International Day of Democracy: Respect and protection of rights in times of COVID-19

published 15 September 2020 updated 15 September 2020

On 15 September, the International Day of Democracy, Education International is joining the UN, civil society organisations and others to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

“As the world confronts COVID-19, democracy is crucial in ensuring the free flow of information, participation in decision-making, and accountability for the response to the pandemic,” stressed UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Many of the targets of Sustainable Development Goal 16 are geared towards protecting democratic institutions. Although democracy is central to SDG 16, democracy is fundamental to other goals as well. For example, education, covered by SDG 4 is an essential component of democratic life, active citizenship and building a future for freedom.

Guterres has also urged governments to be transparent, responsive, and accountable in their COVID-19 response and to ensure that any emergency measures are legal, proportionate, necessary, and non-discriminatory.

Global concerns

Guterres also insisted that states must respect and protect, among other rights, freedom of expression and of the press, freedom of information, freedom of association and of assembly. Concerns in the context of COVID-19 in many countries include:

  • Measures to control the flow of information and a crackdown on freedom of expression and press freedom against an existing background of shrinking civic space.
  • Arrest, detention, prosecution or persecution of political opponents, journalists, doctors and healthcare workers, activists, and others for allegedly spreading “fake news”.
  • Aggressive cyber-policing and increased online surveillance.
  • Postponement of elections which has raised serious constitutional issues in some cases and may lead to rising tensions.

Defence of democracy

The promotion and expansion of democracy has been fundamental to Education International from its inception, highlighted David Edwards, General Secretary of the global union federation of teachers' trade unions.

“However, in recent years, we have become preoccupied with the defence of democracy and it has not just been from the repeated attacks on freedom by dictatorships and would-be authoritarians in fragile democracies,” he noted. “There has also been an erosion of the support of the values and practices of democracy in many long-established democracies.”.

Public services conference highlighted inequalities

Adding that “the COVID-19 pandemic put the fault lines of our democracies in dramatic relief”, he recalled that, on 29 June, Education International, with Public Services International, held an online conference, “Unions Standing for Democracy, Social Justice and Equality”.

While the conference reviewed the damage to democracy of gross inequalities and discrimination, including those highlighted by “Black Lives Matter”, there are many other inequalities, including of wealth, inside and among nations, Edwards underlined. He added that there are other dangers to democracy like the rapid spread of disinformation, disregard for the public good, and the erosion and marketing of public services. The pandemic should, in no way, endanger freedom and rule of law, however, freedom does not include the right to make others sick and the deliberate flouting of scientific advice for political reasons. Refusing to respect sanitary restrictions like wearing masks endangers all.

He was also adamant that one clear lesson of COVID-19 was that public services were too weak when hit with a crisis due to austerity measures imposed during the 2008-2009 financial/economic crisis. The pandemic shows just how important public services are. “They are literally a matter of life or death. That experience should not be forgotten in a rush to return to a normal that never worked.”

Work of educators and their unions more urgent than ever

Educators and their trade unions have never been bystanders in the fight for democracy, Edwards stressed. But their struggles have taken on a new urgency with recent, multiple global crises in the two years since Education International published “Education and Democracy: 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession”. He highlighted that “essential values and competencies for democracy are imparted through education, including critical thinking, learning how to, listen, discuss and debate and engage as active citizens”.

In the book, its authors, Education International General Secretary Emeritus Fred van Leeuwen and President Susan Hopgood, wrote: “We want our students to grow up in a democratic society. We want them to become active citizens able to make wise choices. We want to enable them to promote, protect and achieve the values which constitute the basis of democracy and its institutions.

“We believe that the real safeguard of democracy is education and that the ability of our schools and universities to fulfil that role will largely depend on the teaching profession. We know that educators around the world, whether they work in democratic, non-democratic or authoritarian environments, are ready to play their part.”