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Autocracy on the Rise, Warn Civil Society Groups, Seeking UN Expert on Democracy

UN Human Rights Council in session. Credit: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 27 2023 (IPS) - The rise in authoritarianism worldwide has prompted a coalition of over 85 civil society organizations (CSOs) to call on the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to appoint a Special Rapporteur—an independent UN expert– to protect democracy and reverse its decline.

The joint appeal comes ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which will be commemorated on 10 December 2023.

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS the proposed Rapporteur is not necessarily supposed to make general judgements on whether a country is democratically ruled or not.

But it will be useful for the Rapporteur to identify specific democratic shortcomings based on principles the UN has set up thus far, he pointed out

For instance, the existence of a pluralistic system of political parties is one such principle. Obviously, one party states are at odds with this.

Apart from shortcomings, the Rapporteur should also try to identify best practices, or in other words, where does democracy perform very well and why, so others can learn from this, said Bummel.

“Democracy is a human right and human rights depend on democracy. The UN can no longer look the other way while this right is being denied, undermined and weakened in many countries around the world. A UN Rapporteur on Democracy (UNRoD) is urgently needed”, he argued,

In terms of which countries are facing challenges, the Rapporteur can draw on international assessments like those made by V-Dem or International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a Stockholm-based intergovernmental organization that works to support and strengthen democratic institutions and processes around the world.

According to International IDEA’s latest report, presented earlier this month, the strongest democratic decline in the past years was observed in Benin, Belarus, El Salvador, Afghanistan and Myanmar, among others. Syria, North Korea and China are among the most autocratic countries according to V-Dem, he said.

Currently two of the world’s largest democracies are India (population: 1.4 billion) and the US. (332 million)

India ranks 108th in the Electoral Democracy Index of the V-dem Democracy* report 2023. The U.S., described as a flawed democracy, ranks 30th overall in the world. At the top of the democracy index are Norway ranking number one, followed by New Zealand, Finland and Sweden.

Although Joe Biden won the 2020 US presidential election, his rival Donald Trump has refused to concede defeat, making false allegations that the voting was rigged—which prompted an attack by his supporters on the seat of the US government on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021.

The charges of a “stolen election” have also undermined democracy in the US.

In an article on November 21, the New York Times said that Trump, who is currently the leading Republican candidate for the US presidential elections next year, has “used language that echoed totalitarian leaders who rose to power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s degrading his political adversaries as “vermin” who needed to be “rooted out”.

The Times said Trump’s rhetoric has sounded new alarms among experts on autocracy who have long worried about his praise for foreign dictators and disdain for democratic ideals—all of which will be on full display if he is returned to power.

Meanwhile, the recent epidemic of coups in Africa — including military take-overs in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Gabon– have also triggered the inevitable question: Is multi-party democracy on the retreat?

The Open Society Barometer, an annual global survey from Open Society Foundations, launched last September, reflects the positive and negative aspects of the state democracy worldwide.

The survey finds that young people around the world (Generation Z and millennials) “hold the least faith in democracy of any age group, presenting a grave threat to its future”.

Over a third (35%) of respondents in the 18-35 age group were supportive of a strong leader who does away with parliament and elections.

A large minority of young people surveyed (42%) feel that military rule is a good way of running a country. A similar number (35%) feel that having a strong leader who does not bother with elections or consulting parliament/congress is a good way of running a country.

This compares to 20% that support military rule and 26% that are in favor of a strong leader in the 56 plus age bracket.

According to a statement by the coalition, “democracy is threatened and authoritarianism is on the rise”. In this situation, the UN “needs to do more to strengthen human rights and democracy”, the statement says

The statement points out that the new mandate can be based on UN resolutions that identify and support democratic principles. This includes the “central democratic principle” that “public authority must derive from the will of the people” which is expressed in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

At a time when democracy is challenged by autocracies and undermined in many democracies, the proposal for a UN Rapporteur on Democracy deserves urgent and serious consideration. It is fully endorsed by the V-Dem project and its Steering Committee, said political scientist Staffan Lindberg, Director, Varieties of Democracy Institute* (V-Dem) at the University of Gothenburg.

Natalie Samarasinghe, Global Director of Advocacy, Open Society Foundations, said people believe in democracy. But their hopes are being crushed as states fail to deliver and trample on the rules that protect us.

At a time of crisis and contested narratives, the UN must use every possible tool to empower people: a Special Rapporteur on Democracy would be a good start, she said.

Rebecca A. Shoot, Executive Director, Citizens for Global Solutions said democracy is a fundamental human right that cannot be taken for granted in any corner of the world.

“In recent years, we have seen backsliding, erosion, and authoritarian encroachment that democracy champions have bravely stood against across the globe. They must not stand alone”.

The UN Special Rapporteur system is an invaluable tool for advancing human rights. It is time that this powerful mechanism be deployed in support of democracy, she declared.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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