The University of Copenhagen (KU ) and the NORDEN Association will host the conference ” Democracy , Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Association” , to be held as part of the activities being carried out in connection with the Danish Government’s Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers 2015.


Audience : Nordic , Baltic and Russian NGO organizations, students and the NORDEN Association members.

Conference languages​​: English.

Democracy is a very demanding ideal that cannot be achieved overnight and perhaps can never be fully realized. A country does not become democratic merely by having a democratic constitution and holding elections. Democracy depends also on a democratic political culture, free rigorous public debate, and a vibrant civil society. The latter are necessary for keeping political leaders accountable, to avoid corruption and undue concentration of power in the hands of a small elite, and to democratize society itself. Insofar as power concentration in the hands of the few and abuse of power is a tendency to which every society is prone, the struggle for democratization is a never-ending project. Thus, democracy is something we never simply have but, rather, something we always must strive to perfect.

This conference focuses on the role of voluntary organizations or NGOs in the day-to-day struggle for consolidating, maintaining, and perfecting democracy. The democratic process has two tracks: One track is the formal track of elections, deliberation and decision-making by parliament and government, and implementation by the executive branch. The other track is the informal track in which members of civil society seek to check and influence political leaders, parliamentarians, and executives through what Immanuel Kant called “the public use of reason.” The aim of the conference is to analyze and discuss the possibilities, challenges, and limitations of the informal track of the democratic process.

One of the challenges for NGOs is on the one hand to become powerful enough to be able to influence government and on the other hand to maintain the independence necessary for checking power. When NGOs are successful, they get a seat at the table and are able to influence political leaders. This type of success, however, involves the danger of being coopted by government, which has an interest in blunting the critical edge of civil society actors. Moreover, the closer NGOs come to the center of power, the further they move from the problems of the periphery of society. Important questions, therefore, are: How can NGOs be politically powerful without becoming part of the system, whose power they should check. How can NGOs be at one and the same time sensitive to the perspectives and problems of ordinary citizens and influential in political society?

In the Nordic countries there are strong traditions for engagement in voluntary associations, as well as for a form of politics that is based on dialogue and the aim of reaching mutual understanding. But this does not mean that the perfect role for NGOs has been established, nor that the democratic ideal that every citizen has equal influence on political decisions has been realized. Moreover, the discussions of the meaning and limits of core democratic rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association are as vibrant as ever. Migration and globalization entail that our societies are changing in ways that call for renewed discussion of the meaning of democracy and civil rights. The latter are not merely juridical matters or questions that can be left to professional politicians. They are issues related to our political culture, which it is the role of civil society to reproduce and develop in light of new circumstances.

Thus further questions for the conference are:

  • How and to what extent can different countries learn from each other’s experiences regarding the role of NGOs in democracy?
  • Are there one ideal model of democracy that fits all contexts, or must democracy be adjusted to differences of culture?
  • Which challenges do globalization and migration pose for our democratic culture?