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International Day of Democracy conference on Democracy in times of crisis


Video Message from Michelle Bachelet,
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

15 September 2020



For months now, the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging our societies and governments – testing our leadership and humanity, and aggravating inequalities and forms of discrimination that harm billions of people.

It has also been teaching us a number of key lessons about how to construct more resilient societies – including the need for universal health coverage, and other social protection and environmental measures.

Chief among them, COVID-19 has demonstrated – once again – how vital it is to strengthen the foundations of democracy.

Responsive and accountable institutions; the broadest possible public participation; freedom of expression; and freedom of the media are some of the democratic pillars which ensure that policies – including public health measures – are based on the public's trust, leading to greater compliance, and better outcomes.

To address COVID-19 – and recover from it – effective policies can only be devised with the participation of all those who are affected.

This is clearly a human rights issue: people have a right to raise their concerns and participate in shaping the policies that will deeply affect their lives for years to come.

It is also about ensuring more effective governance.

For example, as governments develop innovative ways to control exposure to COVID-19 through new technologies, we have seen how deeply those tools rely on public buy-in and thus, on trust. Public trust is reinforced when the public senses that tracing apps and other technologies have been devised by legitimate and responsive agencies, taking into account the public's feedback and respecting their human rights.

The pandemic has also demonstrated the value of free, independent and plural journalism, and freedom of expression, in times of crisis. Access to evidence-based information provides the population with the resources they need to understand, participate and follow the guidelines of health authorities. And journalistic investigation enables accurate, real-time feedback to the authorities about the implementation of their decisions– on the ground.

Information saves lives. At a time of public health emergency, this double function of journalism – informing the public, and monitoring the authorities' responses – is especially crucial. This is the time for more transparency, and more journalism – not less.

Sadly, these are lessons that are not being universally applied.

Since long before COVID-19, and including in many long-established democracies, attacks on human rights defenders – with impunity; harassment of the press; crack-downs on peaceful assemblies; deliberate weakening of institutional checks and balances; a decline in civil liberties and growing polarization across societies have been worrying signals of democratic decline.

When the pandemic hit, these signs exacerbated and we observed further worrying trends among a number of States that adopted extraordinary measures – including unchecked executive power, disproportionate penalties and enforcement, and restrictions on speech.

Some governments enacted open-ended emergency legislation, without possibilities for effective oversight.

Several deployed military forces to perform law enforcement and other tasks without adequate measures for oversight by civilian authority and without respect for human rights law.

Movement restrictions were, in some cases, established and enforced in ways that were not humane, reasonable or fair – for example, imposing heavy fines – or even imprisonment – on hungry people leaving their homes to feed their families.

And in a number of countries, Governments appeared to be using COVID-19 as a cover for further restrictions on fundamental freedoms and civic space – violating human rights and undermining the rule of law.

Emergency powers should not be a weapon wielded by Governments to quash dissent, control the population, or perpetuate their time in power. Such measures do not advance effective pandemic responses – they deepen the crisis.

There is no single model of democracy. But all strong democracies share some essential characteristics. I have quickly outlined two of them – vibrant participation by civil society; and a free and independent press. Let me turn briefly to another essential factor: solid oversight institutions, which keep Governments accountable for their actions.

There should be supervision of the exercise of all emergency measures taken in the context of the pandemic, including periodic and independent review by the legislature and judicial oversight, with scrutiny of any emergency legislation introduced under a state of emergency. All exceptional measures should comply with the strict requirements international law imposes on temporary limitations of human rights.

Today, as we mark International Day of Democracy under the theme COVID-19: A Spotlight on Democracy, let's remember that democratic systems have time and again demonstrated their resilience and effectiveness in dealing with exceptional challenges. Solid public participation, official transparency and accountability through oversight institutions – and a free press – are tremendous advantages to devising policies that navigate crises most effectively.

As the world develops policies for life after the pandemic, we must do so with renewed commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We will build back better with democratic institutions, based on a renewed commitment to the strong human rights principles that protect our values and our peoples.

Thank you