41st Session of the Human Rights Council.

A new year’s resolution: placing the Human Rights Council at the vanguard of the global democratic fight-back

by Marc Limon, Executive Director of the Universal Rights Group Blog, Blog, Democracy, Human Rights Council, Human rights institutions and mechanisms, In focus: democracy, Thematic human rights issues

It is now over thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and excited talk about the ‘end of history’[i] – the idea that with the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) and the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy, humanity had reached ‘not just […] the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ Fast forward three decades and such ultra-optimism appears a distant memory. Assertions of the ‘end of history’ have been replaced by worried talk about a ‘global democratic recession.’

But is it true that democracy is in crisis? Is the assertion based on any more evidence than was the ‘end of history’ claim made two decades ago?

Pick up any newspaper and it certainly seems so. The governments of populist politicians such as Recep Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro may be nominally democratic in the sense that they were elected to office. However, beyond periodic elections, each of these leaders is slowly but steadily chipping away at many of the essential pillars of liberal democracy: respect for rule of law, protection of minorities, an independent judiciary, government transparency, respect for freedom of expression and the free press, civil society space, and the embrace of democratic scrutiny and accountability, including by opposition parties in parliament. Even liberal democracy’s heartlands are showing signs of decay: in the UK, the Government of Boris Johnson has illegally prorogued Parliament, overseen a sharp rise in corruption and nepotism, and attacked independent judges and lawyers; while Donald Trump’s administration has launched an increasingly blatant assault on the institutions and norms, including political checks and balances, that have long made the US a global beacon of republicanism and democracy.

These worrying trends are clearly spelt out in Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World 2020’ report. ‘Democracy and pluralism,’ it concludes, ‘are under assault.’ ‘Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent,’ while ‘at the same time, many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest.’ To illustrate this point, the report points to the leaders of the US and India, ‘the world’s two largest democracies,’ who are ‘increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.’

As a result of these and other trends, Freedom House finds that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in democracy and political rights. The gap between setbacks and gains widened compared with 2018, as individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties, while those in just 37 experienced improvements. Interestingly, the negative pattern was most visible near the top and the bottom of the scale. More than half of the countries that were rated Free (e.g. UK, US, India) or Not Free (e.g. China, Russia) in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ‘Democracy Index’ likewise suggests widespread democratic backsliding. The Index provides a snapshot of the state of world democracy for 165 independent States, based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. The most recent Democracy Index finds that the average global score of UN member States fell from 5.48 in 2018 to 5.44 in 2019. This is the worst average global score since the EIU first produced the Index back in 2006.

Taken together, news reports together with indices such as those provided by Freedom House and EIU do appear to present a consistent picture. While not uniform (many developed and developing countries, including some of those in transition, continue to make progress in protecting and promoting civil and political rights), it is clear that a number of important long-established democracies are experiencing a hollowing-out of their democracies, while many (if not all) authoritarian regimes are increasingly confident that they can supress political rights with little or no consequence.

There are a number of reasons for this. In rich countries, populists have come to power in response to the perceived failings (in the eyes of voters) of democratic governments. Working class voters, for example, came to believe that politicians did not care about them after improvements in their economic and social rights stagnated, inequalities grew wider, and production was increasingly outsourced within a globalised economy. In many developing countries, corruption sent the message that the ruling elites were principally interested in their own well-being.

This provided fertile ground for populist politicians to colonise (even though, ironically, they were, for the most part, members of the existing political-economic establishment). They have done so by elevating identity politics far above normal policymaking, playing on the grievances and prejudices of majority groups, attacking symbols of the ‘establishment’ (e.g. the Washington ‘swamp,’ Brussels ‘Eurocrats,’ or British judges), and inciting hatred and division. (In a sign of how much President Trump had come to rely on identity politics, ahead of November’s presidential polls he did not even bother to offer a re-election policy platform).

In a leader from late November (‘The resilience of democracy’), the Economist perfectly explained why this shift to identity politics has done such damage to democracy. ‘A politics that reinforces immutable identities leads away from the tolerance and forbearance a democracy needs to solve social conflicts. In arguments about who gets what, people can split the difference and feel content. In arguments about who they are – over religion, race, and anti-elitism, say – compromise can seem like betrayal. When ways of life are at stake, the other lot a not just mistaken, they are dangerous. Having not mattered enough, elections now matter too much.’

In the vanguard of the democratic fightback

Over the past four years, observers have foretold (in President Putin’s case, with a hint of glee) that all of this presages the death of liberal democracy – the mirror image of the ‘end of history’ predicted in 1992. However, this undoubtedly takes things too far. Yes, there are reasons to be concerned; however, there are also reasons to be hopeful. One of democracy’s greatest strengths is, in the words of US civil rights leader John Lewis, that it is ‘not a state, it is an act.’ In other words, it is a process, a process of change, and continually holds out the possibility of starting afresh. As the Economist notes, ‘So long as elections take place, there is always the possibility of kicking the rascals out even in places where governments stack the vote.’ In 2019 elections to the European Parliament, for example, populists did worse than expected, while last November President Trump lost to Joe Biden by more than seven million votes.

A second, equally important reason for hope is that democracy, where it becomes embedded, is exceptionally resilient. That is, in turn, tied to the fact that it is grounded in a wide-range of civil and political rights – not just the right to vote. Taken together, these rights provide a complex web of checks and balances – a safety net that makes sure that if one right is violated (e.g. the right to freely elect one’s political representatives), other rights (e.g. the right to a free and independent judiciary) kick-in to compensate. Over the past 18 months, this truth has been perfectly illustrated in both the UK where, in the autumn of 2019, the UK Supreme Court declared UK Prime Minister’s decision to suspend Parliament to push through Brexit-related legislation in its absence, as unlawful, and in the US, where President Trump’s repeated attempts to overturn November’s election results, have been thwarted by the country’s independent judiciary. Other civil and political rights can be equally as powerful. For example, the power of freedom of expression, amplified by social media, was crucial to the efforts of Belarusian civil society and opposition groups to expose election fraud during the country’s August elections; while the power of freedom of assembly played a key role in October’s decision, by Kyrgyzstani authorities, to annul the results of parliamentary polls that were perceived to be unfair.

Working with all States to strengthen this democratic resilience should be a key priority for the Human Rights Council and the wider UN human rights system in 2021. The importance of this is self-evident. However imperfect (Winston Churchill called it ‘the worst form of government – except for all the others), democracy is far better than any other form of government at promoting and protecting all (inter-connected and mutually-reinforcing) human rights. Thus, by clarifying the human rights normative framework as it applies to democracy and free and fair elections, and by pressing and supporting States to implement those norms at national level, the Council and its mechanisms can not only help build national democratic resilience, providing a much-needed boost to global democracy, but can also, indirectly, provide a boost to the enjoyment of all human rights, without discrimination.

2021 offers a particularly opportune moment for the Human Rights Council to place itself in the vanguard of this ‘democratic fightback.’ Not only is there an urgent need for multilateral leadership on this issue, as evidenced by the Freedom House and EIU indices, as well as by ongoing efforts by China, Russia and others to promote rival (authoritarian) visions of governance; the election of Joe Biden as US President also offers a unique opportunity.

As long ago as July last year, before he was even selected as the Democratic Party’s candidate, Biden delivered a speech at the City University of New York in which he laid out his blueprint for American foreign policy should he be elected. In it, he made a strong pitch to position the promotion and strengthening of democracy and free and fair elections, especially through the improved enjoyment of human rights, as a central goal of US foreign policy under a possible Biden administration.

‘Democracy,’ he argued, ‘is the root of our society, the wellspring of our power, and the source of our renewal. It strengthens and amplifies our leadership to keep us safe in the world. It is the engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity. It is the heart of who we are and how we see the world – and how the world sees us.’

Interestingly, the former Vice President offered a wide vision of ‘democracy’ and the human rights involved in building strong and resilient democratic societies (involving not just civil and political, but also economic and social rights). This includes, he argued: building inclusive education systems ‘so that a child’s opportunity in life isn’t determined by their zip code or race,’ reforming criminal justice systems ‘to eliminate inequitable disparities,’ and ‘instituting strict conflict-of-interest and anti-corruption policies’ to eliminate ‘self-dealing.’ Notwithstanding this broad vision, Biden also used his speech to underscore the central importance of free, fair and credible elections to any functioning and stable democracy.

Biden also used his speech to revitalise America’s ‘commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.’ Perhaps most eye-catchingly, he said that: ‘Having taken […] steps to reinforce the democratic foundation of our country and inspire action in others, [we] will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.’ Accordingly, and during his first year in office, Biden promised to ‘bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values.’

With the US likely to return to the Human Rights Council after 20th January, all the conditions exist for the world’s democracies to rally together and mobilise the UN human rights system to lead the global fightback of liberal democracy, founded upon the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights, civil and political, economic, social and cultural. While doing so will not bring about the ‘end of history,’ it would provide a significant fillip to universal values, individual well-being, long-term peace and security, and sustainable development. Not a bad resolution for 2021!


[i] The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Francis Fukuyama

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