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This year, 2021, has been a record-breaking one in many ways, and unfortunately, according to Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom of the World Report, the world is at a 15-year low for “Free countries” and a 15-year high of “Not Free countries.” We find democracy in retreat across the globe, and the trends are more worrying each day.
Some are quick to blame the COVID-19 pandemic for this democratic backsliding, citing lockdowns and mandates as the drivers of decline. Authoritarian governments have unquestionably used the pandemic as an excuse to further limit free speech and freedom of assembly, however, this pattern started more than a decade ago.
To reverse course and find a path forward, we have to differentiate between the symptoms and the disease: authoritarianism.
Europe’s longest dictator, Alexander Lukashenka, has held tightly to power in Belarus and violently quashed protests after he stole an election. Ethiopia showed promise with its new prime minister, but that gain was short-lived as the country dissolved into chaos with horrific human rights abuses committed by all sides. Burma, after several years of progress on its journey to democracy, has returned to military rule via a brutal coup.
Instead of focusing on helping these precarious situations, President Biden and his administration are meeting with some of the worst human rights abusers and dictators, including the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Rest assured, they tell those of us in the Senate, that at the forefront of their conversations are American values like democracy and human rights – which they pledged at the start of this year would guide their foreign policy decisions. Unfortunately, the follow through remains hollow.
If the administration is serious about these commitments, where are the “measured” sanctions candidate Biden promised for corrupt regimes? Where are the returned Americans held hostage for years without sight of their families? Where are the programs to promote the furtherance of international norms?
Inviting countries with questionable human rights records and even more questionable democratic processes waters down the whole point of the summit.
As 2021 draws to a close, human rights and democracy appear to be further down the list of President Biden’s foreign policy priorities, certainly quite some distance behind climate change.
I initially welcomed the news that the administration would take a step toward making good on its promises by hosting a “Summit for Democracy,” meant to show the world that the United States is committed to bolstering democracy at home and abroad. Unfortunately, we are seeing a predictable pattern of this administration play out yet again: the summit was prematurely announced and has already caused headaches for Congress, allies and partners alike.
There has been no transparency regarding the guest list, and worse, my committee has heard that in the case of Kosovo, an actual democracy, outside groups had to pressure the administration to extend an invitation after it was left off the list. Ironically, the Biden administration was worried that inviting Kosovo would anger Serbia, a not-so-democratic neighbor, so Serbia received an invitation as well.
Inviting countries with questionable human rights records and even more questionable democratic processes waters down the whole point of the summit. Perhaps most absurd, Congress has yet to receive any indication that it will be included. The most democratic and deliberative legislative body in the world is being excluded from a first-of-its-kind democracy summit.
Such a summit also presents an opportunity to include civil society groups from around the world that do the lion’s share of promoting democracy in their home countries. These people are quite literally on the front lines of the war between authoritarianism and democracy.
Before it is too late, I hope the administration will find the will to invite people like freedom advocates in Hong Kong, Burma, Burundi, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Russia, Belarus, Hungary, Nicaragua and more. Civil society is the linchpin between our actions here in Washington and capitals around the world, and the expansion of a free and robust civil society unhindered by authoritarian overreach.
Ignoring those on the front lines would be a self-inflicted wound that will never heal.
This summit should serve as a stark warning to the threat of growing authoritarian regimes around the world. China, Russia and Iran continue to grow their malign influence across the globe, and in most cases, they can do so without violent means. We must protect our democracies in all that we do – not just convene to pat one another on the back for holding elections.
If past is precedent, I fear this summit will go the way of COP 26 – lots of talk, no action. We can expect more promises, more speeches, maybe even more pledges – but no deliverables.