Democracy and Human Rights: Key Takeaways from the Athens Democracy Forum

October 27, 2023

GLAA Student Delegates at the 2023 Athens Democracy Forum

By Kara Anderson, ’25

This fall, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to travel to Athens, Greece, and take part in the annual Athens Democracy Forum.

The Athens Democracy Forum is organized by the Democracy and Culture Foundation in association with the New York Times. The Forum brings together participants from around the world to discuss the issues threatening democracy and the work that can be done, and is being done, to protect it. The primary question of the 2023 Forum was, “Do we dare to hope?”

Some of the speakers this year included the President of the Hellenic Republic, a former president of Bolivia, and the European Commissioner for International Partnerships.

This opportunity was made available to me through the Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA). I was selected as one of 24 student delegates from GLAA schools around the world. One of the best parts of this experience was interacting with my fellow delegates. Hearing from people with different backgrounds and perspectives, learning from each other, and exploring new ideas together made the experience even more enriching.

Democracy and Human Rights

Throughout the conference, the connection between human rights and democracy was evident. The two are extremely interconnected. Upon my return I even served as a panelist for Human Rights Educators USA’s Training As Action Series’ discussion on “Protecting Democracy, Promoting Human Rights.”

As I noted during the panel and at the Forum, in order to protect democracy you must promote human rights.

For democracy to be fully realized, individuals must be able to fully participate in their government. This includes the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and all other civil and political rights.

But it is important to understand that not only are civil and political rights necessary, but economic, social, and cultural rights are as well. One recurring theme while I was in Athens was the concept of the hierarchy of needs. When someone is barely surviving, struggling to eat and care for their family, working long hours, and exhausted, they do not have the time nor energy to fully participate in their government. They may not have time to vote, and even if they can, they may not have the time to be informed about the candidates and issues. Engaging elected officials, lobbying, or joining an interest group is likely not an option either. Therefore, economic, social, and cultural rights are also essential to the fulfillment of democracy.

Climate: Flight and Fight

One of the major themes at the Athens Democracy Forum was the climate crisis, and one session specifically focused on the issues surrounding migration as a result of climate change.

This session was called “Rethinking Climate: Flight and Fight.” As stated in the program introduction, “According to the World Bank, hundreds of millions could be forced to move from their homes by 2050 due to the climate crisis. People from low-income nations are four times more likely than those from the Global North to meet this fate, says the United Nations. By all measures, we are not ready. Wealthy nations—responsible for the vast majority of emissions—are finally holding themselves accountable. But will it be too little, too late? What measures could they take to both adapt to and prevent disaster?”

All student delegates from the GLAA chose a Forum topic on which to conduct pre-Forum research, ask questions of the panelists, and draft a group report. “Climate: Flight and Fight” is the topic I focused on. I am writing a report with Arushi Arora (Flame University, India), Aoi Mochizuki (International Christian University, Japan), and Morgan Rose (American University of Paris, France).

The panelists of the session, Fatou Jeng (Founder, Clean Earth Gambia), Michael P. Nash (artist and filmmaker), Biljana Radonjic Ker-Lindsay (Associate Director, Access to Skills and Employment, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), and Michael Oppenheimer (Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs and Director, Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment, Princeton University), discussed several action steps for addressing the climate crisis. Below are some of the steps provided by the panelists that I have adapted from my group report.

1. Support from financial institutions Toggle Accordion

Financial institutions should get involved at the local level to help mitigate economic loss due to climate change. This includes helping to provide access to financial advice as well as access to new technologies such as irrigation and early warning systems. Institutions should also help provide opportunities to learn green skills, which are “the knowledge, abilities, values and attitudes needed to live in, develop and support a sustainable and resource-efficient society.” Developing green skills are essential so that individuals are able to participate in new employment opportunities created during green development. All of these efforts should particularly prioritize women, who are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis.

2. Involvement of diverse voices Toggle Accordion

The climate crisis involves everyone and a diverse set of voices is needed in the dialogue. In particular, the Global South—which is disproportionately affected by the climate crisis—needs a seat at the table.

Further, climate skeptics must also be a part of the discussion. Getting skeptics and disbelievers on board is crucial to being able to enact real change. One recommended way to do this is to use the power of stories, such as through film, to emotionally appeal to skeptics and reveal the human side of the issue.

3. Climate education Toggle Accordion

Incorporating climate education in school curriculum, and in general providing climate education to children and adults, is needed to increase climate awareness and empower people to take action.

4. Establishment of international committees Toggle Accordion

Those displaced by climate change often lack legal rights. International committees for creating and moderating rules for the protection of the rights of climate migrants should be implemented.

In addition to documenting advice from the panelists, my group came up with a list of our own ideas to address the growing problem of climate change related migration.

1. Refugee status for climate migrants Toggle Accordion

Even though climate migrants are typically forced from their homes due to catastrophic events, they lack many legal protections that those forced for other reasons possess. Providing those displaced by climate change with refugee status would increase countries’ legal responsibility to care for climate migrants and prevent them from being returned to life threatening conditions. The international community should work towards revising international refugee law as well as implement national immigration reform in order to protect climate migrants.

Video by Kara Anderson on giving refugee status to climate migrants. This video was completed as a part of pre-Forum work.

2. International financial cooperation Toggle Accordion

An increase in aid to the nations that are most vulnerable to climate change is needed. Many treaties and agreements are already in place to address this issue, but fortifying these as well as encouraging additional international cooperation is crucial.

3. Artistic media Toggle Accordion

The panelists discussed the importance of using artistic media in bringing more people into the climate conversation. We suggest that governments and think tanks use, and encourage the use of, artistic media in order to further climate awareness amongst the general public.

4. Special mechanisms for women Toggle Accordion

Keeping in mind that women are disproportionately affected by climate change, special mechanisms should be implemented to prioritize the female population. Similar ideas were presented in the panel, but there are even more that could be used. One that is particularly important is education for women and girls. Climate and other factors often negatively impact women and girls’ ability to have a proper education. Efforts must be taken to combat this. These efforts may be taken by international organizations, financial institutions, and/or local governments.

5. Tolerance education Toggle Accordion

The panel mentioned the potential for religious and ideological conflicts as a result of migration. We recommend schools incorporate tolerance education in their curricula, ensuring that children are educated about identities different from theirs. When possible, this training should be available to other members of the community as well.

Education, Representation, and Other Takeaways

Several of the action steps on climate relate to some overarching ideas at the conference, including education, technology, misinformation, and polarization.

Education was brought up as being important in addressing nearly all problems. In order for someone to fully participate in their democracy, civic education is necessary. In order to bridge economic disparities, accessible education is required. In order for the climate crisis to be addressed, climate education is needed. In order to decrease conflict, tolerance education is important. In order to combat misinformation, media literacy is essential. In order to deal with the potential dangers and advantages of technology like AI, a better understanding of it is crucial.

One interesting fact about the role of education is that despite how vital it is to addressing many issues, it has sometimes been overlooked by experts. During the “Reimagining the Building Blocks of Democracy” session, it was shared that when hearing from citizens on elements crucial to democracy, education was a primary concern. Yet when hearing from experts, education was not highlighted.

The difference between issues identified by citizens and those by experts is one reason many are calling for the creation of citizen-led parliamentary committees, peoples’ assemblies, and other means of increasing citizens’ voices. These ideas became a major component of the Forum.

While prior to my engagements with the Forum I knew little about citizen assemblies, I have come to see them as having immense power in lifting up people’s voices and getting influential policies passed.

In preparation for the Forum, I did extension research on a Transnational Peoples’ Assembly for Europe and had the opportunity to present a “Student Hack” on it at the conference. (You may view my hack at 26:05 in the session recording.) I also had the opportunity to speak with Art O’Leary, the Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission of Ireland, who is in charge of the citizens assembly there.

Citizen assemblies can serve as a fourth branch of government that supports parliament by providing policy recommendations. These assemblies are designed to be truly representative of the population they serve and consist of everyday people rather than career politicians. The idea is that this allows a more accurate rendering of the people’s wishes and members are not impacted by concerns over electability.

A common question may be just how effective these assemblies are when they do not have decision making power? In the case of Ireland, the Assembly has been quite impactful. Several major changes to Ireland’s constitution have been made based on the Assembly’s recommendations. These include changes on issues such as marriage equality and abortion access.

Parliaments often avoid legislation that is controversial due to fears over electability. While this is not always a negative, it can prevent important legislation from being passed. Assembly recommendations make it easier for parliaments to take action on polarizing issues. It increases the legitimacy of such legislation and does less damage to official’s electability as they can cast the “blame” on the assembly.

And to come full circle, education of course plays a major role in overcoming polarization and ensuring that assembly recommendations are well informed.

In Ireland, assembly members go through a thorough educating process that has built in mechanisms to prevent bias. It has several stages, starting with experts being brought in to share the facts related to the issue without taking stances. Members have the opportunity to ask questions, and it is actually desirable for misinformation to come up, that way it can be addressed by the experts. After all of the facts have been presented, advocates on all sides of the issue share their stances. Then assembly members form their own opinions and discuss what they think should be done with an emphasis on building consensus and taking action.

While citizens’ assemblies are not perfect and may not be possible in all forms of government, there are still components from them that can be useful in other situations, such as how participants are educated on issues. And assemblies do raise good points on what representation looks like in a democracy, and the ways to increase representation and lift up different voices.

Do We Dare to Hope?

So what about the question posed at the Forum—do we dare to hope? Yes.

The world is facing countless challenges and democracy and rights are under attack. But the fight is not over. As long as we have hope, positive change is still possible.

If there is one thing to take away from the Athens Democracy Forum, it is that there are countless people passionate about making a difference who are working hard to make this world a better place. There are leaders around the world, from presidents to grassroots activists, fighting every day. And there are youth like my fellow delegates, who are determined to make change happen; and I know that they not only will succeed in the future, but that they have in fact already begun.

And it is that fact, which I think while looking around at the smiling faces of my fellow student delegates, that really gives me hope.

Kara Anderson is a junior political science and English double major, pursing experiential learning certificates in human rights and legal studies. At Albion, Kara is a part of many organizations including the Prentiss M. Brown Honors Program and the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service.

The views expressed here represent those of the author and not necessarily of Albion College.