The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A dismal portrait of democracy

Riot police detain an anti-government protester in Hong Kong on Sunday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
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Freedom House is out with its annual report examining the state of democracy and human rights around the world. The outlook is gloomy: “Democracy and pluralism are under assault. Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world.” The fault lies not only in autocratic regimes, Freedom House points out, but in democracies where, for example, “the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies — are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.”

Just how bad has it gotten? “Freedom House found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties while those in just 37 experienced improvements.” The pattern has been particularly ruinous for emerging democracies. “More than half of the countries that were rated Free or Not Free in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade.”

In India, the report highlights three actions that collectively worked to erode the rule of law and protection of minorities: the government’s annulment of the semi-autonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir; the disenfranchisement of nearly 2 million people in the state of Assam (“widely understood as an effort to exclude Muslims”); and passage of the Citizenship Amendment Law, which “expedites citizenship for adherents of six non-Muslim religions from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries” but not for Hindus and other sects. The result was massive protests followed by police brutality.

In China, egregious examples of authoritarianism, including China’s crackdown on democracy protesters in Hong Kong, persecution of Uighurs and media censorship resulted in Freedom House ranking the nation as one of the 15 worst-performing countries in the world. It also flagged China as one of 11 nations with evidence of ethnic cleansing or forced demographic change.

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As for the United States, President Trump has severely compromised its historic support for democratic values, having “excused clear [human rights] violations by traditional security partners such as Turkey and Egypt. He has also given a pass to tyrannical leaders whom he hopes to woo diplomatically, including Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong-un of North Korea.” Domestically, Trump continues to violate democratic norms and values “including pressure on electoral integrity, judicial independence, and safeguards against corruption [and] fierce rhetorical attacks on the press, the rule of law, and other pillars of democracy.” In addition, “An ongoing decline in fair and equal treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is also particularly worrisome for a country that takes pride in its traditional role as a beacon for the oppressed.”

Freedom House urges democratic governments to respect democratic institutions and to require that social media companies report efforts by foreign governments and other actors to spread disinformation and propaganda on their platforms.

The group also recommends enhanced civic education, legislation to crack down on corruption, and limits on the sale and use of sophisticated surveillance equipment that compromises freedom of expression and protest. To expand and reinforce democracies around the world, democratic leaders need to maintain aid to support “democratic movements, systems, and institutions.” Democracies should use sanctions to target those who participate in human rights abuses and must work together to constrain autocrats by “coordinating aid and public diplomacy efforts, including by bolstering initiatives that promote transparency and accountability in governance, and by issuing joint statements condemning human rights violations.”

Frankly, the most meaningful way to improve the world’s human rights picture, and the survival of democratic governments, would be to elect a U.S. president and Congress that can model democratic behavior at home and provide leadership around the globe. The United States remains the indispensable nation, but for now, it is part of the problem.

American voters can make a contribution to democracy at home and around the world by throwing out the most authoritarian president in our history and his enablers in the Republican Party. A new president and Congress can undertake a pro-democracy initiative to repair damage to the rule of law and to basic civil liberties — and to build new protections going forward.

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