Freedom in the World 2021 Policy Recommendations
Global democracy has receded under pressure from authoritarian forces over the past 15 years, according to Freedom in the World. To help turn the tide, democratic governments and the private sector should cultivate opportunities for progress, hold dictators to account for corruption and rights abuses, and strengthen democratic institutions at home.
Nurturing Opportunities for Global Democracy
Policy Recommendations for Democracies
- Support civil society and grassroots movements calling for democracy. Peaceful protest movements calling for reform can drive long-term democratic change, but face greater odds without international support. Democratic governments should provide vocal, public support for grassroots prodemocracy movements, and respond to any violent crackdown by authorities with targeted sanctions, reduced or conditioned foreign assistance, and public condemnation. Democracies should also be ready to welcome human rights defenders who come under threat or attack for their work or who are in immediate danger.
- Support free and independent media, and protect access to information. Providing the public with access to fact-based information about current events is one of the best ways to combat authoritarian power, and, during a pandemic, it is essential to combatting mis- and disinformation and protecting public health. As part of the Democracy Under Lockdown report, Freedom House surveyed democracy and human rights experts working in over 100 countries, asking how democratic governments can help support democracy and human rights during the pandemic. Providing the public with access to fact-based information was a top response. Support for media—including financial assistance, technical support, skills training, and mentoring—was another frequently identified need of survey respondents. In order to keep citizens informed, governments and internet service providers should also make every effort to support and maintain reliable access to the internet. In the United States, the proposed Universal Press Freedom Act would prioritize the promotion of press freedom worldwide by creating an ambassador-at-large position to coordinate US foreign policy engagement on global press freedom issues. The US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which operates the United States’ five publicly funded media organizations, should ensure editorial independence at these organizations by restoring the “firewall rule.” This rule, which protected against political interference in news reporting by agency leadership, was repealed in December.
- Emphasize democracy-strengthening programs in foreign assistance. People across the world have benefitted from government investment in strengthening democratic movements, systems, and institutions. Yet authoritarian regimes are becoming more sophisticated and innovative, and significant, consistent funding streams and creative approaches are still needed to counter them. When disbursing aid, democracies should select priorities based on recognition of what can realistically be achieved through external assistance, with emphasis on long-term, locally driven, and evidence-based solutions. In particular, democracies should provide civil society and citizen-led social movements with technical assistance and training on issues like coalition and constituency building, advocacy, organizational development, and operating safely both physically and digitally. Connecting activists across borders so that they can share strategies, tools, and approaches should also be prioritized. Support for initiatives that help ensure the legitimacy of elections are critical, including monitoring missions, voter registration and education drives, and media training.
- Focus on countries and territories at critical junctures. These include countries that have experienced recent expansions in freedom, such as Malawi and Sudan, as well as places where democratic progress is threatened, such as Ethiopia and Malaysia, or where democracy is under considerable pressure, as in Hong Kong. Policymakers from democratic nations should engage in high-level public diplomacy with these states and territories to signal international commitment to defending democracy. Officials should also speak out in support of the brave members of civil society fighting for democratic rights in their countries, and condemn restrictions or abuses against them. Funding should help democratically inclined leaders and local civil society organizations deliver tangible expansions of political rights and civil liberties.
- Invest in alliances with other democracies, and in multilateral institutions. Confronting authoritarian and antidemocratic trends globally requires a united front among democratic nations, particularly as authoritarian leaders resort to bullying tactics like imposing tariffs in retaliation for criticism of human rights abuses. Democracies should work together to promote their shared values and constrain autocratic powers by coordinating aid and public diplomacy efforts, including by bolstering initiatives that promote transparency and accountability in governance, and by issuing joint statements condemning human rights violations. Full engagement by democracies in multilateral institutions strengthens and improves the work of these bodies. Moreover, it helps prevent authoritarian rulers from exploiting these systems to their own ends, such as China’s efforts to constrain Taiwan’s participation in international forums; the growing use of governments reaching across national borders to target rights defenders and journalists, as recently examined in Freedom House’s special report on transnational repression; and joint efforts by undemocratic rulers to cut the number of human rights–related jobs within UN peacekeeping missions. Democracies should also hold each other accountable for living up to democratic ideals at home.
- Strengthen public support for democratic principles by investing in civic education. Fostering a stronger public understanding of democratic principles, especially among young people, empowers citizens to defend freedom domestically and support foreign policy that protects democratic rights and values abroad. As democracies have struggled, and authoritarian rulers promote the narrative that democracy is unable to deliver on its promises, it is essential that those living in free countries understand and are able to articulate how effective democratic governance protects rights and freedoms. In the United States, new legislation could require each state to develop basic content and benchmarks of achievement for civic education, including instruction on the fundamental tenets of US democracy. In the absence of new legislation, the US Department of Education should, to the extent possible, make funding available to states for civic education that focuses on democratic principles.
Policy Recommendations for the Private Sector
- Adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and conduct periodic human rights impact assessments, with a commitment to doing no harm. Companies should commit to respecting the rights of their customers and employees, and to addressing any adverse impact that their operations, products, or services might have on human rights. International companies should not seek to operate in countries where they know they will be forced to violate international human rights principles. Where companies do operate, they should conduct periodic assessments to fully understand how their products and actions might affect rights like freedom from economic exploitation. When a product is found to have been used for human rights violations, companies should suspend sales to the perpetrating party and develop an immediate action plan to mitigate harm and prevent further abuse.
- Evaluate potential partners’ adherence to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Companies should refrain from partnering or establishing subcontracts with entities that do not adhere to these principles. Companies can also abstain from forming partnerships with companies that are wholly or partially owned by states known to violate human rights.
- Engage in continuous dialogue with civil society organizations to understand the practical effects of company policies and products. Companies should seek out local expertise on the political and cultural context in markets where they have a presence, or where their products are widely used. These consultations with civil society groups should inform the companies’ approach to investment, operations, and other activities.
Countering Threats to Global Democracy
Policy Recommendations for Democracies
- Utilize targeted sanctions as part of a comprehensive strategy of accountability for human rights abusers and corrupt officials. Such sanctions are not a standalone solution, but are a powerful tool for deterring harmful behavior. Democracies should devise comprehensive strategies for deploying targeted sanctions in concert with their full suite of foreign policy tools to bring accountability for international human rights abuses and acts of corruption. When possible, democracies should coordinate their efforts to jointly impose sanctions on perpetrators for maximum impact, as the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom have done in recent cases. Democratic nations that do not yet have laws allowing for targeted sanctions for human rights abuses and acts of corruption should enact them, and those with laws on the books should ensure they are fully resourced and enforced. The US Congress should reauthorize the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act (22 USC 2656 note), which allows for visa bans and asset freezes on individuals and entities engaged in human rights abuses and corruption. Reauthorization should eliminate the December 23, 2022, sunset and codify Executive Order 13818, which enables the United States to impose sanctions for serious human rights abuses. This term encompasses a greater number of abuses than the more restrictive threshold of gross violations of human rights, the standard included in the Global Magnitsky Act in its original form. The US Congress and Executive Branch should work together to ensure robust funding for the enforcement of sanctions. The US Department of the Treasury, Department of State, and Department of Justice all collect information about suspected perpetrators of abuses eligible for sanction. Unfortunately, the number of potential sanctions cases to be vetted by the US government far exceeds current capacity. The US Congress has provided modest dedicated funding for sanctions implementation and enforcement, but funding for additional staff would help reduce the backlog of cases that have yet to be vetted.
- Make the fight against kleptocracy and international corruption a key priority. The United States passed groundbreaking legislation in 2020 that ended the ability of corrupt actors to hide stolen funds behind anonymous shell corporations. This new law requires corporations to disclose the identity of their beneficial owners to the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), which may only make that information accessible to law enforcement agencies, and, in some cases, financial institutions. The United States should ensure this law is fully enforced, and nations still allowing anonymous shell corporations should pass similar laws. The US Congress should also pass the CROOK Act (H.R. 402), which would establish an action fund to offer financial assistance to foreign countries during historic windows of opportunity for anticorruption reforms; and the Combating Global Corruption Act (S. 14) which would require the US government to assess the extent of corruption around the world and produce a tiered list of countries. US foreign assistance directed at the lowest-tiered countries would be packaged with specific risk assessments and anticorruption mechanisms, such as provisions to recover funds that are misused.
- Curtail assistance to nations whose leaders evade term limits. Over the past two decades, dozens of leaders around the world—in Russia, China, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Uganda, Cameroon, and elsewhere—have sought to evade term limits and extend their hold on power. Section 7008 of the annual State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations bills (P.L. 116–260) blocks funding “to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup d’état or decree” until the secretary of state “can certify that a democratically elected government has taken office.” This provision should be amended to include violations of or changes to term limits that allow incumbent leaders to extend their time in office. When leaders change the term limit rules for themselves, this should trigger an automatic across-the-board review of all assistance to the country, and elements of that assistance that benefit the chief executive and the upper echelons of government should be suspended. The State Department should lead the review, identifying nonhumanitarian assistance that may be important to the leader, such as access to preferential trade arrangements, investment in infrastructure, or sales of arms and other forms of military cooperation. Senior policymakers should then decide on an appropriate combination of benefits to suspend. The secretary of state should publicly announce this policy so that it can serve as a deterrent. Other democracies should condition foreign assistance in a similar fashion.
- Scrutinize the export of goods that could potentially be used to violate human rights. Violations of human rights occur more frequently in countries with weak rule of law and poor protections for basic freedoms. When considering the export of technological and other products that could be used to violate human rights, governments should carefully study deals with countries rated by any of Freedom House’s publications as Partly Free or Not Free. In the United States, the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BiS) updated its licensing policy in October 2020 to restrict the export of items if there is “a risk that the items will be used to violate or abuse human rights” (15 C.F.R. §742.7(b)). In applying this updated policy, officials should consult research by Freedom House and other human rights organizations to determine whether there is a risk that the exported items could enable human rights abuses. Other democracies should implement similar policies. The European Parliament and Council of Minsters reached an agreement in November of 2020 on updated export policies for dual use products and cybersurveillance technologies, which aims to better protect human rights. It should be formally endorsed without delay.
- Increase transparency requirements for foreign state-owned propaganda outlets operating in democratic states. Outlets like Russia’s RT, China’s CGTN and Xinhua, and Venezuela’s teleSUR spread government-approved narratives without clearly disclosing to readers and viewers that they are government financed. Measures to improve transparency could include labeling and reporting requirements that reveal outlets’ ownership structures and other economic ties to repressive state actors, as well as foreign-government spending on the placement of paid advertorials (advertisements designed to resemble an independent, objective news article) in domestic outlets. In circumstances where such transparency has been enhanced in recent years, local media has been demonstrably less willing to run paid advertorials, and social medial users have been less likely to engage with posts from such accounts.
- Strengthen laws that guard against foreign influence over government officials. Legislative proposals requiring greater transparency for officials’ personal finances and campaign donations, more rigorous standards for the disclosure of conflicts of interest, and the establishment of a clear code of conduct for engagement with foreign officials can help insulate governments from foreign attempts to subvert democratic institutions. In the United States, this could include passing legislation to enforce the principles of the constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, closing loopholes in rules on reporting foreign influence by updating lobbying and foreign agent registration rules, and updating financial disclosure requirements for elected officials.
Policy Recommendation for the Private Sector
- Companies should speak out against human rights abuses in countries where they operate, and fiercely defend the rights of employees and other affected stakeholders. The private sector holds tremendous leverage with governments around the world and has a responsibility to exercise this leverage for good. These efforts should include incorporating human rights due diligence into core business programs and across the company’s value chain; speaking out against abuses when they occur by exercising leverage on business partners, government officials, industry associations, and multistakeholder initiatives; defending the rights of employees to condemn and demonstrate against abuses in their private capacity; and enabling remedy for impacted stakeholders when abuses occur that the company is linked to or has contributed to. Companies should establish strong human rights governance, furnished with their own budgets and embedded across the business, that liaise directly with the company’s senior leadership and have board oversight.
Strengthening US Democracy
- Reduce political polarization and extremism by establishing independent redistricting commissions. To maintain equal representation, states are legally and constitutionally required to redraw their congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years, accounting for population changes documented by the decennial census. In most states, the boundaries are set by state legislatures, leaving the process vulnerable to manipulation by the party that holds a legislative majority—a practice commonly known as partisan gerrymandering. The artificial creation of “safe” seats for a given party, where candidates can take extreme positions to win intraparty primary contests without fear of meaningful competition in the general elections, is a key driver of polarization and dysfunction in US politics. It can also create large gaps between a party’s share of the overall popular vote and its share of seats after elections, which leave voters feeling disenfranchised. Partisan gerrymandering is essentially an inversion of democracy, with politicians choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives. Polling has shown that an overwhelming majority of Americans (more than 70 percent) support removing partisanship from the drawing of legislative boundaries. To address this problem, all 50 states should establish independent redistricting commissions, designing them carefully to ensure impartiality, inclusivity, and transparency.
- Bolster confidence in election integrity by instituting nonpartisan observation for elections nationwide. The American public must have confidence that all ballots will be cast fairly and counted accurately according to the law. However, the current patchwork of election regulations does not provide a standard for impartial election observers, with some states leaving the matter entirely up to local election officials. Rules for nonpartisan election observers should be standardized and implemented nationwide. Nonpartisan observers should be employed to monitor the election process from start to finish, with an objective, data-driven approach. This will not only instill greater confidence in US elections, but also improve the process as observers provide feedback to administrators.
- Protect and improve voting access for all. In a democracy, it is essential that citizens are able to exercise their right to vote with relative ease. States can facilitate the act of voting for all citizens by establishing same-day or universal automatic voter registration, allowing early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, extending voting hours and days, and placing special vote centers and traditional polling places in locations that meet the needs of the population. Electoral officials should be barred from changing polling hours and sites without adequate notice to voters. Special attention should be given to addressing racially discriminatory barriers to voting. States that have not already done so should restore voting rights for citizens with past felony convictions, without imposing financial or bureaucratic hurdles; due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, such restrictions disproportionately disenfranchise Black Americans in particular. In addition, federal legislation should establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions with a history of racially discriminatory voting rules must obtain federal clearance before implementing changes to electoral laws.
Countries & Regions
Freedom in the World rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 195 countries and 15 territories, providing both numerical ratings and supporting descriptive texts.
Explore the interactive Freedom in the World 2021 map here, where you can view country scores, Freedom Status, and also view by trend.
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