Symposium | Democracy's Future: Abroad and at Home

Authoritarian Repression Anywhere Is a Threat to Democracy Everywhere

By Michael J. Abramowitz

Tagged Biden AdministrationDemocracy

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has often warned of a worldwide struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. He told the Munich Security Conference in February: “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face—from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic—that autocracy is the best way forward…and those who understand that democracy is essential—essential to meeting those challenges.”[i]

As the Biden Administration approaches the end of its first year, it is evident that advocates of democracy are losing ground in this struggle. The world is experiencing a freedom recession, and without bold action from democratic governments and their civil society allies, the downward spiral is likely to continue. Power grabs this year in Myanmar, Tunisia, and Sudan—all countries that had previously stirred hope for progress—underscore the broader sense of disappointment and retreat, as did the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S. military’s withdrawal. To counter this trend, the Administration must make a greater effort to translate the President’s words into meaningful action.

A Deepening Global Decline

The latest edition of Freedom in the World notes that over the past 15 years, more than twice as many countries have experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties as have experienced improvements.[ii] The human implications of this statistic are dire: Less than 20 percent of the global population now lives in what Freedom House considers a “Free” country. That figure has dropped from 39 percent since 2019, largely due to the downgrading of India, the world’s largest democracy, from “Free” to “Partly Free” in Freedom in the World 2021. The numbers themselves are alarming, and the specific acts of repression driving them even more so.

Consider one of the most fundamental indicators of democratic vitality: freedom of expression and belief. This is the only category assessed in Freedom in the Worldthat has declined every year since 2005, with an overall drop of 9 percent in the average score across the 210 countries and territories covered in the report. Press freedom alone has fallen a shocking 13 percent, with the declines affecting democracies as well as autocracies. Over the past year and a half, authoritarian rulers have used COVID-19 as an excuse to chip away at free expression, harassing journalists and social media users who write unfavorably about the government’s handling of the health crisis or who publicly challenge the veracity of official data.

In Turkey, the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the world’s top jailers of journalists and has made expansive attempts to control online sources of news and information. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party has starkly politicized media regulation, leaving the sector increasingly dominated by pro-government outlets that smear the leadership’s perceived opponents. In India, press freedom has rapidly deteriorated since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014. Indian authorities use laws related to national security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech to silence critical voices in the media, a tactic widely employed by authoritarians.

The decline of global press freedom has been accompanied by a steady erosion in the other indicators of a free society, most notably government transparency and the rule of law. Transparency has been one of the hardest-hit elements of democratic governance over the past 15 years, and the damage intensified during the pandemic. Chinese officials concealed information about the initial outbreak, swiftly arresting Internet users who shared related news; the Belarusian and Iranian governments downplayed the outbreak’s spread and the seriousness of the illness it causes; and the presidents of Brazil and the United States drowned out national health authorities with false statements and the promotion of unproven treatments.

Freedom House has been tracking the stark breakdown in the rule of law over the past decade and a half, and its findings are corroborated by those of peer organizations. The World Justice Project’s annual Rule of Law Index recently reported four consecutive years of decline worldwide, exacerbated in 2020 and 2021 by flawed responses to the pandemic.[iii] Last year, a majority of the 139 countries studied experienced declines in seven of the index’s eight key indicators.

The pillars of democracy do not stand or crumble independently. When transparency, free expression, and the rule of law are weakened, a country’s other democratic safeguards are undermined as well, as is the entire rules-based international order. And the furthera country goes down the road toward autocracy, the less capacity it has to self-correct and recover.

Repression Without Borders

In our hyperconnected world, authoritarian repression is no longer contained within the territories of authoritarian states. The persecution of Uyghurs inside China also extends to exiled Chinese citizens and outspoken American and European companies; the Kremlin’s ruthless consolidation of power includes attacks on President Vladimir Putin’s perceived enemies in the United Kingdom; and a Saudi journalist living in the United States can be lured to Turkey and brutally murdered in a Saudi consulate for speaking out against the regime. Borderless repression has become the new norm.

Freedom House has catalogued over 600 cases of “transnational repression”—efforts by authoritarian powers to reach beyond their borders to silence dissidents abroad.[iv] Even American citizens on U.S. soil have not been safe from foreign threats. Consider the recent case of Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist and critic of the Iranian regime who lives in New York City. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Iranian authorities had been plotting to use Masih’s Iran-based family to lure her out of the United States and kidnap her back to Iran, where precedent suggests she might have faced a lengthy prison term or even execution.

In another display of impunity, dictators have taken action against American and European companies with operations—or even just a market—in their countries. Just days before the Russian parliamentary elections in September, the Kremlin threatened to prosecute Russia-based employees of Apple and Google unless the tech giants removed a voter information app created by popular opposition figure Aleksey Navalny from their Russian app stores. The companies’ capitulation to Moscow was a disappointing—but hardly novel—case of autocrats bullying technology firms into facilitating egregious violations of human rights. Around the world, repressive governments are increasingly using the genuine need for thoughtful regulation of the tech sector as a pretext for asserting undue control over digital platforms’ content, market share, and user data.

The most recent edition of Freedom on the Net found that governments in 48 of the 70 countries assessed have attempted to regulate online content, personal data, or competition among tech firms over the past year.[v] Authorities suspended Internet access in at least 20 countries, and 21 states blocked access to social media platforms, most often during times of political turmoil such as protests and elections. Some of the most illustrative cases of digital repression in the past year occurred in Myanmar, Belarus, and Uganda, where electoral disputes led state officials to shut off Internet service, censor social media platforms and independent digital news outlets, and physically assault Internet users. Security services in at least 45 countries are suspected of obtaining spyware or data-extraction technology from private vendors, giving them unprecedented, extrajudicial access to private communications—and contributing to the Biden Administration’s recent decision to impose trade restrictions on one of these vendors, NSO Group.[vi]

Strategic Implications

The rise of authoritarianism has severe and tangible consequences for national defense, human security, counterterrorism, and efforts to combat financial crime. While democracy faces tremendous challenges around the world, there is nothing inevitable about its decline. Democratic governments can and must act, in part by designing and implementing foreign policies that place support for democracy at the forefront.

The costs of doing otherwise are manifold. The global decline of democracy has already undermined the rule of law, helped destabilize markets, weakened intellectual property protections, and led to an increase in the use of trade sanctions and embargoes. It also feeds widespread corruption that stifles efficiency, raises legal liability, creates barriers to fair competition, and compromises financial systems in the democratic states where ill-gotten foreign wealth is often hidden. The expansion of authoritarian practices affects the business community as much as any other group. And the case of the Navalny app raises an additional question: Why did the U.S. government fail not only to defend Apple and Google from the Kremlin’s pressure, but also to hold them publicly accountable for yielding to such pressure on a matter of basic human rights?

Some of the most egregious backsliding can be found among America’s treaty allies and putative friends, including Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines, and India. Will the United States avert its gaze from these governments’ antidemocratic abuses out of fear of losing geopolitical leverage? Such an approach would do serious harm not only to the greater cause of freedom, but also to U.S. global strategy: Antidemocratic allies are inherently less reliable in supporting U.S. interests.

Meanwhile, autocrats are actively shoring up fellow despots who might otherwise have succumbed to local protests and international pressure. During Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s darkest hours, he was rescued by military assistance from Russia, diplomatic support from China, energy supplies from Venezuela, and across-the-board intervention from Iran. More recently, Vladimir Putin has deepened his alliance with Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka and helped him put down a massive protest movement following his fraudulent election victory in August 2020. And Beijing is bolstering the military junta in Myanmar, which seized power last February in a violent coup after rejecting the results of credible elections the previous November.

To make matters worse, effectively supporting democracy and countering authoritarianism around the world will be incredibly difficult for the United States if its own democracy continues to decline. Pro-democracy movements elsewhere still look to this country for inspiration and support, but authoritarian leaders falsely point to America’s internal problems as proof of democracy’s inherent inferiority—and as license to commit their own abuses of power.We must address our own political dysfunction and polarization to restore the faith of Americans and foreign observers alike, not just in our government, but in democracy itself.

A Time for Concerted Action

The Biden Administration has made strong statements on democracy and human rights, but these words have not always been matched with action. In its very early days, the Administration decided not to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It has since continued to provide military aid to the dictatorial regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, and its withdrawal from Afghanistan has left thousands of human rights defenders, journalists, and members of religious and other minorities at the mercy of the Taliban.

To come to grips with the problem, the United States should commit to bold, specific, and measurable actions on three significant threats to global democracy: transnational repression, corruption and kleptocracy, and the relentless authoritarian attacks on independent media and civil society organizations.

By its very nature, transnational repression should be everyone’s concern. Freedom House has identified 31 origin states conducting physical transnational repression in 79 host countries, which include democracies like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. The Biden Administration should impose targeted sanctions on perpetrators and enablers of transnational repression, work with lawmakers to ensure funding for implementation and enforcement of those sanctions, update relevant laws to respond to this novel threat, maintain a robust refugee resettlement program to protect victims and survivors, combat authoritarian abuse of Interpol’s “red notice” system to outsource the pursuit of dissidents, and work with corporations on strategies to avoid enabling repressive regimes through their products and services. Given the risks of conducting trade with and within autocratic countries, the private sector would clearly benefit from such strategies.

In fact, corruption and kleptocracy have become the business models for modern-day authoritarians. As recent reporting on the Pandora Papers shows, transnational money laundering through luxury real estate and organized crime networks allows dictators to secure their plunder and sometimes to limit the efficacy of international sanctions. President Biden has already declared corruption to be a threat to national security. He should now make anticorruption a fundamental pillar of the final U.S. National Security Strategy.

The U.S. government should coordinate with democratic partners to maximize the impact of joint sanctions on corrupt foreign officials, create mechanisms to fund anticorruption work around the world, make it a crime for foreign officials to request or accept bribes from American companies or individuals, raise public awareness of the effects of corruption and kleptocracy on society, and press the Group of 20 to expand the mandate of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) by allowing it to adopt—and rigorously assess members’ implementation of—new, expert-created anticorruption standards.Given that many financial institutions and investors pay close attention to the FATF’s existing evaluations on money laundering and terrorist financing, similar analysis on corruption could redirect a significant amount of investment away from corrupt governments. Helpfully, the Group of 20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United Nations, and other multilateral organizations already have lines of work on anticorruption, which could be built upon by the FATF.

Finally, in part to catalyze progress on transnational repression and corruption, the Biden Administration should rally like-minded governments to provide greater support to journalists, human rights defenders, and grassroots democracy organizations around the world. As authoritarian regimes crack down on independent media, nongovernmental organizations, and social movements, these civic actors are being deprived of the space and tools they need to advance democratic governance in their own countries. One response that would have an immediate impact is a coordinated rebuff of Beijing’s efforts to limit civil society organizations’ access to the United Nations and other international bodies. But more broadly, wherever people are working to secure their own freedom and human rights, the United States should consistently offer its support, in whatever form does the most good and the least harm.

As global conditions worsen, the demand for freedom is only getting stronger. It is apparent in the dozens of protest movements around the world, which often carry on in the face of brutal repression. The people of Myanmar are far from giving up their resistance to the military coup; this summer, Cuba experienced its largest grassroots protests since 1959; opposition to the Lukashenka regime in Belarus persists, though many activists have fled to Lithuania to continue their work in exile; and in Sudan, the recent military coup has not silenced a powerful civic movement led by professionals who refuse to accept a return to decades of authoritarian misrule.

These situations are far from hopeless, but ordinary people struggling for freedom amid authoritarian reprisals need sustained support and solidarity from democratic governments, which have a vital interest in their success. Their cause should also be the cause of the United States.

 

 

 

[i]Joe Biden, “Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference,” The White House, February 19, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/19/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-2021-virtual-munich-security-conference/.
[ii]“Freedom in the World 2021,” Freedom House, February 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege.
[iii]“Rule of Law Index 2021,” World Justice Project, accessed November 10, 2021, https://worldjusticeproject.org/our-work/research-and-data/wjp-rule-law-index-2021.
[iv]Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale and Scope of Transnational Repression,” Freedom House, accessed November 10, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Complete_FH_TransnationalRepressionReport2021_rev020221.pdf.
[v]“Freedom on the Net 2021: The Global Drive to Control Big Tech,” Freedom House, September 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/2021/global-drive-control-big-tech.
Blacklists Israeli Firm NSO Group Over Spyware,” The New York Times, November 3, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/03/business/nso-group-spyware-blacklist.html.
[vi]Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer, “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale and Scope of Transnational Repression,” Freedom House, accessed November 10, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2021-02/Complete_FH_TransnationalRepressionReport2021_rev020221.pdf.

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Michael J. Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. Before joining Freedom House in February 2017, he was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education. He led the museum’s genocide prevention efforts and later oversaw its public education programs. He was previously National Editor and then White House correspondent for The Washington Post. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the Hoover Institution. A graduate of Harvard College, he is also a board member of the National Security Archive.

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