International Conference to Discuss Sustainability of Democracy, Fundamental Rights and the Environment
On 15 and 16 September 2022, the University of Latvia hosted the international conference “Sustainability as a Constitutional Value: Future challenges”. The Conference was organised by the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Latvia to mark its 25th anniversary and the centenary of the Constitution.
Opening the conference, Aldis Laviņš, President of the Constitutional Court, said that we are currently facing unprecedented challenges to democracy, fundamental rights, and environmental sustainability. Democracy is by no means guaranteed – it must be protected and fought for. Fundamental rights must be able to function in a society that is ever-changing with the development of modern technologies. At the same time, environmental protection calls for striking a balance between the needs of the present and future generations.
The keynote speech was delivered by H.E. Mr Egils Levits, President of the Republic of Latvia. His Excellency analysed the threat to human free will posed by modern technology collecting data, the aggregation of data into “big data”, the profiling of people, and the use of the data to influence people’s behaviour. When viewed as a threat to democracy, such a threat to humanity’s free will is unacceptable. However, restrictions of free will may be justified if they increase the common good of people.
The first panel discussion of the conference sought answers to the question of how to prevent threats to democracy in a democratic way.
Ms Pauliine Koskelo, Judge of the European Court of Human Rights, stressed that the greatest challenge today is not climate change, biodiversity loss or pandemics, but the collective inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Social media fosters an industry of lies and deceit, polarising society and preventing even basic facts from being agreed upon. However, rational and constructive debate is the bedrock of democracy. This is a prerequisite for a decision-making process that focuses on sustainable results.
Mr Heinrich Amadeus Wolff, Justice of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, described sustainability as resilience and balance. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to safeguard the sustainability of democracy. In a democracy, rights can be directed against democracy itself, so rights may be limited in certain cases. However, limiting rights to protect the sustainability of democracy should be akin to a surgical operation performed at the right time and place.
Mr Artūrs Kučs, Justice of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Latvia, pointed out that according to the principle of militant democracy, both the state and individuals must participate in the defence of democracy. On the one hand, individuals have to be prepared to limit their freedoms at certain times to promote stability in the country as a whole. On the other hand, the state must ensure a reasonable balance between the protection of democracy and fundamental personal rights. At the same time, the blurred lines of the principle of militant democracy and the risk of its abuse can lead to excessive restrictions on fundamental rights, thus undermining the democratic spirit of the state.
Mr Serhiy Holovaty, Acting Chief Judge of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, admitted that Ukraine would not have needed the Maidan Revolution and many lives could have been saved had the Constitutional Court of Ukraine chosen not to pass a judgement four years earlier which paved the way for the concentration of power in the hands of the president of the state. We must be vigilant at all times to prevent the emergence of authoritarianism
Ms Danutė Jočienė, President of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Lithuania, concluded that one of the main tasks of a democratic state governed by the rule of law is to respect and protect universal constitutional values as well as human rights and freedoms – otherwise, we cannot say that the state serves the common good. And the main legal instrument for preventing threats to democracy is the national constitution.
Mr Jiří Zemánek, Justice of the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic, added that democracy is also threatened when the parliament is marginalised by the de facto power of the government or private individuals. At the same time, Mr Jiří Zemánek shared the view expressed earlier that a militant democracy requires a delicate balance between the protection and restriction of fundamental rights to prevent abuses of the democratic order.
The second panel discussion of the conference focused on the adaptation of fundamental rights to the modern technological age.
Ms Ineta Ziemele, Judge and President of the Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union, stressed that the internet does not necessarily threaten the sustainability of human rights. On the contrary, the internet facilitates understanding of our interconnectedness and fosters a new kind of human responsibility for the future of the planet. When used properly, the internet contributes to sustainable development and the protection of human rights. Ms Ineta Ziemele also pointed out that the sustainability of the nation is the raison d’être of the state and its institutions, including the courts. Constitutional courts must therefore also be involved in weighing constitutional values to ensure the sustainability of the nation and the world – especially in cases related to climate change.
Ms Herdis Kjerulf Thorgeirsdóttir, Vice President of the Venice Commission, noted that in the last two decades, online platforms have become the main forum for political interaction in many democracies. However, these platforms have also been widely used to influence public opinion by spreading disinformation and propaganda. In addition, online platforms allow people to look at the world through a one-sided, individual lens. The democratic dream of open public space has thus turned into a nightmare of echo chambers where opposing views are rarely seen.
Ms Irēna Kucina, Vice President of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Latvia, concluded that if the obligation of the state to ensure access to the internet cannot be derived by specifying the content of the fundamental rights already included in the Constitution, then the protection of human dignity would require a new fundamental right that would provide for the right of a person to access the internet. This right would aim to bridge the digital divide as far as possible, enabling everyone to fully exercise their fundamental rights and participate in public life.
Mr Heiki Loot, Justice of the Supreme Court of Estonia, Member of the Constitutional Review Chamber, warned that the inclusion of new fundamental rights, including the right of access to the internet, in the Constitution should be treated with caution. Access to the internet is intended to enable the exercise of other fundamental rights.
Mr Andrej Abramović, Judge of the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia, drew attention to the fact that, by banning media outlets such as Russia Today France, the European Union had acted contrary to fundamental rights, in particular the right to democratic freedom of expression. Democracy must be able to rely on the electorate’s ability to distinguish between propaganda and reliable information, otherwise, democracy cannot function. Without mature and intelligent voters, democracy is no more than an empty word. Moreover, if people are free to travel and goods can be moved, so must information be allowed to circulate.
Tomorrow, on the second day of the conference, the third panel discussion will focus on environmental sustainability. The speakers of this panel will debate whether environmental sustainability is a political choice or a matter of safeguarding fundamental rights.