All people share an inherent right and irrepressible desire to live in freedom and make decisions about their own lives. As historical and more recent events have shown, denial of this basic truth leads inevitably to injustice, conflict, and suffering.
Democracy is the best form of government for ensuring peace, prosperity, sustainable development, and human progress because it is rooted in a recognition of human rights and allows for the orderly reconciliation of competing views and interests. It is a political system based on the free consent of the governed, and it is maintained through a network of mutually reinforcing structures, in which those exercising power are subject to checks both within and outside the state—from independent courts, an independent press, and all the elements of a diverse and active civil society.
No individual democracy adheres perfectly to this ideal, but democratic rights and institutions provide the means for self-correction and improvement. When one part of the democratic system falters, the others can be used as tools to repair and strengthen it, empowering people to constantly, peacefully strive for a better future.
Some of the most urgent challenges of our time stem from a failure of democratic states and societies to rally together, offer consistent and reciprocal support, and collectively address violations of fundamental rights wherever they occur. The neglect has been corrosive, leading to nearly two decades of decline in global freedom and a pattern of mounting authoritarian aggression. In response, the world’s democracies must work together to reinforce shared ideals and confront common threats.
In keeping with the goals of the second Summit for Democracy, we—the undersigned nongovernmental organizations and civil society cohort leads—declare that the following principles are integral to the success of all democracies, and to the rights, dignity, security, and freedom of their people. We call on states to take the recommended actions associated with each principle.
We affirm that observance of these principles will demonstrate the efficacy, legitimacy, and appeal of democratic governance, both to those living in freedom and to those still struggling to end their oppression. We commit to supporting these principles around the world, without exception, because they protect the dignity of all people and promote opportunity for all.
Principle 1: Protection and Cultivation of Fundamental Freedoms and Civic Space
- States should maintain an enabling environment for civil society activism by guaranteeing respect for the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression and ensuring that law and policy do not impede the work of civil society organizations.
- States should promote the right of civil society representatives to participate in public policymaking, in part by affording them opportunities to provide input on proposed laws and to express views that are critical of existing laws and policies.
- States should refrain from reprisals against and stigmatization of civil society activists, support international standards that prohibit such behavior, and offer protection to those who are forced into exile.
Principle 2: Election Integrity and Political Pluralism
- States should conduct regular, free, and fair elections that are accessible to and inclusive of all eligible voters and candidates and that enable orderly transfers of power.
- States should foster space for robust political party competition that provides a platform for diverse political viewpoints and gives voters a meaningful choice on election day.
- States should cultivate and appropriately fund autonomous, professional, and impartial institutions to manage elections.
- States should promote positive, open discourse on democracy, and election authorities should proactively and expeditiously address information that has the potential to undermine trust in the election cycle, without improperly infringing on the fundamental freedoms of speech and expression.
- States and election authorities should consider the opportunities and risks associated with the introduction of new election technologies and select the most appropriate tools to support efficient, transparent, and credible election processes.
- States should commit to the ideal, through a democratic system of checks and balances, that all elected governments serve the interests of the public as a whole and respect the rights of political and demographic minority groups. Pluralistic legislatures with the power to monitor and challenge the executive branch should play an active role in this process.
- States should increase transparency and accountability in political financing to promote fair competition in elections and close off opportunities for private, illicit, or undemocratic interests to unduly influence decision-making.
Principle 3: Inclusive Policymaking
- States should recognize that the loss of agency and control among citizens, or even the impression thereof, is a key source of democratic instability.
- States should prevent related harms by working to explore, expand, and refine mechanisms that give citizens a substantive and visible role in the major policy decisions and legislative initiatives affecting their lives.
- States should take into account the voices of people from emerging democracies and the Global South when developing policies that could affect conditions beyond their own borders. For example, states should consult widely on draft regulations for global digital platforms that might negatively impact freedom of expression in other countries.
Principle 4: Solidarity against Authoritarian Pressure
- States with donor capacity should maintain or significantly increase their support for democratic movements and institutions worldwide. They should deepen diplomatic and material support for democratic activists in authoritarian environments and provide a safe haven for those who are forced to flee as a result of their work.
- States should keep a public spotlight on the mounting number of human rights defenders, journalists, and democracy activists who have been detained worldwide, and take additional steps to routinely and proactively advocate for the swift release of specific political prisoners during interactions with counterparts in other governments.
- States should recognize that transnational repression is a threat to democracy and human rights worldwide, as it undermines the rule of law, imperils civil and political liberties, and spreads authoritarian practices. States should commit to addressing transnational repression, including by ending impunity for perpetrators, strengthening the resilience of democratic institutions, and protecting vulnerable groups and individuals.
- States should reinforce economic solidarity as a deterrent to authoritarian economic coercion, working to better insulate individual states from retaliatory measures when they stand up for the values of democracy and human rights.
Principle 5: Media Freedom and Resistance to Disinformation
- States should recognize that a diverse and independent media sector is essential to the health of a democracy, and actively protect journalists from censorship, threats of violence, and other undue restrictions on their work.
- States should foster a culture of transparency in government, allowing the press to access the information it needs to hold public officials accountable for their performance or malfeasance.
- States should enact and adhere to laws and regulations that protect freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- States should cultivate societal resilience to disinformation by safeguarding the right to freely access and distribute credible information, promoting media literacy at all levels of society, and supporting initiatives committed to tracking, analyzing, and combating harmful disinformation campaigns.
- States should take a proactive approach to countering disinformation, enhancing their predictive capabilities and engaging in preemptive measures to “prebunk” emerging narratives. They should invest in public diplomacy to advance these goals.
- States should work with the private sector to reform media regulations and markets in a manner that will support independent news outlets’ financial self-sufficiency, and actively challenge business models and algorithms that either incentivize or monetize hate speech or dis- and misinformation.
Principle 6: Human Rights on Digital Platforms
- States should uphold fundamental human rights in the digital sphere. They should refrain from shutting down or disrupting access to and use of telecommunications and online services, including social media platforms, anticensorship technologies, and websites hosting political, social, and religious speech. They should also strengthen legal protections for free expression online, including by decriminalizing speech that is protected under international human rights standards and refraining from the imposition of civil penalties for such speech. The exchange of information through the internet and online platforms should remain open, affordable, and secure, even in times of crisis.
- States should address digital threats to human security. They should tightly regulate the deployment and ban the export of surveillance tools or other technologies that can facilitate human rights abuses, like NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware product. These systems are often used to spy on human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, or to harass vulnerable communities across borders.
- States should enact data protection and privacy laws that strengthen human rights, protect encryption, and strictly regulate access to and use of personal data by both state and nonstate actors. Governments should protect their people from harmful commercial data policies and practices that incentivize abuse and misuse of private information. They should also ensure that state collection and use of communications data is carried out in a transparent, accountable, and rights-respecting manner.
- States should use and regulate digital technologies in a manner that not only supports fundamental rights but also advances equitable economic development, environmental sustainability, and innovation.
Principle 7: Rule of Law and People-Centered Justice
- States should ensure that their judicial systems are structurally protected from undue political influence and other threats to impartiality, and that independent courts have the authority to check executive or legislative action that infringes on human rights or democratic principles.
- States should put ordinary people and their needs at the center of justice systems, in part by eliminating legal, administrative, financial, and practical barriers that may prevent some segments of society from accessing relevant services, obtaining due process rights, or securing a fair resolution of their cases.
- States should empower people and communities to understand, use, and shape the law, and increase meaningful participation in judicial processes.
- States should use the justice system to prevent and deescalate conflict, promote reconciliation, and address the root causes of societal violence.
Principle 8: Safeguards against Corruption
- States should work with one another and with civic and private-sector partners to promote best practices for fighting corruption and strengthen international anticorruption mechanisms, including the UN Convention against Corruption, the Financial Action Task Force, and the Open Government Partnership.
- States should seek to introduce the most effective possible legal mechanisms for tracing, freezing, and confiscating stolen assets. These could include laws against illicit enrichment and forfeiture systems that do not first require criminal conviction.
- States should work proactively to identify any proceeds of corruption held within their jurisdictions and provide information regarding these assets to the state of origin.
- States should recognize the special nature of high-level corruption and harmonize their laws and practices to overcome barriers to extradition and other forms of cooperation.
- States should identify and deter any professional service providers—including attorneys, bankers, accountants, real-estate brokers, financial advisers, and corporate consultants—who facilitate, encourage, or enable transnational corruption through legal or illegal means.
- States should establish a beneficial ownership registry that is appropriately resourced and monitored, and that balances the public interests of data privacy and ownership transparency.
- States should uphold fair and transparent processes for public procurement and associated activities, ensuring that they serve the public interest and minimize opportunities for rent-seeking, bribe-taking, and other forms of corruption.
- States should encourage “collective action” initiatives, including integrity pacts, as a critical multistakeholder tool for preventing corruption at the public-private interface.
- States should have legal mechanisms in place to ensure that no one is above the law and all high-level representatives of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches can be effectively investigated without fear of retribution.
Principle 9: Gender Equality
- States should accelerate efforts to address harmful gender-related norms, stereotypes, cultural and social practices, and behaviors that undermine women’s opportunities to participate on equal terms in public life. They should include men and boys in these efforts and encourage media and educational institutions to incorporate gender equality into their professional training and core content.
- States should conduct a systematic review of legislation, policies, and customary laws to ensure that they promote, rather than hinder, women’s political participation.
- States should create an enabling environment for women’s political participation by showing zero tolerance for all forms of violence against women, setting legal or normative quotas for women in decision-making bodies, and ensuring that political parties adopt inclusive, transparent, and accountable measures for gender equality within their organizations.
- States should fully implement and fund UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security. They should systematically integrate a gender perspective into all stages of conflict prevention, peace, and security efforts by engaging women as equal and meaningful participants at the international, national, and local levels.
Principle 10: Youth Political and Civic Engagement
- States should encourage political parties and civil society groups to establish youth branches within their organizations and recruit young people to participate in political and civic activities.
- States should generally consider youth as an opportunity rather than a problem and increase investment in high-quality education in order to enhance, in the long term, young people’s capacity development and involvement in public affairs.
- States should encourage and support improved and fair access for young people to open, prompt, reliable, and high-quality information, including through information and communication technologies and community radio, in order to strengthen accountability processes and increase youth involvement in decision-making.
- States should support human rights and gender equality among young people, and eradicate all forms of violence and prejudice against adolescents and youth, including child marriage, early and coerced marriage, and other damaging practices that affect adolescent girls and young women in particular.
Principle 11: Equal Rights for People with Disabilities
- States should involve people with disabilities and their representative organizations in decision-making processes across all levels of government, in the spirit of “nothing about us without us.” Disability rights issues should also be mainstreamed across a wide range of policy areas, including climate change, food security, disaster risk, health care, and economic growth.
- States should align their electoral processes with universal design principles to ensure that people with disabilities can participate meaningfully in politics as voters, candidates, election officials, and observers. This includes making all public buildings physically accessible, providing voter and civic education information in accessible formats, and bringing legal frameworks into compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
- States should invest in civic education activities that will support greater engagement by people with disabilities, making an effort to reach young people, members of ethnic and religious minorities, Indigenous people, and those who are out of school and living in remote areas.
Principle 12: Economic Opportunity for All
- States should support broad access to economic opportunity by upholding individual and communal property rights and preventing arbitrary expropriation or legal seizures without adequate compensation.
- States should create legal and regulatory conditions that support free enterprise and fair competition, the establishment and operation of small businesses, and freedom from bribery and extortion.
- States should uphold the freedom of workers to associate and organize in independent labor unions, bargain collectively and enter into contracts with employers, and engage in peaceful strike actions to advance their interests.
- States should actively identify and punish exploitative labor practices, including unsafe working conditions, forced labor, child labor, and trafficking in persons.
- States should protect freedom of movement in all its forms, including the ability to travel to educational institutions and new places of employment.
Principle 13: Freedom of Conscience and Religious Belief
- States should protect the fundamental freedom to practice and express one’s religious faith or nonbelief in public and private.
- States should ensure that religious institutions and communities are able to operate without undue regulatory burdens, construct and maintain religious buildings without discriminatory obstacles, and provide voluntary religious instruction without official interference.
- States should uphold the freedom of individuals to eschew religious beliefs and practices, decline participation in religious activities, or decline military service for reasons of conscience.
Principle 14: Comprehensive Freedom from Discrimination
- States should protect vulnerable populations that are not otherwise addressed above, ensuring that all people are able to exercise their fundamental human rights without disadvantage on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other such category.
- States should recognize that the principles enumerated here are not intended to be exclusive. While different circumstances may call for an emphasis on different dimensions of democratic liberty, no such shift in focus should be interpreted as a denial or diminishment of any aspect of human dignity.
The content of this declaration of principles reflects the contributions of the civil society co-leads of cohorts established throughout the Year of Action as part of the Summit for Democracy. Fourteen cohorts contributed to this effort: Anti-Corruption Policies as a Guarantee for National Security, Stability, and Sovereignty; Civic Space; Deliberative Democracy and Citizens’ Assemblies; Disability Rights; Election Integrity; Financial Transparency and Integrity; Gender Equality as a Prerequisite for Democracy; Information Integrity; International Cooperation for Anti-Corruption; Media Freedom; Resisting Authoritarian Pressure; Rule of Law and People-Centered Justice; Technology for Democracy; and Youth Political and Civic Engagement. This initiative was led and coordinated by Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the McCain Institute.
- American Bar Association Center for Global Programs, USA
- Access Now, Global
- Accountability Lab, Global
- African Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD Initiative), South Africa
- African Middle Eastern Leadership Project (AMEL), USA
- African Network of Youth Researchers, Côte d’Ivoire
- ARTICLE 19, UK
- Association of Black American Ambassadors, USA
- Alliance for Peacebuilding, USA
- Alliance for Vietnam’s Democracy, USA
- Alliance of Democracies Foundation, Denmark
- Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, USA
- Basel Institute on Governance, Switzerland
- Be Just, USA
- Bekker Compliance Consulting Partners, LLC, USA
- BigMoneyOutVA, USA
- The Carter Center, USA
- Center for Democracy and Technology, USA, EU
- Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), USA
- Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), Ethiopia
- Charity&Security Network, USA
- Citizens Network Watchdog Poland, Poland
- Clean Elections Texas, USA
- Coalition for Integrity, USA
- Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ), USA
- Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Uganda
- Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), USA
- CyberPeace Institute, Switzerland
- D.C. Student Consortium on Women, Peace, and Security, USA
- Democracy International, USA
- Devetaki Plateau Association, Bulgaria
- The Digital Democracy Project, USA
- Digital Empowerment Foundation, India
- Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan
- Digital Rights Lab, Sudan
- DT Institute, USA
- European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), The Netherlands
- European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), Belgium
- Fix Democracy First, USA
- Forum 2000 Foundation, Czechia
- Free Expression Myanmar, Myanmar
- Freedom for Eurasia, Austria
- Freedom House, USA
- George W. Bush Institute, USA
- Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD), Belgium
- Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, USA
- Human Rights Foundation, USA
- Humanity United, USA
- Integrity Initiatives International, USA
- InterAction, USA
- International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, USA
- International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), USA
- International Disability Alliance, Switzerland
- The International Foundation for Electoral Systems, USA
- International Media Support (IMS), Denmark
- International Republican Institute, USA
- International Tibet Network (Secretariat), USA
- Internews, Global
- IREX, USA
- Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, Kenya
- Keseb, USA
- Lapis, United Arab Emirates
- Law and Public Policy Center, Georgia
- Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, USA
- Libyan American Alliance, USA
- Manushya Foundation, Thailand
- The McCain Institute, USA
- Media Diversity Institute Armenia, Armenia
- Minh Van Foundation, USA
- Ms. Magazine and Feminist Majority Foundation, USA
- National Democratic Institute, USA
- Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations, Estonia
- New America’s Political Reform Program and Digital Impact and Governance Initiative, USA
- newDemocracy Foundation, Australia
- Open Contracting Partnership, USA
- Paradigm Initiative, Nigeria, Zambia
- PartnersGlobal, USA
- Partnership for Transparency Fund, USA
- Peace And Justice Alliance, Canada
- People Power United, USA
- Political Watch, Spain
- PressOne, Romania
- Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), USA
- Results for Development (R4D), USA
- Renew Democracy Initiative, USA
- Robert Bosch Stiftung GmbH, Germany
- The Sentry, USA
- SHARE Foundation, Serbia
- Sinar Project, Malaysia
- SMEX, Lebanon
- Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet), Indonesia
- Strategy for Humanity, USA
- Transparency International U.S., USA
- Tunisian United Network, USA
- Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Vietnam
- United Macedonian Diaspora, USA and Macedonia
- United Nations Association of the National Capital Area, USA
- United Nations Association of the United States, USA
- Usuarios Digitales, Ecuador
- Washington & Jefferson College, USA
- World Citizens Association of Australia, Australia
- World Justice Project, USA
- 44 Virtues, USA
- Thomas Carothers, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, USA
- Amb. Norman L. Eisen (ret.), Democracy 21, USA