Global democracy has receded under pressure from authoritarian forces over the past 17 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.
Political will is essential to the protection and expansion of freedom. The powerful and unified response to Moscow’s unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine demonstrated how rapidly democracies can take action—within a matter of days—when there is political will to do so. That same political will is needed globally to push back on clear authoritarian threats to democracy and freedom around the world.
Autocrats persist in flouting laws and norms in part because they do not believe democracies are serious about upholding them. For decades, Freedom House and others have recommended that democratic governments work to defend fundamental freedoms, support and create space for civil society, protect rights defenders at risk, and hold authoritarian regimes accountable for abuses. And for decades, democratic governments have failed to consistently muster the political will to implement these recommendations in a coordinated, sufficiently scaled, sustainable manner, with political leaders too willing to turn a blind eye to rights violations for the sake of perceived short-term gains in prosperity or security.
But the protection of rights and democratic principles is an economic and security imperative. Economic prosperity and a more secure global community require a global order based on the rule of law, anticorruption safeguards, and a willingness to abide by international security norms; only democracies can maintain such an order. Democratic leaders who ignore this fact imperil not just global freedom, but also security and economic growth.
In 2023, as the deterioration of political rights and civil liberties slows and the limits of authoritarian power become clearer, democracies should prioritize the following actions to help reverse the damage caused by the 17-year democratic recession.
- Help Ukraine win.
- Stop enabling authoritarians.
- Be clear and unapologetic about the virtues of democracy and tireless in efforts to uphold and defend it.
- Protect press freedom and personal expression.
- Dramatically ramp up support for human rights defenders and for countries and regions at critical junctures.
Help Ukraine win. Achieving victory in Ukraine, on Ukraine’s terms, is an imperative not just for the people of Ukraine or for Europe, but for the world. Beyond its devastating physical destruction and emotional toll, the war is also a direct attack on Ukraine’s domestic efforts to build a robust democracy. Anything less than victory in Ukraine will all but guarantee further Russian aggression in the region, could discourage or undermine democratization efforts in neighboring countries for fear of escalatory coercive measures by the Kremlin and additional malign interference, and could encourage other authoritarian rulers to undertake more brazen efforts to undermine democracy and human rights.
Democratic governments must remain unwavering in their support for Ukraine and its people, including by providing weapons and technical and security assistance to help ensure victory on the battlefield. They must continue to provide financial resources to the government of Ukraine, with appropriate oversight, to help it withstand the considerable economic and social shocks that the full-scale invasion has caused. Such funding is critical for keeping basic government services operational, and for responding to humanitarian need.
Democratic countries must also continue to support individuals engaged in the vital wartime work of monitoring and reporting on human rights violations and collecting evidence of war crimes. Russian authorities and any other individuals or entities that are materially supporting this illegal invasion must be held accountable through sanctions, asset freezes or seizures that support Ukrainian reconstruction, and justice in a court of law for the war crimes that have been committed.
Finally, democracies must be prepared to support Ukraine as it rebuilds and continues to strengthen its democratic institutions and norms. Close partnership with Ukrainian civil society will be essential in this process.
Stop enabling authoritarians. Too often, democracies remain silent about authoritarian behavior because they have security or economic interests with the government in question. They frequently take an “all or nothing” approach to bilateral engagement—either cutting off the relationship entirely, out of concern for the authoritarian’s abusive practices, or engaging fully and muting any criticism of human rights violations. In a globalized world in which there are multiple overlapping interests, democracies must find ways to pursue economic and security goals while simultaneously advancing democracy and freedom agendas through their bilateral engagements. Prioritizing the economic and security matters without also exerting pressure on regimes for their undemocratic behavior only emboldens autocratic leaders, contributing to the continuation of their rule and the instability it produces.
Democracies must stop legitimizing dictators. It is often necessary for democratic leaders to engage with undemocratic counterparts while conducting diplomacy; they should not, however, provide them with the same degree of symbolic recognition that freely elected officials receive. Democratic leaders should refrain from congratulating “winners” of rigged elections and should work with partners and allies to swiftly denounce coups or the violation of legally established term limits, restricting foreign assistance as appropriate. Significant international sporting and cultural events should not be held in countries governed by authoritarian regimes.
Democracies must address corruption and kleptocracy head on by closing the many financial loopholes that allow authoritarian rulers to hide or launder stolen assets in democratic nations. Despots rely on their cash stores to pay off the cronies who help keep them in power, and they are able to deploy massive financial resources to crush democratic opposition.
Democracies should significantly reduce their reliance on natural resources or manufactured goods from authoritarian regimes. Companies should adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and exercise caution when doing business in authoritarian states, conducting periodic assessments to fully understand how their products and actions might affect human rights. Members of the public should exert pressure on businesses by refusing to purchase goods from those that cannot demonstrate that their practices ensure responsible supply chains.
When rights abuses or corrupt activity occur, democracies should coordinate to impose meaningful penalties, including targeted sanctions, suspension of nonhumanitarian economic support, and ostracization on the international stage. Sanctions should also be imposed on individuals or entities that knowingly help authoritarians evade sanctions. Particularly in situations where those in power are violating human rights with impunity, such as in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or where large-scale atrocities are occurring, as in China, democracies should work together to impose legal and financial consequences.
At international forums, democracies should focus on deepening solidarity between Free and Partly Free countries, working together to censure autocrats, promote the election of democratic nations to positions of power, and give greater scrutiny to member-state compliance with charters and treaties.
Be clear and unapologetic about the virtues of democracy and tireless in efforts to uphold and defend it. Leaders should communicate frequently with the public about why and how democracy outperforms more autocratic systems, citing its reliance on the will and consent of the governed, deliberation and fair competition, mechanisms for accountability and self-correction, and the inclusion of all people regardless of the circumstances of their birth or background. Though no democracy is perfect, democracies are safer and more stable because when one institution falls short of democratic standards, the others are used as tools to repair and strengthen the system.
Democracies, both Free and Partly Free, must address backsliding at home, working to reduce barriers to democratic participation, such as social exclusion and poverty, and addressing polarization and extremism. The protection of free and fair elections, adherence to term limits by election officials, and respect for laws and institutions are essential to a strong democracy.
Democracies should make the protection of freedom and democratic governance a fundamental component of all international policy—including foreign, security, and economic policy—and of every diplomatic engagement. Human rights concerns should be raised in meetings at all levels. Democratic leaders should routinely meet with exiled democracy activists and rights defenders from authoritarian states before traveling to those countries, and with in-country activists while traveling, if they can do so without endangering their interlocutors. Democracies should also guard against foreign influence and interference and work together to build resilience against authoritarian economic coercion.
Democracies should collaborate to incentivize democratic progress. This effort must include a wide range of democracies, not just those in North America, Europe, and East Asia, and must incorporate solutions driven by democratic governments all over the world. Democracies should use development finance and country compacts to boost inclusive growth, encourage democratic governance, and prevent debt traps. They should focus on negotiating narrow, high-impact economic agreements that set high standards for governance and rights protection.
Protect press freedom and personal expression. Among the many rights under attack globally over the last 17 years, Freedom House data show that freedom of expression, both for the media and for individuals, has declined more than any other civil liberty, and infringement on free expression is one of biggest drivers of global democratic 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, and should condemn attacks against journalists and media outlets. They should work to address disinformation and misinformation and support technologies that allow for expanded transmission of fact-based reporting and information into countries where authoritarian regimes are controlling or limiting the internet. 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 and bringing those who threaten or attack them to justice. Laws should protect the free flow of information, grant journalists access to elected officials, allow the public to use 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.
Like media freedom, the freedom of personal expression faces growing threats, both online and off. The expression of individual identities, religious views, and political opinions is a core component of being human. Democracies must fiercely guard this right at home and vigorously work to defend it abroad, as the climate of fear created by harsh repression of personal expression helps dictators remain in power. To protect expression online, foreign assistance for internet freedom should prioritize the provision of technologies that help individuals in closed environments circumvent government censorship, protect themselves against surveillance, and overcome restrictions on connectivity. Assistance should also include digital security and digital activism trainings for human rights defenders, and programs that seek to strengthen judicial independence and enhance technical literacy among judges and others within the legal system. Governments should carefully scrutinize the export of technologies and products that could be used to violate human rights, placing strict limits on the sale of those that enable monitoring, surveillance, interception, or collection of personal information and communications.
Democracies should reform domestic surveillance practices so that they adhere to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance; strictly regulate the use of surveillance tools; protect robust encryption, which is vital for the security of activists, journalists, and ordinary people around the world; and strengthen data-privacy protections.
Dramatically ramp up support for human rights defenders and for countries and regions at critical junctures. While governments, movements, and activists working for democratic progress must lead the change in their own countries, the odds may be stacked against them without significant support from foreign governments and organizations that are committed to the expansion of democracy and human rights. If democracy assistance is to be effective, it must be provided at a sufficient scale and in a sustained manner. Those working on the front lines to uphold and protect fundamental freedoms for their fellow citizens are the true agents of positive change in any country. But courageous action of the sort the world has witnessed in Iran, where protesters are boldly defying a brutal regime, warrants a clear demonstration of international solidarity.
Democratic governments should help human rights defenders and civil society groups remain in their countries of origin whenever possible. Technical assistance and training on issues like coalition and constituency building, advocacy, organizational development, and physical and digital security are particularly helpful, as is flexible funding that affords groups the agility to respond to needs as they arise. Government agencies that provide foreign assistance should seek to create opportunities for groups that could play an important role in a future civic mobilization to connect with national, regional, and international prodemocracy organizations—and with one another—to share strategies, tools, and approaches.
When rights defenders come under threat, democracies should help provide medical, legal, and psychosocial support as needed. When these defenders are imprisoned, democratic governments, international civil society groups, and members of the public should condemn their detention, seek their immediate and unconditional release, and call for the dropping of all charges. Should it become necessary for rights defenders to relocate, temporary internal relocation is often most desirable. When a situation becomes so dangerous that defenders and activists need to be evacuated from their country, democratic governments should be prepared to provide temporary visas or long-term residency, and support for exiled activists to resume their lives and vital work. Activists and rights defenders from authoritarian states that have been sanctioned also sometimes experience banking obstacles or other challenges related to private-sector risk aversion. Democratic governments should work with the private sector to minimize such inadvertent impacts.
Democracies must remain vigilant to combat transnational repression. Between 2014 and 2021, Freedom House found that authorities in at least 36 origin countries had reached beyond their own borders to intimidate, harass, and even kidnap or murder exiled dissidents and members of diaspora communities across 84 countries. Democratic governments should guard against the commission of transnational repression on their soil by ensuring that laws are updated as needed, providing officials with training to recognize and respond to transnational repression, reaching out to diaspora groups that may be targeted, and prosecuting or imposing sanctions on perpetrators.
In addition, democracy assistance should be focused on countries and regions facing critical junctures. Freedom House research has shown that once a country tips into the Partly Free or Not Free categories, it often struggles to recover. This makes the provision of diplomatic, technical, and financial support especially important for countries that have seen promising democratic development or are at risk of democratic deterioration. These include Kenya and Zambia, which have experienced recent improvements; Armenia, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador, where democracy is under pressure; and Nigeria, Turkey, India, and Thailand, which face important upcoming elections, among others. Democracies should help democratically inclined leaders and local civil society organizations in these countries deliver tangible expansions of political rights and civil liberties.
Democratic governments should also work with civil society to prepare for change. No authoritarian regime is permanent; autocracies can seem durable until they suddenly collapse. Only 12 countries that exist today have always been rated Not Free in Freedom in the World. And even within those countries—including Cuba and China—protests against governance problems like corruption, societal restrictions, and economic mismanagement can draw large numbers and broad support. Democratic governments should provide vocal, public endorsements of grassroots prodemocracy movements and respond to any violent crackdown by authorities with targeted sanctions, reduced or conditioned foreign assistance if the country had been receiving any, and public condemnation. Democracies must be prepared for political upheaval in Not Free countries and draw up serious contingency plans for responding to political change, both negative and positive, including the emergence of widespread popular movements for a more open society. More broadly, policy strategies for Not Free countries should not rely on the assumption that the current systems and conditions will persist indefinitely.
Detailed policy recommendations can be found here:
Country Scores & Narratives
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. Visit our Countries in Detail page to view all Freedom in the World 2023 scores and read individual country narratives.
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Explore the interactive Freedom in the World 2023 map here, where you can see country scores, Freedom Status, and trends.