it will eventually be up to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to assess and implement the recommendations, our Assembly showed that democracy and environmental protection do not stand against each other – they go hand-in-hand.
We also hope that other proposals such as setting up a parliamentary network whose task would be to follow action by national authorities to meet the commitments made in response to the climate crisis, and to foster regular opportunities for parliamentarians in Europe and on other continents exchange on this issue, will ensure the Assembly remains active and continues to promote this issue within the Council of Europe and beyond.
In returning to the question asked initially and the very theme of this year’s edition of the World Forum for Democracy - whether democracy can save the environment - our Assembly delivered some solid evidence to suggest that the answer is yes.
Additionally, it is important to remember that democracy is a system of governance that centres around accountability. The last couple of years have been characterised by hundreds of thousands of citizens, especially young people, taking to the streets to demand climate action. Democracy is what allows them to press forward, express their views and hold their elected representatives to account.
It is my firm belief that if you give the citizens a voice - which is exactly what democratic systems do – politicians will have to respond.
So - ladies and gentlemen - again, on my behalf and the whole Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a warm welcome to the ninth edition of the World Forum for Democracy – I look forward to the deliverables of the Forum, in particular how we can work together to achieve results.