International
The Global Forum's history

A Brief History of the Global Conference on Citizens’ Rights

Democracy has undoubtedly proven to be the most successful system of government worldwide. Over the last 50 years, the number of people living in ’democratic’ communities has multiplied. However, the total global population has also grown and, according to various research institutes, the number of authoritarian and illiberal regimes has been on the rise very recently.

One of the most remarkable trends is the direct democratisation of the world. More and more political communities – all levels, from the local to the regional, national and transnational – are adopting citizens’ rights to make decisions directly via tools such as initiatives and referenda. According to the Direct Democracy Navigator − a database developed and maintained by the Swiss Democracy Foundation and Democracy International in collaboration with academic researchers – there are currently over 1700 direct democratic rights enshrined in the constitutions and laws of 113 countries. The establishment and exercise of these rights have led to the development of new practical applications, legal interpretations, administrative procedures, organising techniques, and information frameworks surrounding modern direct democracy.

The Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy was launched in 2008 to better understand this extraordinary development in democracy. The Forum, the first conference on citizens’ democratic rights worldwide, has taken place eight times in the last ten years, in eight different countries, on five continents. And it has spawned a global network of scholars, journalists, and government and political practitioners that work to strengthen global knowledge about direct democracy and improve the procedures and practices of citizens’ rights.

The Forum is coordinated by an international consortium under the leadership of the Swiss Democracy Foundation, chaired by Adrian Schmid, and Democracy International, where Global Manager for PR & Community Building Caroline Vernaillen brings together the threads from all over the world. The conference is jointly chaired by the two founders of the Forum, the California journalist Joe Mathews and the Swedish-Swiss journalist Bruno Kaufmann. The Global Forum is always co-organised by a local organising committee in the host city. Each forum ends with a final declaration drawn up and adopted by the participants, which summarises the content of the conference and defines proposals for further cooperation.

Origin and listing of previous and current Global Forums worldwide

2008 in Aarau, Switzerland

  • The first Global Forum in Aarau in the autumn of 2008 established the first global network around the issue of direct democracy – by taking stock of the world’s most established polity when it comes to modern direct democracy–Switzerland. The 2008 Forum gathered more than 100 activists and professionals from 20 countries across the globe and was co-organized with the Aarau-based Center for Democracy at Zurich University. At the Forum, participants focused on emerging opportunities to establish and develop direct democratic tools like the European citizens’ initiative in the EU, the only existing tool of citizen participation at the transnational level. Ever since then, the Global Forum has examined various political contexts and the options and limits they present when it comes to making citizens’ participation in government more accessible and efficient. To remain relevant and flexible, the Global Forum process does not have a central, formal organization with a headquarters; it remains a vibrant, changing network of active citizens and organizations that together take responsibility for this open and free event.

2009 in Seoul, Korea

  • The 2009 GFMDD was the 2nd forum, which was co-organized with the Korea Democracy Foundation in September 2009 in South Korea. As the consequence of the 2008 global financial crisis, the Forum chose as its focal point the challenge of sustainability and the key question of how direct democracy can make economies stronger. Thus, one of the topics on the forum was how to sustainably manage the conflict between the modern market mechanisms and major societal needs, such as environment, peace and security, solidarity, and migration, in political frameworks on all levels. In addition, the Forum showed Seoul’s ability in linking the modern opportunities of the internet age with the need for reformed and transparent government structures.

2010 in San Francisco, USA

  • On its journey around the world, the Forum reached the American West Coast and California in the summer of 2010. The San Francisco Forum, held in a hotspot for initiative and referendum activities over the past century, gathered a record-number of almost 500 participants from across the state, the US and the world. The Forum, hosted by the University of California Hastings College of the Law, not only triggered a great deal debate on reform within California but also offered many other recommendations on transparency, open access and deliberation. It became clear however, that more direct democracy is not always beneficial to the culture of dialogue and cohesion in a society as diverse as California.

2012 in Montevideo, Uruguay

  • The 2012 GFMDD reached the southern hemisphere in 2012, meeting in another hotspot of modern direct democracy: Uruguay. With its strong political parties, the country has fashioned a potent mix of indirect and direct democracy and a rich culture of citizen participation that even survived the military dictatorship of 1973-1984. The Forum, which gathered more than 250 democracy supporters from the whole world worked hard on questions of how to develop a participatory infrastructure that can support the comprehensive involvement of all people, especially minorities and the underprivileged. In a Montevideo statement issued at the Forum’s conclusion, the participants, referring to Art. 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concluded: “We firmly believe that the power of citizens to make their own laws (and not merely pick representatives) is both a basic human right we all have– and a responsibility we all must bear. We are committed to advancing this right and responsibility– and we believe that, in doing so, we can change the world.”

2015 in Tunis, Tunisia

  • In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia showed great potential and willingness for democratic reform. This is why the Forum in 2015 was held in Tunis. The 2015 Forum gathered more than 500 participants from Tunisia and across the world in its capital. It focused on the challenge that Tunisia would face in the upcoming reform: “Decentralisation by Participation.” This was a key issue not only in the host country Tunisia, but also in many other societies around the globe.

2016 in Donostia-San Sebastian, Basque  Country, Spain

  • After travelling across Asia, North- and South-America, and Africa, the Forum landed back in Europe in November 2016. The Forum was hosted by Donostia-San Sebastian, which is located in the Basque Autonomous Community and also the fabulous spot on the Atlantic Ocean. At the Forum, the hosts shared their own experiences on Donostia-San Sebastian’s road to direct democracy and participants were immersed into the discussion on how to introduce participatory politics and direct democracy. At the end of the 3-Day conversation, the participants drafted a declaration, the Donostia Declaration on Modern Direct Democracy, presenting their conclusion: “We want to make clear: our representative democracies need to become much more direct now, by allowing citizens to become authors of direct legislation, agenda-setters and decision-makers. Initiative and referendum rights must be incorporated in all political jurisdictions via rules that are decided by the people themselves and that do not impede their use by the citizens. Such rules must be well-designed and balanced to make our representative democracies truly representative.”

2018 in Rome, Italy

  • The 2018 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy was held in September in Italy. The Forum focused on local democracy and the role of cities in addressing today’s challenges. At the Forum in Rome, a global charter of democratic cities was presented. We invited cities all over the world to sign on to this charter and join a network of cities who commit to practicing and promoting democracy and citizen participation at the local level.

2019 in Taichung, Taiwan

  • 2019: Taichung, Taiwan
    The forum will take place from 2 to 5 October 2019 at the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan‘s second largest city, Taichung, and will focus on the opportunities to devel- op democratic movements in Asia and build institutionalised modern representative democracies with comprehensive citizen participation rights. More information can be found at: 2019globalforum.com

2020 in Bern, Switzerland

  • The venue for 2020 has also already been decided: next year, the world’s largest conference on modern direct democracy will return to Switzerland. The 2020 Forum will take place in Bern, from 23 until 26 September. Please register here