Geneva (AFP) – The failure of democratic leaders to effectively uphold democratic values and rights is fueling the rise of autocrats around the world, the outspoken Human Rights Watch official told AFP.
There is an urgent need for democratically elected leaders to show bold, principled leadership in the face of global challenges like Covid and as anxiety about impending climate catastrophe grows, argued Kenneth Roth.
“Our fear is that if Democratic leaders don’t seize the moment (and) show the kind of visionary leadership that is demanded today, they will generate the kind of desperation and frustration that are fertile ground for the autocrats,” the HRW executive director said.
And indeed, it would seem that autocracy is on the rise.
HRW’s 750-plus-page annual report on rights abuses around the world, released on Thursday, details the intensifying crackdown on opposition voices in places like China, Russia, Belarus and the United States. ‘Egypt.
It also highlights several recent military coups, notably 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.
American democracy under threat
And even though efforts by former US President Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 election results failed, Roth warned that US democracy is still “clearly in question today”.
Last year’s riot on Capitol Hill by Trump supporters “was really just the beginning,” he said.
Roth said he feared the Jan. 6 riot was “a clumsy effort to cancel the election, and now a much more sophisticated effort is underway, targeting the upcoming presidential election.”
“There is an urgent need to defend democracy in the United States.
While acknowledging the threat, Roth meanwhile challenged “the conventional wisdom these days … that autocracy is on the rise and democracy is on the decline”, insisting that many of the world’s autocrats actually find themselves in an increasingly vulnerable position.
He pointed to the emergence of broad alliances of widely disparate political parties that have come together to oust the “corrupt autocrat”, as in the Czech Republic and Israel.
And he pointed to large pro-democracy protests and mass movements of civil disobedience, even in countries with brutal military regimes like Myanmar and Sudan, despite the risk of being detained or shot.
“There is an ongoing battle with very significant resistance against those who want to reimpose or perpetuate autocracy,” Roth said.
In the face of mounting resistance, autocrats who previously tried to maintain some semblance of a democratic process have, in many cases, stopped pretending.
Instead, places like Russia, Hong Kong, Uganda and Nicaragua staged “election charades” after openly getting rid of opposition, shutting down the media and banning protests, Roth said.
While they might win, he said such “zombie elections” don’t “give any of the legitimacies they were looking for”.
Faced with overt power grabs and cronyism, people can more easily see through empty promises and turn away from the autocrat, offering a breakthrough for democratic forces.
But right now, many democratically elected leaders lack the principle and leadership needed to clearly show the benefits of democracy, Roth said.
“Globally, I think we are seeing dissatisfaction with democratic leaders, in part because important parts of democratic societies feel left behind.
“There is an urgent need for better governance within democracy, (and) a more coherent approach to defending human rights around the world.”
In the United States, for example, President Joe Biden pledged to make human rights a core value of his foreign policy, but while he had “stopped embracing all friendly autocrats, like the ‘did Trump,’ Roth lamented that he largely failed to deliver.
In relations with “friendly repressive governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel”, he said, “its foreign policy seems quite conventional”.
Biden and other Democratic leaders were taking “small steps,” he acknowledged.
But such “short-term incrementalism”, he warned, was “not enough to meet the great challenges ahead or ultimately to prevail in the difficult global test with autocracy”.
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