International Constitution Day speech by Christian Friis Bach

Speech held at the International Constitution Day 5th of June at Revymuseet by Christian Friis Bach, former Danish Minister for Development Cooperation and former Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

We should start by remembering Niels Helveg Petersen who sadly died too early Saturday. He was one of the most prominent politicians of our time, serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs during most of the 1990’s in a time of significant change in the world. My first election campaign was for him in 1988 and one of my first trips abroad was with him also in 1994 when he signed the Uruguay Agreement establishing the World Trade Organisation. He was a true statesman and he was a good friend with a unique sense of humour. And importantly today, during more than 25 years Niels Helveg was one of the strongest Danish voices for a new Constitution in Denmark. We will miss him and his strong voice for peace, prosperity and global solidarity. Rest in peace, Niels.

I will, very much in the spirit of Niels Helveg Petersen, devote my constitution speech to the topic of equality. Equality and role of constitutions.

Recently, the World Economic Forum identified inequality as the main risk to the world and to our societies. Growing income and wealth disparity is seen as the most significant risk that will determine global development over the coming decade because of its strong links to social instability, populism and anti-globalisation.

The strange thing is that even with growing inequality many people are much better off than they were decades ago. But it is the relative inequality that drives the instability and discontent. It is the feeling of injustice and the sense of dissatisfaction that comes with extreme inequality.

I was privileged to fly business class when I, as a UN official, flew to New York over many time zones. And I emphasize – to our Danish audience – that I flew business class, not first class! This is how it is and I must admit it would often have been difficult to perform without a proper rest. However, some planes have now installed a new practice. When we are to leave the plane, the stewards block the exit from the economy class until all business class passengers have left. This really gets to me. And it is a symbol of globalisation, inequality and our information society. So many people can now look into business class but they are blocked from entering and they are blocked while the rich pass by.

This is where constitutions come in. They are one of the strongest bulwarks against inequality. The rights and the human rights established in constitutions are the most forceful redistribution mechanism we have. They ensure a better distribution of power and wealth. By the constitutional right in many countries to food, to education, to health, the wealth of the country is distributed. The constitutional rights to equality between women and men, the right to freedom of speech and to organise in labour unions ensure that power and influence in a country becomes better distributed.

The Danish constitution is perhaps not the most prominent example among them – and this is why Niels Helveg wanted a new constitution. Because the Danish constitution starts with the descripiton of the many powers of the Danish King and only towards the end includes a few social rights – to education and basic social welfare. However, around the world, from South Africa to Nepal, many constitutions are much more progressive when it comes to fighting inequality. Around three out of four constitutions in independent countries have the right to education, and more than half contains the right to health services and social welfare. These rights can help us tackle inequality.

So while we often praise our constitution and constitutions for establishing our democracies and protecting the civil and political rights we should equally focus on the importance of constitutions for socio-economic rights and for equality.

And this is indeed how many poor people see their rights. My favorite example is from Bolivia where I – up in the highland, just under the sky, met a group of indigenous farmers and talked to a farmer and his wife. When I asked which one of them did most of the work, the woman, Modesta Vilca, immediately intervened and said: It is the women. We get up at 5, make the food, care for the children, then we join our husbands in the field, and in the evening we make food and wash clothes. She got more and more angry as she spoke. In an attempt to be supportive I said, that is why Denmark wanted to help women with their rights. She immediately replied: Thank you, then I would like to have a dishwasher.

For her, gender equality was something very concrete, a tool for redistribution – of work and of wealth. While we in the western world often focus on the civil-political rights for many people around the world, the most important rights in their constitutions and in the global human rights are the socio-economic rights. And importantly – as emphasized by the Risk Report of World Economic Forum and by Modesta from Bolivia: The civil-political rights and the socio-economic rights are closely linked. This was formally established in the Vienna Declaration from 1993 – supported by Denmark and Niels Helveg Petersen as a new Minister of Foreign Affairs – where it is stated: All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. This we often forget in our part of the world – and I would even argue that this omission has been driving some of the large policy failures we have seen in the last decades. This is why when I served in Government, we made the equality of rights a cornerstone in the rights-based development policy that we got unanimously approved in Parliament in 2012.

And importantly, the very principle of equality in rights is enshrined in many constitutions. This is why constitutions are so important. Not only as defenders of democracy but as a bulwark against inequality. In India citizens have fought with their constitution in one hand for the right to food and successfully ensured food to 100 million school children through school feeding programmes, and millions more people through the national rural employment guarantee act. In South Africa the Treatment Action Campaign, with the constitution in one hand, has ensured HIV/AIDS medicine to millions of infected citizens and saved millions of lives. And there are hundreds of other examples where the rights captured by constitutions have helped in the fight against social inequality.

This same vision is captured in the Sustainable Development Goals that create the strongest and most visionary action plan for the world ever. And the 17 goals are indeed interconnected and interdependent. They are the strongest expression ever of the idea that we will never get peace without fighting poverty and inequality, we will never be able to fight disease without fighting air pollution, and we will never be able to protect the planet without engaging our citizens. And for the first time ever the Sustainable Development Goals contain a commonly agreed global goal – goal 10 – to reduce inequality. Inequality in wealth, in opportunities, inequality between countries and inequality within countries. On the economic equality it states that we should, by 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average, allowing them to catch up, allowing inequality to go down.

And the good news is that more equality is good for all of us. 20 years ago when I studied economics, the standard wisdom, promoted also by famous economists such as Friedman and Keynes, was that more inequality was good – even necessary – for economic growth because more inequality gave stronger incentives to create growth, people got up earlier in the morning and worked harder if the potential gains was larger. And even when I was in the Danish government – just five years ago – talking about tackling inequality was difficult. I wrote a chronicle about how fighting inequality was important even in Denmark, but this was not favourably received even in my own party, because we wanted to reduce the tax on the richest people in Denmark and wanted to avoid that our left wing support party turned up with the Gini coefficient – a measure of inquality – at every negotiation.

However, during the past years this has been turned upside down. Today more and more economists, including key economists from the World Bank, OECD and IMF, argue forcefully that more equality is good for economic growth. This is not only because of the risk for social instability, populism, anti-globalisation as mentioned by World Economic Forum.

It is also because more equality leads to better cooperation between citizens. In Denmark a truck driver and a top lawyer can easily meet each other when their kids play soccer and establish a company together. This is almost impossible in very unequal societies as Paraguay or the Phillippines. And there are key economic arguments: Equality means investing in education and health, and this creates more and better human capital, poor people are actually better at saving and utilising scarce resources than previously believed: If you give 100 dollars to a poor woman in Bangladesh she will typically get a more positive return on that money than if you gave an additional 100 dollars to Bill Gates. And finally it also turns out that large inequality is not creating incentives but is actually often destroying them – demoralising and discouraging people, and rather than creating the American dream it captures people at the bottom of the society. So investing in equality means investing in stronger societies, stable societies and growing societies. Now this is a good story on this Constitution Day!

We today celebrate the Danish constitution and constitutions worldwide because of what they mean for our democracy, but we should also celebrate the constitutions because they are cornerstones in our fight towards equality. This is important in Denmark. This was important when the first Danish constitution was written more than 150 years ago. This is important in the world.
So let us today promise to stand firm to protect our constitution, and all progressive constitutions around in the world, let us promise to stand firm – also when they are under pressure even in our part of the world with migration flows and refugees – let us promise to stand firm in our defence of the international human rights – both the civil-political and socio-economic rights – let us stand firm in our support for the Sustainable Development Goals, because if we do so we can ensure peace and prosperity for all people while protecting our planet, and we can do so in a strong global partnership. Or in the words – not of Trump but of Macron – we can make the planet great again.

I wish you a good Constitution Day.