Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
December 10, 2021
Thank you so much, Dr. Slaughter, for that kind introduction.
We all know that strong democracies can deliver for their people. But everywhere around the globe, democracy is under threat. Many of our countries have had authoritarians and nefarious actors try to interfere with elections. In some places, corruption is hollowing out judicial systems, undermining the rule of law. Across the globe, disinformation is sowing seeds of division and distrust, shaking the confidence of ordinary citizens in our democratic institutions. Our democracies are being attacked, our institutions targeted. We cannot, and we will not, stand idly by.
With those threats in mind, I want to frame this panel discussion through four questions: How can we protect our elections and the right to vote? How can we better defend the rule of law? How can we make our information environment more resilient? How can we support the civil society actors who are essential to these challenges? And finally, how do we rebuild trust and revitalize our shared commitment to democracy – the commitment that undergirds all of this – at a moment when skepticism and divisions are sky high?
Let’s start with elections. After all, democracy is defined by our electoral process – we are not a democracy unless we are able to freely and fairly elect our leaders to represent us. Our elections, therefore, could be a point of vulnerability. Ensuring our elections are secure and fair is important because the very act of holding legitimate elections is a demonstration of strength.
Every time we hold a genuine election, it’s a celebration of our democratic systems. It is a public affirmation that we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people – which inherently creates trust and accountability. What’s more, while they are critically important, elections are only one moment in the broader democratic process – one of many ways for citizens to engage in democracy. Joining a political party or civic group, staying informed on the issues, discussing shared problems with neighbors, talking to your representatives, serving in government, peacefully protesting, or petitioning – these are just some of the ways citizens can contribute to democracy beyond their votes.
And on the other hand, we need to ensure our institutions are consistently working for and delivering for all citizens. That brings me to defending the “rule of law.” The rule of law is the promise that every individual will be treated equally before the law. This promise undergirds our entire system.
The rule of law is critical to our ability to root out corruption, ensure that individuals and governments will be held accountable if they don’t follow the law, and that people’s rights under the law are respected and protected. Just as the rule of law holds all of us accountable, so too do journalists and a free and independent press. They are also charged with the important task of keeping citizens informed. But in today’s interconnected world, that can be a real challenge – especially as misinformation and disinformation floods our news streams.
I know some of our panelists, including Jessikka Aro, will shed light on the challenges journalists face today. But I want to be clear that governments have a role to play here: We need to foster information environments with accurate, evidence-based information. And we need to help promote dialogue and exchange of ideas to reconcile different positions.
All of this comes back to that big, final question: how do we rebuild trust and revitalize our shared commitment to democracy?
To answer that question, I want to turn to one of my heroes – Ralph Bunche. Bunche was an African American diplomat, civil rights activist, and above all, a fighter for freedom. He helped shape the founding of the United Nations and was instrumental to the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yesterday, we marked the 50th anniversary of his death. And so I am called to honor his memory with his words.
In 1950, Bunche was delivering a commencement address to Kentucky State College, a Historically Black University. He wanted to answer a simple question for the graduating students, the same question we face today: How can we defend democracy and expand it to all peoples? Underlying that question was a clear conundrum: How could we defend and spread democracy and freedom to the world when Black Americans were not experiencing it at home?
Bunche explained that just the day before, the Supreme Court had issued three landmark decisions, each outlawing different forms of segregation. Though slow, this was what democratic progress looked like. He showed how this was the result of all the forms of democracy in action – of peaceful protest, of people standing up and demanding their rights, of elections, of media reporting on injustices, of institutional accountability and the rule of law – all of these democratic forces coming to a head to make the ideals of our country a reality for all.
Then Bunche made his important point clear. He said: “The greatest defense for democracy is its practice.”
Let me repeat that: “The greatest defense for democracy is its practice.”
That is the argument I want to leave you with today. All democracies are inherently flawed. We are imperfect. But the way we improve is by practicing democracy – both as citizens and as governments – and by protecting our democratic institutions. When we hold free and fair elections and hold ourselves accountable, when we work to improve openly and transparently, that is our most powerful argument. That is, in fact, our strongest defense. The more democratic we become, the stronger we get. And we are even stronger when we work at these goals together.
Which is why I am so excited to turn it over to you, panelists. You all make up the fabric of your democracies, pushing us to work better and deliver for our people. And I know that together, we will push each other and help each other address these fundamental questions for our democratic institutions.
So, without further ado, I’ll turn it back over to our moderator, Dr. Slaughter, to lead the panel. I’m looking forward to our discussion.
Thank you very much.