Global democracies must act to quash rising autocracy, rights body warns

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The failure of democratic leaders to effectively champion democratic values and human rights is enabling the rise of autocrats worldwide, Human Rights Watch said in its 2022 World Report published Thursday.

The rights body says there is a dire need for democratically-elected leaders to show bold and principled leadership in the face of global challenges like the Covid pandemic and the looming climate crisis.

Accrording to chief Kenneth Roth: "Our fear is that if democratic leaders don't rise to the occasion [and] demonstrate the kind of visionary leadership that is called for today, they are going to generate the sort of despair and frustration that are fertile grounds for autocrats."

In its 750-page 2022 World Report on rights abuses, the watchdog details intensifying crackdowns on opposition voices in places like China, Russia, Belarus and Egypt.

It also highlights several recent military coups – including in Myanmar and Sudan – and the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in countries once or still considered democracies, such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, India, and until last year, the United States.

US democracy shaken

Although efforts by former US president Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 elections ultimately failed, Roth has cautioned that US democracy is still "clearly being challenged today".

The insurrection on Washington's Capitol Hill by Trump supporters in January last year "was really just the beginning," he said.

For Roth the storming of the epicentre of American democracy was "a ham-fisted effort to overturn the elections".

He fears, however, "a much more sophisticated effort is under way, aiming for the next presidential elections".

While acknowledging the threat to established democracies such as the US, Roth challenges the conventional wisdom "that autocracy is ascending and democracy is on the decline", insisting that many of the world's autocrats are in fact finding themselves in an increasingly vulnerable position.

Resistance movements

The emergence of broad alliances of widely disparate political parties banding together to oust "the corrupt autocrat", as in the Czech Republic and Israel, are to be lauded the report said.

Human Rights Watch notes that large, and inspiring, pro-democracy demonstrations and massive civil disobedience movements over the past 12 months – even in countries with brutal military regimes like Myanmar and Sudan – despite the risk of detention or being shot.

In the face of mounting resistance, autocrats who previously strived to keep up a semblance of a democratic process have, in many cases, stopped pretending.

Places like Russia, Hong Kong, Uganda and Nicaragua have held "electoral charades" after overtly getting rid of all opposition, closing down media outlets and banning protests.

Zombie elections

While the autocrats may win, Roth says, "zombie elections" do not "confer any of the legitimacy that [the leaders] sought".

Faced with overt power-grabs and cronyism, people can more easily see through empty promises and turn away from the autocrats, providing an inroad for democratic forces.

However, to date, many democratically-elected leaders are failing to display the principle and leadership needed to clearly show the benefits of democracy.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has vowed to make human rights a core value of his foreign policy.

Although he has "stopped kissing up to every friendly autocrat, the way Trump did", Roth laments that Biden has largely failed to deliver.

When it come US relations with repressive governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel, Biden's foreign policy "looks pretty conventional" although Roth agrees democratic leaders were taking "modest steps".

For Human Rights Watch, however, such "short-term incrementalism" is inadequate to meet the challenge facing the world to prevail in the fight against autocracy.

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