Perspectives April 13, 2023
At the Second Summit for Democracy, Governments and Civil Society Pledge to Take Action
The second Summit for Democracy provided an opportunity for governments to commit to advancing democratic principles around the world.
At the end of March, government officials from 120 countries convened in person and virtually for the second Summit for Democracy, an initiative led by the Biden administration and held in partnership with the governments of the Netherlands, South Korea, Costa Rica, and Zambia. The purpose of the multiday event, according to US government officials, was to demonstrate that governments that respect democracy and human rights are the best suited to deliver prosperity and dignity to people across the world.
The second summit was held at a critical time, taking place as democratic governments renewed their resolve to stand against authoritarianism following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and amid glimmers of hope that, according to analysis in Freedom House’s flagship Freedom in the World publication, the 17-year trend of democratic backsliding may be slowing. However, neither the outcome of the war in Ukraine nor the prospect of finally ending nearly two decades of democratic regression is a foregone conclusion. Thus, we looked eagerly to the summit to see how governments committed themselves to bold action.
A struggle to achieve consensus
One of the primary policy outcomes of the second summit was the much-anticipated governmental declaration of shared principles. On March 29, 73 of the 120 participating governments released a Declaration of the Summit for Democracy, outlining 17 principles for protecting and strengthening democracy that signatory governments are “jointly dedicated to.” Intense negotiations on the declaration took place for months, and that not all participants signed it underscores the inherent challenge to reaching government consensus posed by the “big tent” participant approach used to organize the summit. However, the release of the declaration offers civil society groups the opportunity to mobilize to encourage more governments to sign on in advance of the newly announced third summit.
To complement the government-led declaration, Freedom House, the McCain Institute, and the George W. Bush Institute led a coalition of organizations to prepare a Declaration of Democratic Principles, a parallel declaration elevating civil society’s perspective on the principles all democratic governments should live up to. This declaration, which was featured in the official summit agenda and at a Brookings Institution event, received more than 130 organizational endorsements from more than 50 countries around the world.
In the spirit of promoting bold action at the Summit for Democracy, Freedom House was also proud to join dozens of organizations in the Global Democracy Coalition in pledging actions of our own to strengthen support for democracy and human rights defenders worldwide. Among other things, Freedom House committed to providing ongoing emergency support to human rights and democracy activists across the globe who have been endangered by their work.
Reporting on past commitments, new goals outlined
Government officials also highlighted their efforts to implement commitments made at the first summit in December 2021. These included pledges to “promote good governance and the rule of law,” as Niger put forward, and to “call for the release of political prisoners and human rights defenders, especially in Belarus,” by Poland. Some governments, including the government of Lithuania provided written updates; others directly mentioned or alluded to them in their remarks. Civil society has already begun documenting reported implementation efforts presented by governments in a comprehensive tracker from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), which will continue to be updated in the coming days. This is an important oversight function that lends itself to follow-up advocacy from civil society.
While there was no formal requirement for new commitments to be made at the second summit—which some analysts have lamented as a missed opportunity for accountability—the format of the Summit for Democracy was a useful platform for seeking governments’ endorsement of key policy initiatives. This was one of the main opportunities the summit provided: it moved governments to self-identify as champions of certain causes, which can allow civil society to more easily join likeminded partners to drive innovation in specific policy areas.
Leveraging political will
Freedom House, for its part, used the summit to rally government support for key policy priorities, including raising awareness of the staggering rate of unjust political imprisonment worldwide and urging democratic governments to counter the threat of transnational repression.
For example, in the run-up to the summit, Freedom House secured the endorsements of seven governments on a new declaration pledging to take greater steps to combat the authoritarian practice of transnational repression. The Declaration of Principles to Combat Transnational Repression, signed by the governments of Australia, Germany, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the United States, affirms that “transnational repression is a threat to democracy and human rights worldwide” and enumerates ways these governments will aim to take further action. Freedom House also announced the formation of the Coordination Group to Counter Transnational Repression, a new civil society effort to advance effective policies against this authoritarian practice.
Freedom House further leveraged the summit to encourage governments to do more to advocate for the release of political prisoners worldwide, including by releasing a policy paper outlining actions that democratic governments can take to shine a spotlight on those unjustly detained. Freedom House also joined the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the US Department of State in a summit event to highlight the issue. The event featured remarks from US under secretary for civilian security, democracy, and human rights Uzra Zeya and Lithuanian vice minister of foreign affairs Mantas Adomėnas, a keynote address from exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and a panel discussion led by former political prisoners and the loved ones of individuals who are currently detained. If you missed the event and want to check it out, you can watch it here.
Working toward a democratic future
While several well-reasoned critiques have been published about the Summit for Democracy, the summit has been unique for its breadth of issues, the number of participating governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the policy platform it created. Although its impact may not be immediately apparent, the summit has sparked numerous initiatives that may advance reforms and push back against authoritarianism in the years to come. Freedom House looks forward to the recently announced third summit, to be held in South Korea, and will continue to galvanize support for strengthening democratic governance and defending human rights around the world.