IDD Speech on Strengthening Voices for Democracy

15 Sep 2013

At the outset, I would like to thank the Royal University of Bhutan for graciously agreeing to coordinate the observation of International Democracy Day this year through its Institute for GNH Studies (IGNHaS), a newly established think tank body and the Paro College of Education. We are also very pleased and grateful that the Hon’ble Speaker of the National Assembly despite your very busy schedule at this time of the first session of the second Parliament has kindly consented to grace the event as the Chief Guest and it bores a great significance since Parliament is the epitome of democracy in any country.  

This year the theme adopted by the UN for the International Democracy Day is ‘Strengthening the Voices for Democracy’.  The UN system has been undertaking global and  national consultations, including in Bhutan, on the vision of development beyond Millennium Development Goals’ target date of 2015. The million voices represented in the UN’s MY World survey overwhelmingly call for open and responsive government, placing this in the top three goals they seek in a future development agenda.

For us here in Bhutan, we have adopted a sub-theme to focus this year on “Empowering Youth Voices and Participation”. In this context, we are very happy to have so many young people taking part in this event both as speakers, actors and members of audience. It is particularly relevant for a young democracy like Bhutan where also youth constitute about 40% of the population. As His Majesty reminds us very often, youth of today are both the future citizens and leaders of the country. The success and resilience of a nation in the longer term depends so much on how it nurtures its youth and children today with proper care, education and guidance to become responsible citizens.  

The Educating for GNH programme implemented by the Ministry of Education in this regard is highly relevant. Developing an understanding of human values, and the operating principles of society and democracy as part of governance, can be an essential first step in educating young citizens engaged in the community around them, and in democratic processes.

Democracy is more than voting. We need to make sure that young people feel as though they are listened to by decision-makers, and that they have a stake in building the future democratic society of Bhutan. Young people are the leaders of the future, but they can also be leaders today.

The UN Secretary General also in his message last year on the participation of youth, said “the voices of the young must also be heard and heeded.  Profound demographic pressures around the world make this an imperative.  Faced with bleak prospects and unresponsive governments, young people will act on their own to reclaim their future.”

Bhutan is a young democracy. However, as the UN Secretary General reminds us in his message for today, challenges of ensuring civic engagement can be a reality regardless of a democracy’s age: “apathy has become democracy’s most insidious enemy in a growing number of societies.  Inclusive participation is the antidote.  It is not only an end in itself, it prepares communities, societies and entire countries to address opposing points of view, forge compromises and solutions, and engage in constructive criticism and deliberations.  Inclusive participation helps communities develop functioning forms of democracy for government, corporations and civil society.“ A democratic society will include the participation and voices of young people in decision-making.

Participatory democracy is particularly relevant in the context of Bhutan with its small population where each and every one is a valuable member of the close-knit society and therefore, sometimes an individual voice is reflective of a group opinion. However, in in democracy, as we understand it, everyone should be able to freely express his or her will to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all key decisions that affect their lives, through their elected representatives. In today’s context, the development of social media has given a new platform for people’s engagement in the democratic process, powerfully illustrated in the Arab Spring. In Bhutan too, social media is becoming widely used, as a result of increasing access to information technology and connectivity, particularly in the urban areas and among the educated youth. This year’s parliamentary elections showed how effectively the social media could influence the public opinion.

The UN in Bhutan over the past few years have supported the constitutional and democratic institutions, including the parliament, as well as civil society in their  concerted efforts to enhance  the gains Bhutan has made in its progress toward a vibrant democracy. Capacity building of newly elected members of the legislature, strengthening of the Constitutional Bodies, and civic education programs have been at the core of our support to help create a strong base for democratic governance in the country. We are particularly pleased that we could provide support for the conduct of the historic general elections in 2008, and the preparations for the local government elections in 2011 and general elections in 2013. We wish to continue to be a valuable partner with the government to sustain and deepen the democratic transition and process in Bhutan with better focus on women’s political participation which is comparatively low with only five of seventy-two members of parliament being women (6.9%).

I am looking forward to hearing from the young people here in this audience how they feel about democracy and participation, and how we can best work with you to develop Bhutan’s young democracy. The impressive work carried out by all of you in this audience, from educators to development professionals, helps young people to have the confidence and avenues to participate in their community and the country.

The UN Secretary today calls on us all to “Speak out.  Participate.  Reach out to understand and listen to those who may be weaker or more vulnerable than you.  We all have an equal stake in our shared future.  Today, let us commit to ensuring that each of us can and does play our part to the full.”
In conclusion, I would like to thank all the participants and organizers for making your time available, even though it is a holiday today, to join our friends across the world to celebrate this important annual event – the International Day for Democracy. The day serves to remind us of the importance and value of democracy for the sustenance and vitality of our human society and its progress.

Thank you and Tashi Delek!