Global democracy has receded under pressure from authoritarian forces over the past 16 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
- Turn the initial momentum of the Summit for Democracy into concrete multilateral action to strengthen democracy and confront expanding authoritarianism. Reinvigorating democracy and achieving a global order grounded in fundamental rights will require a united front among democratic nations. Coordinated multilateral action by democracies is particularly important as authoritarian leaders extend alternative sources of international support and investment, and resort to bullying tactics like imposing tariffs in retaliation for criticism of human rights abuses. In December 2021, the Summit for Democracy focused the world’s attention on the importance of, and challenges to, the promise of democracy. But if the summit is to be a true success, participating nations will need to move beyond rhetoric and undertake sustained, multilateral initiatives to strengthen democracy, in part by rethinking traditional approaches and exchanging best practices to creatively address modern challenges and opportunities.
- Prioritize democracy-strengthening programs in foreign assistance and provide enhanced support when countries and territories face critical junctures. Where political institutions are weakened and governments struggle to respond to citizens’ needs, efforts to support civil society are at a greater risk of failure. When disbursing aid, democracies should select democracy support priorities with an emphasis on long-term, locally driven, and evidence-based solutions, since this type of effort has proven effective. 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 physical and digital security. Connecting activists across borders so that they can share strategies, tools, and approaches should also be prioritized. It is critical to support initiatives that help ensure the legitimacy of elections, including monitoring missions, voter registration and education drives, and media training. Aid should be increased for countries and territories at critical junctures. These include countries that have experienced recent expansions in freedom, such as Ecuador and Montenegro, as well as places where democratic progress is threatened, such as Tunisia, or where democracy is under considerable pressure, as in Benin. Funding should help democratically inclined leaders and local civil society organizations deliver tangible expansions of political rights and civil liberties.
- Support civil society and grassroots movements calling for democracy. Peaceful protest movements calling for reform can drive long-term democratic change, but they face more daunting 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 democracy and human rights defenders and civic activists who come under threat or attack for their work or who are in immediate danger. The United States Agency for International Development’s new “Powered for the People” initiative was established to “empower citizen movements—especially peaceful mass movements striving for democratic objectives.” If successful, this initiative could serve as one model that other democracies could follow.
- Support free and independent media, and protect access to information. Providing the public with access to quality, on-the-ground reporting and fact-based information about current events is one of the best ways to combat authoritarian power. But independent media are increasingly at risk from hostile regimes as well as from a lack of sufficient, sustained funding. As a result, citizens are losing independent sources of information that are critical for political engagement and the exercise of basic rights. To address this decline, democracies should scale up efforts to support independent media—including public-interest journalism and exile media—through financial assistance and innovative financing models, technical support, skills training, and mentoring. They should also expand protections for journalists who face physical attacks and harassment, including by supporting the creation of emergency visas for those at risk. Initiatives announced at the Summit for Democracy offer promising opportunities in this area. Laws in threatened countries should protect the free flow of information, grant journalists access to elected officials, allow the public to place freedom of information requests, and guard against state monopolization of media outlets. Governments and internet service providers should make every effort to support and maintain reliable access to the internet.
- In the United States, the proposed bipartisan Global Press Freedom Act (S.204) 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. To ensure the continued editorial independence of the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM), which operates the United States’ five publicly funded foreign-service media organizations, Congress should enact legislative changes recommended by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to clarify and strengthen the “firewall rule,” which protects against political interference in news reporting.
- In the European Union (EU), the adoption of the Media Freedom Act is an opportunity to address political influence on the media, as well as foreign interference and challenges to media pluralism. European governments should work to combat the methods of media capture that were pioneered in Hungary and are starting to take root in neighboring countries. The European Commission’s rule-of-law reports should include an assessment of independence at state-owned media in each member state to enable early detection of media capture efforts; these public outlets are often the first to be co-opted when an illiberal government comes to power. The EU should promote an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) directive that would give journalists and media groups the ability to request rapid dismissal of these types of lawsuits in member states, and provide financial support to media groups facing them.
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. Consideration should be given not just to business operation and supply-chain issues, but also to the impacts of sponsorships and advertisements, such as sponsorships of sporting events hosted by regimes known to engage in human rights abuses, like those in Azerbaijan, China, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, or advertisements on state-run television channels in repressive countries like Belarus.
- 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
- Guard against and combat transnational repression. As Freedom House has documented, human rights activists, dissidents, and their families face the threat of transnational repression—tactics of violence and intimidation used by authoritarians to silence dissent among exiles and diasporas around the world. An estimated 3.5 million people are at risk of physical or digital transnational repression. Even individuals living in the relative safety of democratic countries may become victims of surveillance, harassment, intimidation, and assault instigated by authoritarian regimes in their countries of origin. Democratic governments should work together to constrain the ability of such states to commit acts of transnational repression, increase accountability by imposing multilateral sanctions on perpetrators, and restrict security assistance for states that engage in these practices. Officials who are likely to come into contact with perpetrators or victims of transnational repression should be trained to recognize and address it. Democracies should ensure that international organizations such as Interpol and other established channels of cooperation and information sharing are not being misused by authoritarians to target political opponents and activists abroad. Special scrutiny should be given to extradition requests issued by states that are known to engage in human rights abuses or transnational repression. Democracies should update and modernize their laws to close loopholes and ensure that they have the tools necessary to address the modern threat of transnational repression. Detailed recommendations are available here.
- 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 they remain a powerful mechanism for deterring harmful behavior. Democracies should devise comprehensive strategies for deploying targeted sanctions in concert with their full suite of foreign policy tools in order to ensure accountability for international human rights abuses and acts of corruption. When possible, democracies should coordinate their efforts and jointly impose sanctions on perpetrators for maximum impact, as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the EU 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 that 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 should also pass the REVEAL Act (S.2392/H.R.4557), which would allow the US government to make public the names of individuals whose visas are banned under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Current law requires that names of those blocked under the INA be kept private. 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 who are eligible for sanctions. Unfortunately, the number of potential sanctions cases to be vetted by the US government far exceeds current capacity. Congress has provided 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. Corruption—and its weaponization by antidemocratic forces—harms effective governance, undermines economic growth, weakens the rule of law, and corrodes public trust. This urgent threat to democracy has rightly received intensified international attention. In 2021, the Biden administration named the fight against corruption as a core US national security interest and featured it as a key theme of the Summit for Democracy; the United Nations launched a new anticorruption initiative called the Global Operational Network of Anti-Corruption Law Enforcement Authorities; and the US Congress, European Parliament, and British Parliament teamed up to launch the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy. This promising international momentum should be focused on meaningful, concrete action that constrains the ability of corrupt individuals to evade sanctions and law enforcement by hiding stolen assets. The Group of 20, which oversees the work of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), should charge the FATF with developing a new set of expert-created anticorruption standards, rigorously assessing whether participating states have adopted the recommended standards, and, importantly, determining whether they are being effectively implemented. In the United States, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network should identify and eliminate any loopholes in the implementation of the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA). The CTA, which became law in 2020, makes it more difficult for corrupt actors to hide stolen funds behind anonymous shell corporations. Congress should also pass the CROOK Act (S.158/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/H.R.4322), 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, Nicaragua, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Uganda, Cameroon, and elsewhere—have sought to evade term limits and extend their hold on power. US law 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 law 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 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 technologies and other products that could be used to violate human rights. A booming commercial market for surveillance and censorship technologies has given governments more capacity than ever before to flout the rule of law, monitor private communications at their discretion, and restrict access to essential resources. 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 that are rated as Partly Free or Not Free by any of Freedom House’s publications. The United States, Australia, Denmark, and Norway, supported by Canada, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, recently announced the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative, intended to “help stem the tide of authoritarian government misuse of technology and promote a positive vision for technologies anchored by democratic values.” The United States also recently updated its licensing policy to restrict the export of items if there is “a risk that the items will be used to violate or abuse human rights,” and the EU tightened export controls for dual-use products and cybersurveillance technologies. When implementing these new initiatives and policies, government 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.
- Address declines in internet freedom and protect a free and open internet. Freedom House has documented 11 consecutive years of decline in internet freedom. Reversing the antidemocratic transformation of today’s internet will require a focused, coordinated effort by governments, civil society, and technology companies. To shore up internet freedom, governments should reform domestic surveillance practices so that they adhere to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance and protect robust encryption. Governments should enact strong data privacy laws that comprehensively safeguard people’s information while preventing greater internet fragmentation and disproportionate restrictions on cross-border data flows. Democracies should also incorporate internet freedom priorities into democracy, rights, and governance assistance programs, including by investing in network-building among civil society actors and increasing technological investment in third countries that are designed to promote an open, interoperable, and secure internet. Governments should reject internet shutdowns and refrain from banning social media and messaging platforms, particularly during elections, protests, and periods of unrest. Authorities can address legitimate human rights or other risks posed by social media and messaging platforms through existing, democratic mechanisms—including regulatory action, security audits, parliamentary scrutiny, and legislation passed in consultation with civil society and affected stakeholders—rather than resorting to national security orders and other emergency measures. Laws seeking to regulate online content should be grounded in human rights principles and ensure transparency and democratic oversight. Detailed recommendations on protecting internet freedom domestically are available here.
Policy Recommendations 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 to protect human rights. 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 exerting influence 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 remedies for stakeholders who are affected by abuses to which the company is linked or has contributed. Companies should establish strong human rights governance mechanisms, furnished with their own budgets and embedded across the business, that liaise directly with the company’s senior leadership and are subject to board oversight.
- Resist government orders to shut down internet connectivity, ban digital services, or hand over user data without proper democratic safeguards. Service providers should use all available legal channels to challenge such requests from state agencies, whether they are official or informal. If companies cannot resist censorship demands in full, they should ensure that any restrictions or disruptions are as limited as possible in duration, geographic scope, and type of content affected. Companies should also thoroughly document government demands internally and take steps to notify users as to why connectivity or content may be restricted or personal data may be provided to state officials, especially in countries where government actions lack transparency, independent oversight, and other democratic safeguards.
Strengthening Democracy at Home
- Work at the local level to strengthen democracy. State and local government bodies are often the most direct connection people have to democratic governance. These institutions’ ability or inability to serve public needs will impact people’s views on the merits of democracy as a form of governance. As backsliding continues in once-established democracies, greater attention should be given to strengthening democracy at the state, provincial, territorial, and local levels. State and local governments have an especially important role to play in ensuring strong transparency, ethics, and anticorruption controls and the protection of fundamental freedoms, and they are often best placed to address barriers to democratic participation such as social exclusion and poverty. Domestically focused civil society organizations and groups focused on international democracy should work together to develop ideas for strengthening local governance in democracies, in part by exchanging best practices and applying lessons learned from their respective areas of work. Democratic governments should take up these ideas and consult with domestically focused civil society groups to identify and address institutional deficiencies with honesty and clarity.
- Cultivate public support for democratic principles by investing in civic education. Fostering a strong public understanding of democratic principles, especially among young people, empowers citizens to defend freedom domestically and support foreign policies that protect democratic rights and values abroad. As democracies struggle, 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
- Protect free and fair elections. Free and fair elections are a cornerstone of any democracy, and independent and transparent electoral processes are necessary to foster a competitive electoral environment and citizens’ trust in election integrity. It is essential that citizens be able to exercise their right to vote with relative ease. Special attention should be given to addressing discriminatory barriers to voting. In some countries members of certain racial or ethnic groups have difficulty obtaining the documentation they need to vote or face other undue obstacles to voting. Governments, in consultation with civil society, should identify and remedy barriers to access. In the United States, people of color have faced a long history of barriers to voting. New laws on election security in the United States should not impose financial, logistical, or bureaucratic burdens that effectively perpetuate or exacerbate these barriers, and 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. Globally, democratic governments, civil society, and technology companies should work together to ensure that elections are protected from cyberattacks and politicized efforts to undermine or overturn elections. Paper ballots, which ensure that votes have a verifiable paper trail, and independent audits with detailed audit trails, which ensure results are accurate, should be used, and independent election monitors should be present. Technology companies and media outlets should take extra precautions not to exacerbate misinformation that undermines credible electoral systems. Ahead of significant elections and referendums in countries around the world, social media companies and other content providers should create specialized teams that anticipate digital interference, engage with in-country civil society organizations that can provide expertise on the political and cultural contexts in which companies work, and devise strategies to prevent interference tactics and mitigate their effects. Companies should proactively communicate about new policies they put in place ahead of elections and ensure transparency and consistency in their application.
- Improve laws that guard against improper influence over government officials. Laws that guard against corruption and require transparency regarding officials’ personal finances and campaign donations, rigorous standards for the disclosure of conflicts of interest, and the establishment of a clear code of conduct for engagement with foreign officials can all help insulate democratic governments from attempts to subvert them. In the United States, helpful improvements could include the adoption of legislation to enforce the principles of the constitution’s foreign and domestic emoluments clauses, the closure of loopholes in existing rules on lobbying and foreign-agent registration, and updates to financial disclosure requirements for elected officials.