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2015: A tough year for democracy and human rights

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Looking ahead to the opportunities of 2015, Gro Harlem Brundtland argues that democracy and human rights are inextricably linked with a global response to climate change and gender inequality.

"We need ethical leadership that works hand in hand with grassroots pressure because the decisions we take this year will be crucial.”

Human rights and democracy are universal values. Every woman and man on this planet is entitled to live their lives enjoying the benefits they bring. Sadly, we know this is not the case.

That so many people around the world are denied their rights diminishes us all. Their struggle is our struggle.

There are some vital events taking place this year that will shape all our lives and, if managed well, will have a major and positive impact on human rights and democracy worldwide. 2015 will see the launch in the United Nations of a new set of universal goals for human progress. These goals will bear the name the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals cover a broad range of issues from poverty reduction to nutrition, gender equality and environmental protection.

Unless policies are framed in a sustainable way, we cannot hope to make viable progress protecting Planet Earth, in increasing prosperity, health, education and equality – the bedrock of societies that respect democracy and human rights .

We need ethical leadership and a clear political will to take the tough decisions that must be taken.

Nation states have so far shown themselves to be neither wise nor far-sighted enough to do what is needed, in a situation that requires shared responsibility and global cooperation and decisions.

The complexity of the issues involved in pursuing sustainable development and an effective response to the climate challenge has limited the ability and effectiveness of humanity to act in its own self-interest.

The urgent imperative for courageous leadership will also be apparent in 2015 at the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris in December.

We all know that the current global development model is unsustainable, in terms of lifestyle, production and consumption patterns.

Climate change is affecting agriculture, water resources, human health and ecosystems on land and in the oceans. It poses immense risks for economic stability and the security of nations.

A melting iceberg. Photo: Ryan Taylor CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We cannot continue on this path. Our global growth model must change, and fast. But we need to find a way to secure a broad commitment and consensus.

Climate change summits that do not consider the needs of all the world’s peoples, not just the wealthy industrial nations, will not be successful.

As defenders of human rights, we need to ensure the protection of the livelihoods and dignity of communities affected by climate change, especially marginalised groups in isolated regions.

Above all, nation states cannot wait for each other to take the lead or view climate change as the fault or responsibility of just some countries and regions.

In my own experience of the difficult climate negotiations, from Rio to Kyoto and until this day and age, it has been very clear that nothing moves fast enough or strongly enough if the United States is not one of the driving forces. This remains the case today.

However, without the leadership of the European Union, as well as a China that commits itself to serious action, we cannot expect other reluctant countries, in Asia, Latin America and Africa to feel they need to join the efforts for a global solution.

Global solidarity and cooperation are also vital if human rights and democracy are to be fully extended to the world’s women.

2015 is the twentieth anniversary of the landmark Beijing Women’s Summit which brought unprecedented thousands of women’s rights activists together to devise a “Platform for Action” to further the cause against discrimination and for equality.

Twenty years on, more women and girls than at any previous point in time serve in political offices, are protected by laws against gender-based violence, and live under constitutions guaranteeing gender equality.

A girl doing schoolwork in Pakistan. Photo: UN Photo | John Isaac

Nevertheless, no country has achieved full equality for women and girls. Far too many women and girls still find themselves second-class citizens, unable to fulfil their potential and choose their own way of life.

Of course our leaders can – and must – deplore and condemn these outrages, but that in itself is not enough. They must do much more: listen to women’s voices, engage with civil society activists and human rights defenders, and reform their own institutions to stamp out gender-based discrimination.

Societies that wilfully neglect and discriminate against half of their populations will not be successful.

In 2015, we definitely do need a different approach to women’s issues, sustainable development, and climate change, as well as to the whole architecture of international governance.

The fundamental values of human rights and democracy are under assault, both physically and ideologically, from cynical dictatorships and sectarian extremists.

Human rights must be respected at national, regional and international levels. There can be no bending of the rules by our governments, no exceptions or caveats that will only give succour to the forces of violence, intolerance and oppression.

We must affirm our universal values and insist that in 2015, they really apply to each and every person on the planet.

This will only happen when all of us, from the grassroots to the presidential palaces, understand that they are holistic values, applicable across countries and cultures.

Human rights and democracy go hand in hand with climate justice, sustainable development, and women’s empowerment. You simply cannot have one without the other!

So in 2015, the challenge is immense. But with the right approach, we also have an exciting opportunity to effect positive change and set the agenda for years to come.

Human rights and democracy must be the driving forces behind the global response to climate change, women’s discrimination, economic inequalities and institutional malaise.

We need ethical leadership that works hand in hand with grassroots pressure because the decisions we take this year will be crucial.

They must be taken not in the corridors of power or behind closed doors but in the public sphere, where everyone can be held accountable for his or her actions.

These are decisions in which we all should be involved. It is our shared responsibility to future generations to rise to the challenge and seek the common good, irrespective of where we happen to live on our one planet.

As Nelson Mandela said:

“The real makers of history are the ordinary men and women; their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and freedom."

This piece is based on a speech Gro Harlem Brundtland delivered at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum on 6 March 2015.

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