Keeping the Momentum: Looking to the Third Summit for Democracy in Seoul

U.S President Joe Biden, shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during the start of their summit meeting, May 21, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House Photo

U.S President Joe Biden, shakes hands with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during the start of their summit meeting, May 21, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. Credit: Adam Schultz/White House Photo

Tomorrow, September 15, is the International Day of Democracy. By some measures, the outlook is grim. The most recent edition of Freedom in the World found that global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year. But our research also offers a glimmer of hope about the state of the world: in 2022, the number of countries making democratic gains almost outnumbered those in decline. It appears the gap could be closing.

Democracy’s champions need this boost amid a series of deeply trying years. We cannot rest on our laurels, however—the fight against authoritarianism continues. An important part of this effort is the Summit for Democracy, which will convene for the third time in Seoul in 2024.

The summit is the largest international gathering of governments and nongovernment stakeholders dedicated to promoting democratic renewal and combating authoritarianism. While there are dozens of annual democracy-related conferences around the world, the Summit for Democracy model has proven valuable and unique for its wide scope of issues, the large number of invited governments, its focus on commitments to reform, and its pairing of governments and nongovernmental partners to tackle complex issues together.

To build on the momentum of the previous summits, Freedom House recommends the following:

  1. Establish a secretariat or steering committee to support continuity and institutional memory. A centralized structure to assist with organizing and coordinating current and future events would help the Summit for Democracy continue and endure. Such a body should maintain contact information of government and nongovernment summit participants; communicate regular updates; support host governments with time-consuming logistical work; record and coordinate the tracking of government commitments; liaise with existing “cohorts,” or multistakeholder groups that aim to address specific problems; advertise summit side events; and identify hosts and themes for future summits.

An additional way to support continuity is for participating governments to amplify summit-branded initiatives, commitments, and issue areas in other settings, such as the Open Government Partnership and the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, among others.

  1. Governments should be required to submit specific commitments in order to participate in the Summit for Democracy. Commitments underscore a government’s political will to pursue democratic reform and be held accountable by peers. While the first summit required commitments, the second did not—which was a missed opportunity to outline achievable benchmarks. Future summits should require commitments that are verifiable, developed in consultation with national civil society, and in alignment with that year’s summit themes. The summit itself should be a venue to highlight progress toward previous commitments and announce new commitments that respond to emerging challenges.
  2. Clarify the mandate of the summit’s “cohorts,” and formally feature their achievements in the third summit’s agenda. Cohorts are thematic working groups led jointly by governments and civil society partners, dedicated to raising awareness of their selected issue and recommending effective policy responses. Past cohorts have focused on issues like resisting authoritarian pressure, inclusive democracy, media freedom, and anticorruption policies, among others. These groupings have been widely praised by summit organizers, policymakers, and cohort members for bringing governments to the table as equal partners, and for providing a critical entry point for many organizations to participate in the summit process overall. At the upcoming summit, the government of South Korea should clarify and clearly communicate the mandate and expectations of cohorts, and feature all active cohorts in the summit’s official agenda.
  3. Continue to prioritize the inclusion of democracy activists from nondemocracies, and private-sector representatives. The second summit did a commendable job of including frontline democracy activists from closed political environments. Their voices are crucial at the Summit for Democracy, as there is more that democratic governments can do to support them and isolate their repressive regimes. Organizers should also continue to meaningfully engaging private-sector companies, which should do more to promote transparency, counter the misuse of technology, and protect civic space. The enormous partnership potential may warrant organizers to consider also requiring commitments from participating companies, in addition to governments.

These recommendations reveal only a small part of the inspiring work taking place within the Summit for Democracy frame. For those interested in learning more, check out these comprehensive reports from International IDEA; the first report reviews government commitments made at the first summit and explores their strengths and areas for improvement. The second is a sweeping analysis of the impact of the second summit, as well as several lessons learned and recommendations for the third. Finally, Accountability Lab continues to disseminate a monthly newsletter with updates from and for summit partners; you may sign up for their newsletter here.

As we await official announcements from the government of South Korea on the timing, format, and scope of the third summit, Freedom House and many others in our community remain engaged and eager to make the Summit for Democracy an impactful international forum to push democratic reforms forward, and help ensure that governments are accountable to their voters and deliver results that improve people’s lives.