Covid exposing weakness of democratic leaders, says Human Rights Watch

Protesters in Myanmar demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. (Credit: Unsplash)

Human Rights Watch criticised democratic leaders on Thursday for their weak defence of democracy and for failing to meet challenges spanning the pandemic, climate change and racial injustice.

In its annual world report assessing human rights across the world, the organisation said that while democracies had made huge steps in combating Covid-19 through developing vaccines at speed, they had failed to tackle issues of social inequality and poverty that spiralled during the pandemic.

Director Kenneth Roth also accused leaders such as US President Joe Biden and other Western governments of failing to hold autocratic leaders to account for rights violations, such as China's treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang or supplying arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

"If democracies are to prevail in the global contest with autocracy, their leaders must do more than spotlight the autocrats' inevitable shortcomings. They need to make a stronger, positive case for democratic rule," Roth said.

Roth added in the report that leaders had to do more to protect their democratic values ​​from threats such as online disinformation, hate speech and technology invading privacy, and called for stronger democratic leadership.

“Promoting democracy means standing up for democratic institutions such as independent courts, free media, robust parliaments, and vibrant civil societies even when that brings unwelcome scrutiny or challenges to executive policies,” Roth said.

“And it demands elevating public discourse rather than stoking our worst sentiments, acting on democratic principles rather than merely voicing them, and unifying us before looming threats rather than dividing us in the quest for another do-nothing term in office.”

Human Rights Watch said autocratic leaders had faced a significant backlash in 2021, with millions of people risking their lives to take to the streets and challenge regimes.

The organisation spotlighted increasingly repressive and violent acts against civilian protesters by autocratic leaders and military regimes around the world, but said these were a sign of leaders' weakening grip on power.

“In country after country, large numbers of people have taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, which shows the appeal of democracy remains strong,” Roth said. “But elected leaders need to do a better job of addressing major challenges to show that democratic government delivers on its promised dividends.”

Roth said “overt electoral charades” in countries such as Russia and Nicaragua, as well as new opposition alliances that succeeded in toppling repressive governments in countries such as Israel and the Czech Republic, were also signs of a trend towards weakening democratic rule.

“There is a narrative that autocrats are prevailing and democracy is on the decline, yet if you look at the trends in human rights over the last 12 months it doesn’t look so rosy for the autocrats,” said Roth.

“There has been an outpouring of public support for democracy with people taking to the streets in China, Uganda, Poland, Myanmar, often risking their lives to do so, and many other places where repressive regimes are struggling to maintain their control.

“While the increasingly violent and regressive actions of repressive regimes across the world may look like them flexing their muscles, we increasingly see these as acts of desperation,” he said.

He noted that although 2021 had seen armed groups sixteen power in countries such as Myanmar and Afghanistan, civilian populations refused to be subdued.

“While we see bloodshed on the streets, we also see millions refusing to accept the denial of their human rights and a failure of autocratic rulers to distract populations with policies attacking LGBTQ communities, abortion or women's rights,” he said.

But for democracy to prevail, he called on democratic governments around the world to do more to address urgent issues such as the climate emergency, inequality, racial injustice and poverty.