Democracy Under Siege — the Freedom House 2021 Report

Protestors holding a banner.

Protest rally against Lukashenko, 16 August, 2020, Minsk, Belarus; Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1941 to support the fight against fascism in Europe, Freedom House has promoted democracy, human rights, and rule of law globally throughout the intervening decades. (Freedom House) In December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the leading figure responsible for drafting the declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt, served as Freedom House’s first honorary co-chair.   The preamble of the Declaration affirms “the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women,” and Article 1 states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Tragically, the rights proclaimed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are routinely and often brutally violated by the very states that ratified the declaration nearly 75 years ago.

Since 1973, Freedom House has monitored the state of freedom, democracy and human rights in all countries, documenting the gap, if not chasm, between the rights delineated in the declaration and the actual practice of governments around the world, and published its assessments in annual “Freedom in the World” reports.

Last year’s Freedom House 2020 report hailed a year of courageous mass nonviolent mobilization in defense of democracy and freedom in 2019 throughout the world, from Algeria to Hong Kong, Bolivia to Sudan, Chile to Ethiopia.  The Freedom House 2021 annual report (“Democracy Under Siege”), published last week, paints a darker picture. (Freedom House)

It is a very sober if not terrifying document, documenting patterns of democratic retrenchment and authoritarian advance, and often successful efforts to crush peaceful demonstrations to protect democracy, human rights and rule of law.

Here is the report’s summary opening sentences:

As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny. Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists—lacking effective international support—faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings.

These withering blows marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006. The long democratic recession is deepening.

The impact of the long-term democratic decline has become increasingly global in nature, broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruelest dictatorships, as well as by citizens of long-standing democracies. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year.

Here are some selected excerpts from the 2021 report that directly address the repressive governmental response to nonviolent pro-democracy protests in many countries throughout the world:

The widespread protest movements of 2019, which had signaled the popular desire for good governance the world over, often collided with increased repression in 2020. While successful protests in countries such as Chile and Sudan led to democratic improvements, there were many more examples in which demonstrators succumbed to crackdowns, with oppressive regimes benefiting from a distracted and divided international community. Nearly two dozen countries and territories that experienced major protests in 2019 suffered a net decline in freedom the following year.

…Ethiopia had also made democratic progress in recent years, as new prime minister Abiy Ahmed lifted restrictions on opposition media and political groups and released imprisoned journalists and political figures. However, persistent ethnic and political tensions remained… [including] an overwhelming response from federal forces and allied ethnic militias that displaced tens of thousands of people and led to untold civilian casualties [in the nation’s Tigray region.] In a dark sign for the country’s democratic prospects, the government enlisted military support from the autocratic regime of neighboring Eritrea…

Belarus emerged as another fleeting bright spot in August, when citizens unexpectedly rose up to dispute the fraudulent results of a deeply flawed election. Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s repressive rule had previously been taken for granted, but for a few weeks the protests appeared to put him on the defensive as citizens awakened to their democratic potential despite brutal crackdowns, mass arrests, and torture. By the start of 2021, however, despite ongoing resistance, Lukashenka remained in power, and protests, more limited in scale, continued to be met with detentions. Political rights and civil liberties have become even more restricted than before, and democracy remains a distant aspiration.

In fact, Belarus was far from the only place where the promise of increased freedom raised by mass protests eventually curdled into heightened repression. Of the 39 countries and territories where Freedom House noted major protests in 2019, 23 experienced a score decline for 2020—a significantly higher share than countries with declines represented in the world at large. In settings as varied as Algeria, Guinea, and India, regimes that protests had taken by surprise in 2019 regained their footing, arresting and prosecuting demonstrators, passing newly restrictive laws, and in some cases resorting to brutal crackdowns, for which they faced few international repercussions.

The fall of India from the upper ranks of free nations could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards. Political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, with increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims. The decline only accelerated after Modi’s reelection in 2019.

… The final weeks of the Trump presidency featured unprecedented attacks on one of the world’s most visible and influential democracies. After four years of condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists, the outgoing president openly strove to illegally overturn his loss at the polls, culminating in his incitement of an armed mob to disrupt Congress’s certification of the results. Trump’s actions went unchecked by most lawmakers from his own party, with a stunning silence that undermined basic democratic tenets. Only a serious and sustained reform effort can repair the damage done during the Trump era to the perception and reality of basic rights and freedoms in the United States.

In response to these trends, Freedom House issued a series of “policy recommendations for democracies.”  These include increasing support for civil society and grassroots movements calling for democracy:

Peaceful protest movements calling for reform can drive long-term democratic change, but face greater odds without international support. Democratic governments should provide vocal, public support for grassroots prodemocracy movements, and respond to any violent crackdown by authorities with targeted sanctions, reduced or conditioned foreign assistance, and public condemnation. Democracies should also bey to welcome human rights defenders who come under threat or attack for their work or who are in immediate danger.

We are grateful for the work of Freedom House, and the network of human rights organizations throughout the world, and we urge all citizens and governments to heed their call.