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Summit for Democracy takes on autocracy and promotes human rights

US President Joe Biden attending a virtual session of the second Summit for Democracy. Image: Instagram/POTUS (public domain)

From 28-30  March, US President Joe Biden convened the second Summit for Democracy with four co-hosting nations Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia. The focus of this year’s edition, held in a hybrid format, was the state of democracy in the world, the impact of technology and the best methods of bolstering human rights around the world. The summit included a thematic day, a plenary day with speeches and contributions from numerous heads of state and government and ended with regional gatherings.

On the first day, a summit declaration endorsed by 74 governments was released. Among other things, the statement elaborates on common characteristics of all democratic systems and recognizes “that democracies that respect human rights are the best means by which to solve the 21st Century’s most critical challenges”. It condemns Russia’s attack on Ukraine and expresses “support for an effective multilateral system, including the United Nations”.

In his opening remarks the President offered a positive outlook on the health of global democracy, especially the recent progress on Angola’s effort to create an independent judicial system, the Dominican Republic’s move on corruption and the Croatian government’s initiative to boost transparency. He also referenced the apparent halt of democratic backsliding when he said that “autocracies of the world are getting weaker, not stronger”.

US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attending a virtual session of the Summit for Democracy. Image: Instagram/POTUS (public domain)

In the previous month, the Washington D.C.-based foundation Freedom House reported that while freedom declined in 2022 for the 17th consecutive year, the gap between countries declining and such improving was now the narrowest in this time span. 

While committing nearly $700 million to support programmes for free elections, advance independent media and strengthen further action against corruption, Biden referred to the ongoing war in Ukraine when he said that the summit would work to “hold Russia accountable for its unjust and unprovoked war against Ukraine, showing that democracies are strong and resolved”. 

In his opening remarks on the plenary day UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was more cautious when he warned that democratic values were still under pressure. He pointed to increased attacks on independent media and human rights defenders when he said that, “today, we see more and more despotism and less and less enlightenment”. 

South Korean President Yoo Suk Yeol agreed that further action was needed and proposed a renewed drive to strengthen “our democratic way of life” when he said that, “we must embark on a new journey to revive democracy”, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the importance of democracy as the critical factor underpinning modern society when he said that “democracy is not just a structure. It is also spirit. It is based on the belief that the needs and aspirations of every human being are equally important”. According to Modi, the idea of electing leaders has been a common feature in ancient India “long before the rest of the world”.

In his address, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema who was a summit co-host, spoke about the importance of growing and strengthening emerging democracies across the continent of Africa when he said that, “we are determined to promote democratic governance as enshrined in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance”. 

But even as global democracy overall may now be moving in the right direction after a long period of reversal, the growing challenge from the misuse of technology remains. For instance, the proliferation of commercial spyware and the spread of online harassment and abuse have become a particular challenge for democracies looking to protect their institutions and the sensitive data of their citizens against potential threats. This was reiterated by Arati Prabhakar, Assistant to President Biden for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, when she said that while “data has the power to drive solutions to some of our biggest shared challenges, but much of that data is sensitive and needs to be protected”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken referenced the continuing spread of “disinformation” on social media platforms and its impact on democracy and political discourse in general. He repeated President Biden’s call to “hold platforms accountable” for activities, while USAID Director Samantha Power even announced that her agency will help to defend democratic values through “pre-bunking efforts that train communities to recognise the tell-tale signs of information abuse”. 

During the summit, outcomes of so-called “democracy cohorts” were summarized by the US State Department. It said that 23 governments as well as 24 civil society and private sector actors co-led these platforms since the previous summit to advance action on a range of topics such as technology, media freedom, youth engagement, financial transparency, rule of law, election integrity, or gender equality.  

On the first day, civil society organizations and think tanks self-organized a “Partners of Democracy Day” under the roof of the “Global Democracy Coalition” that featured over fifty events on a large spectrum of democracy-related topics. Democracy Without Borders, for instance, co-hosted a webinar with the Community of Democracies on the proposed new mandate of a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy.

Observers of the summit noted that “critics focused on how participant countries made only questionable progress on their commitments to build more resilient democracies, the participation of partly free and not free countries, and that the summit declaration was initially endorsed by only 73 of the 120 participants.” The summit, however, still had “an important role to play” in countering autocratic destabilization of democracy.

As global democracy appears to become more resilient and slowly starts to turn the tide on autocracy, traditional democracies must redouble their efforts to strengthen democracy at home, support fledgling democracies overseas, and contain the influence of autocracies.

A third Summit for Democracy will be hosted next year by South Korea.

Andreas Bummel contributed to this piece

Colm Lehane
Colm Lehane is a communications and media professional who currently works as a Content and Social Media Consultant with Democracy Without Borders. He holds a Master's Degree in Government and Public Policy from University College Cork.
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