Key Note at the Norad Conference 2024:

‘Democracy is not a state, it is a process’

Key Note by Minister of International Development Anne Beathe Tvinnereim at the Norad Conference 'Rights & Resistance: How to Turn the Tide' Thursday 1st of February.

Good morning to everyone! Thank you so much for inviting me.

A couple of months ago I found myself sitting in a postmaster’s office in the small town of Firozpur in Punjab, India. The postmaster had graciously offered to demonstrate the biometric system that India uses to allow every one of its 1,4 billion inhabitants to withdraw social benefits, pensions and food stamps. It was nice to see how people could withdraw much needed benefits simply by using their fingerprint, also on behalf of elderly or sick family members. No need for internet, credit cards or passports that can sometimes be an issue for people with limited means. But why I am mentioning this? Because the government also tried to link this biometric system to India’s voting system. In the world’s biggest democracy this has raised a lot of debate, a legal process, and a lot of questions about rights. Questions I am glad that this year’s Norad conference has set out to address in full.

2024 is the election year. Not only India, but the United States, South Africa and Indonesia will head to the polls. Almost half the world’s population will in theory have a chance to partake in the most fundamental democratic exercise. Yet, I am sure all of us can agree that simply holding elections does not constitute a democracy. We know that authoritarian leadership may be justified while hiding behind the ballot box.

Democratic setbacks are unfortunately happening globally. We see evidence of dwindling trust in political leadership, systems, and institutions. In too many countries, people are experiencing declines in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly and Association – fundamental conditions for democracy.

The environment for free and objective journalism is also becoming more and more dangerous for those who try to bring unbiased and important information to the public’s attention. Add to this that the response to democratic aspirations too often has been violence and a crackdown on civil society. Recent examples are Belarus, Iran, Sudan, and Nicaragua.

The last few years we have also witnessed a deeply worrying pushback against gender equality both in multilateral fora and in many countries across the world. We see articulated opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and threats to previous gender equality policy gains. Women’s rights are particularly vulnerable in fragile and young democracies.

Conservative forces are systematically undermining women’s rights through changes in legislation and legal systems. Friends, you know this: What we are facing out there is better organized than ever. The opposition is politically engaged, well-funded, and well prepared. They are emboldened by their recent victories, and they want more.

It is a grim outlook, but I feel that recognizing the gravity is an important part of how we can reverse the course. What can we do to nurture the process of democratic change? A significant part of the answer lies in the title of this Conference – “Rights and Resistance.” To quote the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan: “Democracy depends on the lively participation of organised civil society in political life. Politics is too important to be left only to the politicians”.

A vibrant and robust democracy is a mosaic: a carefully balanced mix of strong institutions, an independent judiciary, an elected government and parliamentarians with the interest of the people at its core. There is no democracy without a diverse civil society, freedom of assembly and a free press.

Norway remains committed to the protection of human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists. Both multilaterally - in the Human Rights Council and in the UN General Assembly. As well as on the ground. We have recently revised our guidelines for how our Foreign Service Missions can provide concrete support to human rights defenders.

Let me highlight two elements at the heart of our approach.

Firstly, we must provide both moral and material support to human rights defenders at the local level. We have an obligation to support those who risk their lives fighting for values that we take for granted.

Norway and other countries must continue to work through their embassies and local partners to support those actors on the ground who stress the universality of human rights, and who resist attempts to label such rights as ‘Western’.

Secondly, we must support free and independent media, including at the local level. Free and independent media investigate facts, fights disinformation and ensure accountability. They are guarantors of inclusive political participation. Civil society actors must have independent channels through which they can disseminate their views. 

And finally - let me stress this point: All Norwegian development aid shall be rights-based. Our three main devolvement priorities are mitigating climate change through development projects, strengthening women’s right to decide over their own bodies, and food security and the fight against hunger. All of them are meant to target what I see as critical vulnerabilities that undermine the basis and possibility for building rights-based democracies.

I am nearing the end here, but before I go let me just invite you to reflect on the fact that the United Nations Charter itself never uses the word democracy.

However, the main message of the Charter is still crystal clear; democratic governments respecting fundamental freedoms and human rights are the best guarantees we have against violence, conflict, and war. Democracy is not a state, it is a process. Democracies take many forms, but they must be nurtured, cared for and cultivated like a good crop. Together, I hope we can all continue that work. It really is more important than ever before.

Thank you.