Democracies and authoritarian regimes

By Andrew L. Urban  

Democracies are failing to meet the authoritarian challenge.

Watching international news bulletins, trawling the internet for instant updates on protests around the Arab world, reading eye witness reports of torture, rape and other abuse by the thugs protecting oppressive regimes from civilian protesters, creates the impression that the free world is watching with horror as dictators reign defiantly on their self-made podiums of power.

Well, it’s official: “On January 13, 2011, Freedom House released its findings from the latest edition of Freedom in the World [1], the annual survey of global political rights and civil liberties. According to the survey’s findings, 2010 was the fifth consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline—the longest period of setbacks for freedom in the nearly 40-year history of the report. These declines threaten gains dating to the post–Cold War era in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the former Soviet bloc. The latest survey hightlights the increasing truculence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian regimes, which has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world’s democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge.

In Belarus, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has held power for 16 years, won a new term with an astonishing 80 percent of the vote. When protesters filled the streets of Minsk to object to polling practices that were strongly criticized by outside monitors, Lukashenka ordered a massive police crack-down, sneering that “there will be no more mindless democracy in this country.”

The number of countries exhibiting declines for the past year, 25, was substantially higher than the number showing gains, 11. The most notable changes occurred in Mexico and Ukraine, both of which declined from Free to Partly Free, and Ethiopia, which dropped from Partly Free to Not Free. Among other countries showing declines were Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka. There were some countries with important gains, such as Colombia, Guinea, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Tanzania.

The number of countries designated as Free dropped from 89 to 87, but more disturbing was the further decline in the number of electoral democracies, from 116 to 115, putting the figure well below its 2005 level of 123. The electoral democracy roster has not been so short since 1995.”

The Freedom House Report identified a number of trends, including:

“China’s Latest Pretext for Repression: In 2008, Beijing cited the need for security during the Olympic Games as the reason for its crackdown on dissident intellectuals, journalists, and others. In 2009, the rationale for repression was the need for order surrounding the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party’s seizure of power. In 2010, the authorities’ mobilization was presented as a response to the supposed hostility behind the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo.”

This report is a depressing document; it highlights one of the weaknesses of democracy – one which is also its great and noble virtue, namely tolerance. But it’s not just tolerance, of course, and it would be naïve to think so. Tolerance can all too easily morph into complacency, in which democratic states shrug their collective shoulders in individual helplessness and collective inertia. Worse than this in many ways is the lipservice paid to decency by democracies; the outrage, the condemnations and the noble words, all rather hollow and useless. There is ‘soft diplomacy’, too, and look how well that is working for us in places like China. There are the indignant noises of leaders berating the despots and tyrants who ignore it all, knowing how impotent we have become.

And of course there is trade. Democratic states have so often failed to find a way to balance the benefits of trade with the needs of democracy. This is one of the crucial reasons for a stronger, healthier, morally complete UN; as an international body it is (or would be) largely free of the constraints of trade diplomacy. If it became a legitimate keeper of the peace and defender of human rights – which it aspires to be on paper and in theory – it could have quickly responded, for instance, to the atrocities committed by Syrian security forces in May and June 2011. Let’s rephrase that: it could have quickly and effectively responded with legal and legitimate action against Syria as the US and NATO did against Libya’s Gadaffi (and perhaps more effectively). Instead, on June 10, 2011 the UN demanded and end to the Syrian crackdown. That was as effective and as fearsome and as ridiculous as smacking Syria’s dictator with a wet lettuce leaf.

In its June 1, 2011 report, ‘We’ve never seen such horror’, Human Rights Watch details some of the atrocities – many against children – which the Syrian forces committed, as recounted in more than 50 eye witness interviews. [2]


[1] Freedom House – Freedom in the World Report 2011

[2] Human Rights Watch report June 1, 2011

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