“From Switzerland to Mongolia: accountability as a Central Element of Deepening Democracy” (en)

Berna, 26.11.2015 - Berna, 26.11.2015 – Allocuzione del Consigliere federale Didier Burkhalter in occasione del Foro dell’Istituto internazionale per la democrazia e l’assistenza elettorale 2015 (IDEA) - Fa stato la versione orale

Ladies and Gentlemen,

2015 marks a turning point for development. With the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community has united to make a common pledge: to end poverty and to secure the well-being of all people, and of future generations.

We all agree that this is no easy feat. However, what makes the 2030 Agenda truly unique is not just its ambition, but the universal promise and vision behind it. It reflects the fact that some challenges can be overcome if we address them together, united in partnership and not divided into north and south, east and west, developed and developing.

The Agenda reminds us that the things we have in common are greater than our differences. It reminds us that development is really sustainable when it benefits everybody, everywhere. 

Like many other countries, Switzerland invested a great deal of effort in formulating the Sustainable Development Goals. We worked hard to ensure that democratic governance featured prominently on the new Agenda. We are happy that, with others, we succeeded in shaping much of the definition of Goal 16, which calls on the international community to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

The accountability of state institutions is a key element. It requires institutional checks and balances between the different branches of government, and citizens who are able to participate in democratic processes, such as public consultations and elections. State budgets – the people’s money – must be used transparently and effectively, and for the well-being of all.

As you heard during yesterday’s discussions, in the Swiss system of semi-direct democracy, citizens are accustomed to having a say in politics. For us, it goes without saying that we debate and consult broadly and include as many stakeholders as necessary in the political decision-making process. This is why we consulted political parties, representatives from civil society, the private sector, and academia before we went ahead and defined our country’s priorities for the 2030 Agenda.

This consultative approach builds trust between government and citizens, and consensus between the different stakeholders. In a country like Switzerland with so many different cantons, cultures, religions and other regional and political differences, it is an essential part of our system. Dialogue and consultation are instruments anchored in our institutions. But even more importantly, they are deeply rooted in our political culture – in our political DNA.

When we look at most of the conflicts in the world today, we can say that many tensions, crises and even wars are in part the result of a lack of dialogue and power sharing.

The Swiss political system was built by our founding fathers with precisely these questions in mind: how do we share, balance and control power between institutions, between federal and local government, and between Parliament and the people? The collegiate Federal Council is no exception here. We have a system in which each of the seven Councillors – or ministers – is appointed President for a one-year-term on a rotating basis. The President has no more power than his or her colleagues, however. This system has allowed Switzerland to maintain its domestic peace for centuries, despite its heterogeneity. That is why I think the world of today might need a little bit more of Switzerland. The Swiss power-sharing experience – the gift that our ancestors gave us – can be useful to others, too.

That is why Swiss development cooperation and human rights policy is committed to supporting civil society initiatives that promote democracy, power sharing, transparency and accountability in public life. It is part of who we are as a nation. 

We work in countries such as Mongolia and Bolivia, which have come a long way towards building accountable institutions, but also in fragile contexts and countries affected by conflict, such as Afghanistan or Somalia.. If we want to further reduce poverty, advance sustainable development and also prevent violent extremism, we must transform fragile states into peaceful, inclusive and stable ones.

That is easy enough to say, but of course requires a great deal of work, beginning by complementing our traditional development activities with both peace-building and state-building. Today, half of Switzerland’s development partners are fragile states. Addressing the causes of their fragility, increasing their societies’ resilience and improving their human rights situation will be an ever-more-important objective in the years ahead. It is challenging, but necessary.

In our experience, working with civil society is most effective when paired with other measures, such as promoting independent media, strengthening the oversight function of the parliament, and rooting out corruption.

Our approach to good governance and accountability is therefore a comprehensive one.

For example, we have programmes in East and Southern Africa, in Serbia and in Macedonia that aim to strengthen the oversight role of parliamentary committees.

In addition, we support the work of the anti-corruption commissions in Kosovo and in Bhutan, and in conflict-prone regions of Pakistan we are helping to set up mobile courts to improve law enforcement and access to justice for the rural population.

We are also helping to set up a network of radio stations and broadcasters, mostly in remote rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
We are also very active in a variety of fields in Tunisia, a country that has made remarkable progress in the past years. Indeed, the Tunisian President should have been in Switzerland yesterday and today for a State visit, but his country was once again cruelly attacked on Tuesday by people who want to weaken or even destroy Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights. We will continue to support Tunisia.

Examples of Switzerland’s work in Tunisia include support for the preparation of elections and constitutional reform; we facilitate dialogue between different political groups, and assist efforts to prevent torture, to reform the security forces and parliamentary control over them, and programmes to engage more women in politics.

The recent election in Myanmar is another good example of how Switzerland can help. At the request of the parties and the Myanmar Election Commission, my country oversaw negotiations on a code of conduct. This is a set of rules to ensure peaceful elections, to which the parties and candidates commit themselves voluntarily. The code also contains principles to ensure protection against attacks and reputational damage, threats to candidates’ private lives, and hate speech. Other regulations prohibit the abuse of state resources, and require candidates to renounce the use of religion for electoral purposes. The initiative was intended to prevent violent conflict during the election and to build trust between the parties. Switzerland continued its support by helping to organise free and fair elections. These are a crucial step in the transition to democracy. With an electorate of 30 million voters and 73 political parties, it was a major political and logistical challenge.

Accountability is the topic that Switzerland chose to promote during its Chairmanship of the Council of Member States of International IDEA in 2015. Accountability is particularly important in the way in which governments raise and spend tax revenue. Governments need resources to deliver public goods and services, such as healthcare, education, transport, security and sanitation.

As citizens, meanwhile, we want to be sure that our taxes are indeed put to good use for the benefit of society as a whole. Recognising the importance of public finance management, Swiss development cooperation has a strong focus on helping partner countries to improve tax systems and tax compliance. Good examples of such cooperation can be found in Central America, the Balkans, and Somalia.

I am personally convinced, however, that underpinning all democratic processes and accountability is something even more fundamental: the political culture that defines the relationship between the government and the people.

Political culture cannot be imported; neither, where it exists, should it be taken for granted. It needs to grow within society and be nurtured through respectful public debate and commitment to civic duty. Democracy is about rights, but it is also about responsibility

Ladies and gentlemen,

The core values of democracy have been attacked in a number of places in recent weeks: in Paris, Tunis, and elsewhere. Liberty, freedom of speech, human rights, and gender equality are just some of the values at stake.

Our democracies must give a strong and clear response. We must act decisively, together, against violent extremism, and prevent it at its roots. We must do it by preserving democracy’s core values: human rights, the rule of law, and a fair and independent judicial system.
Two months ago, the Swiss government approved a national strategy to combat terrorism. It is based on the four pillars of prevention, law enforcement, protection and crisis management.

Prevention is a major focus, and we are strengthening it. We have made the prevention of violent extremism a new priority issue for Swiss foreign policy. The aim is to provide vulnerable individuals with alternative opportunities. It is a tremendous task, yet development and peace promotion measures must also be applied for counterterrorist purposes: from fostering youth employment to promoting political participation on the part of those who can speak credibly to young people at risk.

Let me give you a few examples of how Switzerland is engaged in preventing violent extremism:

We promote international cooperation and norm-building on this issue. The UN is expected to present its first Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism by the end of this year. In the spring 2016, Switzerland will co-host an international conference in Geneva to discuss its implementation. Building a common foundation for the international community is essential for effective action against violent extremism.

Switzerland also runs its own projects on the ground. Our country is fortunate to have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the world. This is due in large part to our vocational education and training system, which enables young people to integrate more easily into the labour market. Switzerland is contributing to vocational training projects in several countries such as Tunisia and Afghanistan. We are convinced that offering real prospects to young people is key to preventing them turning towards violent extremism.

Switzerland will host an expert-level meeting next year in Geneva. It will focus on the role that vocational education and training can play in creating a future and fostering resilience in regions that are particularly at risk. 

Switzerland also provides substantial support to the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF), a Geneva-based public-private initiative established to support local, community-level initiatives aimed at strengthening resilience to violent extremism.

Such measures will mainly have mid and long-term effects. By far the most important short-term priority is to end the war in Syria. This would give Syrians a chance to rebuild their country, and the displaced the prospect of returning home. It would also improve the probability of weakening ISIL.

Switzerland supports the efforts of UN Special Envoy de Mistura to foster intra-Syrian dialogue. It is encouraging that, despite all their differences, the USA and Russia have now established a Syria Support Group, with Saudi Arabia and Iran sitting at the same table. Switzerland calls on all of those involved to translate their expressions of solidarity about the Paris attacks into concrete concerted action to stop the violence in Syria. 

Regarding the recent downing of a Russian Air Force plane, we call on all sides concerned to avoid further escalation and resolve this situation through diplomacy. Only through cooperation of all sides involved is there a chance that we will progress towards our declared objective of peace and credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance in Syria. With a new constitution and free and fair elections: the basis of democracy.

Ladies and gentleman,

Much work lies ahead of us. I firmly believe that, together, we can master these challenges.

Switzerland has been pleased to chair the Council of Member States of International IDEA during an important year for the future of our planet. Throughout the Agenda 2030 negotiations, International IDEA has been an important partner for us in promoting democratic values. Our partnership will continue long after we hand over the Chair to Mongolia at today’s forum and after tomorrow’s Council meeting.

I would like to take this opportunity to extend my best wishes to my colleague, Minister Purevsuren, for his important role in our common endeavour. I am very optimistic, because I have encountered him personally, and I have been able to witness his strong personal commitment to our shared goal – at the Council meeting celebrating the 20th anniversary of International IDEA in Stockholm last September, and here today.

I am optimistic, too, because we pass the Chairmanship to Mongolia, a country that is in many respects a model in its region.

That is not only because it is neutral, but also because it has made tremendous efforts in recent years to promote democracy and accountability, and peace and stability, through dialogue in its region of the world. Mongolia fulfils its responsibility, and helps the world evolve in a better way.

This is also what Switzerland tries to do.

So, let us work together, keep up the momentum as we advance the 2030 Agenda, and strive to meet its goals on time and in full.

Thank you, and have a fruitful Forum here in Switzerland!

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