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Democratic leaders need to oppose autocracies – HRW report

4 February 20220 comments

The activist group Human Rights Watch has released its annual report taking at a swipe at the rise of autocratic governments across the globe but also offering hope in the rise of popular movements pushing for democracy.    

In an introduction to the report HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth said that the conventional wisdom these days “is that autocracy is ascendant, democracy on the decline”.

He cited the likes of China, Russia, Belarus, Myanmar, Turkey, Thailand, Egypt, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Venezuela, and Nicaragua as examples regimes which are intensifying crackdowns on opposition voices.

Mr Roth also pointed to military takeovers in Myanmar, Sudan, Mali, and Guinea, and undemocratic transfers of power in Tunisia and Chad.

He said the trend gained “sustenance from the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in once- or still-established democracies such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, El Salvador, India, the Philippines, and, until a year ago, the United States”.

“But the superficial appeal of the rise-of-autocracy thesis belies a more complex reality—and a bleaker future for autocrats. As people see that unaccountable rulers inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s; the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong,” Mr Roth said.

“In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot. There are few rallies for autocratic rule,” he said.

Mr Roth said that in some countries ruled by autocrats that retain at least a semblance of democratic elections, opposition political parties have begun to paper over their policy differences to build alliances in pursuit of their common interest in ousting the autocrat.

“And as autocrats can no longer rely on subtly manipulated elections to preserve power, a growing number are resorting to overt electoral charades that guarantee their desired result but confer none of the legitimacy sought from holding an election,” he said.

Mr Roth said democratic leaders were partly to blame for dwindling human rights.

“… autocrats are enjoying their moment in the sun in part because of the failings of democratic leaders. Democracy may be the least bad form of governance, as Winston Churchill observed, because the electorate can vote the government out, but today’s democratic leaders are not meeting the challenges before them,” he said.

“Whether it is the climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, poverty and inequality, racial injustice, or the threats from modern technology, these leaders are often too mired in partisan battles and short-term preoccupations to address these problems effectively.

“Some populist politicians try to divert attention with racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic appeals, leaving real solutions elusive,” Mr Roth said.

He said that if democracies are to prevail in the global contest with autocracy, their leaders must do more than spotlight the autocrats’ inevitable shortcomings.

“They need to make a stronger, positive case for democratic rule. That means doing a better job of meeting national and global challenges—of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends,” he said.

Mr Roth made particular reference to China.

“As Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidates his individual power, he needs to address the challenges of a slowing economy, a debt crisis, a housing bubble, a shrinking workforce as the population ages, and troubling inequality—without free debate about solutions by the country’s citizens,” he said.

“Similar one-man rule previously led to the Chinese Communist Party’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which killed millions of people. Yet instead of encouraging public discussion of how to manage today’s problems, Xi is overseeing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, bending the legal system to his will, purging political allies, and extending the surveillance state into every nook and cranny of the country. Such unchallenged decision-making is a recipe for disastrous mistakes,” Mr Roth said.

He said the US and Europe could do more in making a case for democracy.

Mr Roth said that when US president Joe Biden took office, he promised a foreign policy that would be guided by human rights.

“But he continued to sell arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel despite their persistent repression,” he said.

And, “Biden seemed to lose his voice when it came to public denunciation of serious human rights violations”, he said.

“After meeting with China’s Xi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Turkey’s Erdoğan, Biden noted that they had discussed ‘human rights’ but offered few specifics about what was said or what consequences might ensue if repression continued.”

Mr Roth said other Western leaders displayed similar weakness in their defence of democracy.

“Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government helped to orchestrate global condemnation of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” he said.

“But while holding the European Union presidency, Germany helped to promote an EU investment deal with China despite Beijing’s use of Uyghur forced labour. Rather than conditioning the deal on ending the forced labour, or even adopting the International Labour Organization treaty banning it, Merkel settled for Beijing promising to think about perhaps one day joining the treaty. It took the European Parliament to reject that abandonment of principle.”

Mr Roth said the government of French President Emmanuel Macron also helped to coordinate broad condemnation of Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang but was blind to the abysmal rights situation in Egypt.

And he said the European Union still has not acted on its new power to condition large-scale subsidies to Hungary and Poland on their autocratic leaders’ respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

Mr Roth said the UN had been a disappointment in calling out human rights violations.

“UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres showed slightly more willingness in the past year to criticize specific governments for their human rights violations rather than resort to general exhortations to respect rights that no particular government feels any pressure to heed,” he said.

“Yet Guterres mentioned mainly weak governments that were already pariahs, such as Myanmar’s junta after the military coup. Even after he secured a second term and no longer needed to worry about China’s veto of his aspirations, Guterres refused to publicly condemn the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” Mr Roth said.

He said the outcome of the battle between autocracy and democracy remained uncertain

“Due to the tendency of unaccountable governments to deliver poorly for their people, the autocrats are on the defensive as popular protests mount, broad pro-democracy political coalitions emerge, and mere managed elections, as opposed to electoral charades, prove unreliable,” Mr Roth said.

“Yet despite democracy’s broad appeal, its fate depends in large part on the actions of democratic leaders. Will they address the major challenges before us, elevate rather than debase public debate, and act consistently, both at home and abroad, with the democratic and human rights principles they claim to defend?

“Being the least bad system of governance may not be enough if public despair at democratic leaders’ failure to meet today’s challenges leads to public indifference about democracy. The defence of human rights requires not only curbing autocratic repression, but also improving democratic leadership,” Mr Roth said.

Read the HRW 2022 World Report here: