Garry Kasparov is chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Thor Halvorssen is the foundation’s president and chief executive.
Last month the world’s elite listened politely as Chinese President Xi Jinping offered the keynote address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Of course, the leader of the Chinese dictatorship didn’t mention how he and his cronies jail and disappear human rights activists, persecute ethnic minorities and religious groups, and operate a vast censorship and surveillance system, among other evils. It is striking that a forum dedicated to “improving the state of the world” would offer such an important stage to the leader of a repressive regime. Xi began his remarks in part by asking “What has gone wrong with the world?” The fact is, he’s part of the problem.
At present, the authoritarianism business is booming. According to the Human Rights Foundation’s research, the citizens of 94 countries suffer under non-democratic regimes, meaning that 3.97 billion people are currently controlled by tyrants, absolute monarchs, military juntas or competitive authoritarians. That’s 53 percent of the world’s population. Statistically, then, authoritarianism is one of the largest — if not the largest — challenges facing humanity.
Consider the scale of some of the world’s other crises. About 836 million live under extreme poverty, and 783 million lack clean drinking water. War and conflict have displaced 65 million from their homes. Between 1994 and 2013 an annual average of 218 million people were affected by natural disasters. These are terrible, seemingly intractable problems — but at least there are United Nations bodies, aid organizations and State Department teams dedicated to each one of them.
Dictators and elected authoritarians, by contrast, get a free pass. The World Bank bails out repressive regimes on a regular basis. There is no anti-tyrant U.N. task force, no Sustainable Development Goals against tyranny, no army of activists.
We, the authors, have experienced the ills of authoritarianism personally. One of us has been beaten, blacklisted and forced into exile by operatives of the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin has relentlessly pushed to crush freedom of speech, brazenly annex Crimea and increase his global military activities in ways that hark back to the Cold War. The other author has seen his mother shot by Venezuelan security forces and his first cousin languish for nearly three years in a military jail as a prisoner of conscience. Today Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro runs a regime that regularly imprisons dissidents, abuses protesters and engages in such widespread graft and corruption that the country is now undergoing a catastrophic economic collapse.
Putin and Maduro have co-conspirators in all parts of the world, fellow would-be tyrants who are dismantling the free press, jailing opponents, manipulating elections and committing a host of human rights violations. In Turkey, a once-promising democracy is gasping for air. Its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has shut down 149 media outlets, shuttered more than 2,000 schools and universities, fired more than 120,000 civil servants and jailed more than 45,000 suspected dissenters. In North Korea, Kim Jong Un rules the most totalitarian government on Earth, brainwashing 25 million people and terrorizing them with public executions, forced famines and a vast network of concentration camps that reminded U.N. investigators of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Nazi Germany.
And there are so many lesser-known dictators in countries such as Bahrain, Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea, where tyrants pilfer their countries’ natural resources and pocket the profits in private off-shore accounts. To cover their atrocities, they hire lobbyists, public relations firms and even policy groups in the free world to whitewash their actions.
If injustice and oppression aren’t bad enough, authoritarian governments bear an enormous social cost. Dictator-led countries have higher rates of mental illness, lower levels of health and life expectancy, and, as Amartya Sen famously argued, higher susceptibility to famine. Their citizens are less educated and file fewer patents. In 2016, more patents were filed in France than in the entire Arab world — not because Arabs are less entrepreneurial than the French, but because nearly all of them live under stifling authoritarianism. Clearly, the suppression of free expression and creativity has harmful effects on innovation and economic growth. Citizens of free and open societies such as Germany, South Korea and Chile witness advances in business, science and technology that Belarusans, Burmese and Cubans can only dream of.
And consider that free nations do not go to war with each other. History has shown this to be the only ironclad law of political theory. Meanwhile, dictators are always at war, often with a foreign power and always with their own people. If you are worried about public health, poverty or peace, your mandate is clear: Oppose tyranny.
Tragically, world institutions and organizations have failed to properly address authoritarianism. Western governments sometimes protest human rights violations in countries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea — but routinely ignore them in places such as China and Saudi Arabia, in favor of upholding trade deals and security agreements. The United Nations, established to bring peace and justice to the world, includes Cuba, Egypt and Rwanda on its Human Rights Council. Here, a representative from a democracy carries the same legitimacy as a representative from a dictatorship. One acts on behalf of its citizens, while the other acts to silence them. Between June 2006 and August 2015 the Human Rights Council issued zero condemnations of repressive regimes in China, Cuba, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Despite the fact that dictatorship is at the root of many global ills — poor health, failing education systems and global poverty among them — authoritarianism is hardly ever addressed at major conferences worldwide. And no wonder: Many, including the World Economic Forum and the now-defunct Clinton Global Initiative, receive ample funding from authoritarians. Few human rights groups focus exclusively on authoritarianism, and most establishment ones spend significant chunks of their budgets on criticizing democratic governments and their policies. Dictators are rarely in the spotlight.
The noble struggle against tyranny has fallen upon individual activists and dissidents living under authoritarian rule or working from exile. Citizen journalists Abdalaziz Alhamza and Meron Estefanos found that few people in peaceful, free countries were interested in reporting on Syria and Eritrea, so they took it upon themselves to do so, despite the enormous danger this put them in. Hyeonseo Lee defected from North Korea to find that victims of sex trafficking in China are often abandoned and ignored, so she started pressuring the Chinese government herself. When Rosa María Payá’s father, Cuban democracy leader Oswaldo Payá, died in mysterious circumstances in 2012, it fell to her to demand a formal investigation and fair treatment for dissidents in Cuba. Such individuals are in constant need of support, because in their home countries there is no legal way to protest, no ACLU, no Washington Post and no opposition party to stand up for their rights.
If authoritarianism and dictatorship are to be properly challenged — and if so many resulting crises, including military conflict, poverty and extremism, are to be addressed at their root cause — such dissidents need funding, strategic advice, technical training, attention and solidarity. To turn the tide against repression, people across all industries need to join the movement. Artists, entrepreneurs, technologists, investors, diplomats, students — no matter who you are, you can reach out to a civil society organization at risk and ask how you can help by using your knowledge, resources or skills.
Today, authoritarians rule an increasingly large part of the globe, but the leaders of the free world lack the motivation and gumption to create a new U.N.-style League of Democracies. In the meantime, as individuals living in a free society, we believe it is our moral obligation to take action to expose human rights violations and to use our freedom to help others achieve theirs.