Saving democracy also requires action at home

On 9 and 10 December, US President Biden will hold his Summit for Democracy. It is good that Biden is drawing full attention to the democratic rule of law. After all, it is under pressure worldwide. The Netherlands is attending and our outgoing prime minister is expected to contribute. This offers our country a unique platform to stand up for democratic rights worldwide. As representatives of civil society organisations, we make a number of suggestions in this open letter.

We hope Rutte will bet on the universal values that form the basis of democracy. These should not be subordinated to other factors in foreign policy, such as economic interests and the fight against terrorism. We know where that can lead. Attempts to establish democratic constitutional states in Afghanistan and Iraq were undermined by cooperation with corrupt and ruthless local rulers. The hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans and Iraqis were never won as a result, and the 'collateral damage' of bombings and drone attacks did the rest. We can, also as the Netherlands, only restore our credibility as promoters of democracy by not sacrificing democratic principles to other - legitimate - interests like economics or counter-terrorism. Defending those interests is simply not possible without strengthening democratic values. Democracy is part of the solution, even in the massive adjustment that climate change imposes on the world's population. How else can all voices be heard and human rights protected?

We must therefore work much harder to support democratic forces and individuals, first and foremost in authoritarian countries and where democracy is under pressure. Priority should be given to restoring dialogue between politicians and the population, fighting corruption, training the next generation of politicians, civil society and free media. This does not involve flat blueprints, but rather processes of democratisation that take into account local conditions.

Special attention is desirable for developments within the European Union. We must no longer accept the decline within the European Union. The EU is founded on values such as democracy, human rights, minority rights, free media and an independent judiciary. If these are tampered with, we must take drastic action. The breakdown of the trias politica in Europe must be stopped. Fortunately, the Netherlands has taken a strong stand against EU member states, such as Poland and Hungary, whose current governments are turning against obligations that are inseparable from EU membership. We must remain self-confident and self-assured against undermining blackmail politics of countries that drift. 

There is also more than enough reason to look at our own domestic 'performance'. The summit can only have impact if democratic countries dare to take a critical look in the mirror. How does US democracy function, and how does the Netherlands itself score when it comes to transparency, good governance, press freedom, anti-corruption and human rights? After all, the credibility of democracy promotion internationally is also undermined by democratic deficiencies at home. The relationship between governance and the people is under pressure in the Netherlands. We therefore call for investment in transparency and public accountability and a halt to the dismantling of the legal profession and judiciary. This is how we put our own house in order.

The Americans have indicated that, as far as they are concerned, the Summit for Democracy should lead to local initiatives by governments. The participation of the Netherlands offers an excellent opportunity to highlight the above-mentioned issues and to vigorously pursue the restoration of the credibility of our democracy and the promotion of democracy. This must be done from the realisation that the days of fencing with moral Western superiority are far behind us. It is time for a different approach, with more self-criticism, more creativity and more attention for what democratisation movements themselves ask of us. The Netherlands has ambassadors for human rights and for freedom of religion and belief. As far as we are concerned, it is high time for an ambassador with a coordinating staff department dedicated to democracy. That would be a nice start.

Arjen Berkvens (Max van der Stoel Foundation), Anna Timmerman (Pax), Thijs Berman (NIMD),
Alice Stollmeyer (Defend Democracy), Lousewies van der Laan (Transparency International Netherlands), Kirsten Meijer (WECF), Edwin Huizing (Hivos.)