How Free Is the World?
New studies on the global state of democracy
17 years of democratic decline
Since more than a year, Ukrainians have been defending their freedom against Russian aggression. In Sudan, the power struggle between two generals has dashed hopes of democratic change. And in Turkey, Erdoğan's re-election threatens to further autocratise the country. But the headlines of the day only ever reflect part of what is happening in the world. What is the state of freedom and democracy in the rest of the world? Two new studies take a look at the big picture.
Freedom House published the fiftieth edition of its annual report on the global state of freedom this year. For the seventeenth year in a row, freedom declined worldwide. But according to the Washington-based think tank, we may have reached a turning point: the gap between the number of countries that registered overall improvements in political rights and civil liberties and those that registered overall declines for 2022 is narrower than at any time in the past 17 years. Two countries saw their overall freedom status downgraded this year: Peru slipped from “free” to “partly free” and Burkina Faso moved from “partly free” to “not free”. Two countries, on the other hand, improved from “party free” to “free” following successful competitive elections: Lesotho and Colombia. Despite the continued precarious situation of democracy in many regions of the world, the development of the past fifty years offers some hope: In the first edition of the Freedom House survey from 1973, only 44 of 148 countries were rated “free” – today, the figure stands at 84 of 195.
In this year’s edition of its Democracy Report, the Swedish V-Dem Institute draws a grim conclusion: globally, more than 35 years of advances in democracy have been wiped out. 72 per cent of the world’s population live in autocracies by 2022 – ten years earlier it was only 46 per cent. At 44 per cent, a plurality resides in electoral autocracies, which include large countries like India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, the Philippines and Turkey. Closed autocracies, with a total of 28 per cent of the world’s population, include China, Iran, Myanmar and Vietnam. In contrast, liberal and electoral democracies are home to only 13 and 16 per cent of global citizens, respectively.
The state of democracy is improving in only 14 countries, home to 2 per cent of the world’s population – the fewest number in 50 years. In contrast, a new record of 42 countries with 43 per cent of the world’s population are moving towards autocracy. All regions of the world are affected by autocratisation. But there are several democracies that have been able to bounce back from a period of deterioration. The global trend has also resulted in a shift in the balance of economic power: autocracies now account for 46 per cent of global GDP, compared to 24 per cent in 1992. The report of the Gothenburg-based institute is compiled on the basis of the “Liberal Democracy Index” (LDI) which measures a country’s status using hundreds of different attributes of democracy. The LDI ranking is led by the Scandinavian countries Denmark, Sweden and Norway, followed by Switzerland and Estonia. Germany ranks 12th. The countries at the bottom of the list are North Korea, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Chad and Syria.
Read more in the Freedom House study “Freedom in the World 2023. Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracy” and the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2023, both published in March 2023.
Iraq twenty years on
On 20 March 2003, US President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the military intervention in Iraq. To mark the 20th anniversary of the consequential war, the London-based think tank Chatham House has published a collection of essays. The authors, who have lived and worked in Iraq over the past two decades, recount their personal experiences and examine the complex legacy of the invasion. What decisions were made? What could have been done differently? How can the country’s current situation be understood and improved? Grappling with questions like these, the essays explore what can be learned from the failure to rebuild Iraq as a well-functioning democracy.
Read more in the collection of essays “Iraq 20 Years On: Insider Reflections on the War and Its Aftermath”, published on 20 March 2023.
How can the authoritarian trend be reversed?
Onsets of nonviolent and violent mass campaigns, by decade (1900–2019)
Authoritarianism has been on the rise throughout the world for the past 17 years, while democracy is under threat in many regions. Autocratic regimes like China, Russia, Iran or Venezuela have come more repressive. At the same time, authoritarian tendencies have destabilised or if not completely eroded many democracies. What can be done to reverse this trend? Civil resistance movements have historically been among the most important drivers of democratic change in authoritarian regimes as well as stumbling democracies. In a new study, the Atlantic Council and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict have developed a proposal for approaches and tools to support pro-democratic civil resistance movements.
After an enormous expansion of freedom during the “third wave” of democracy from 1974-2006, the world is currently experiencing a phase of autocratisation. According to the authors of the Washington-based think tanks, the history of the last century shows that pressure from civil society is crucial to counter authoritarianism and support democracy. However, despite an increase in the number of non-violent resistance movements in recent decades, they have been significantly less successful since 2010 – partly because authoritarian regimes have increased their efforts to suppress civil resistance, harnessing new technologies and coordinating among themselves. It is therefore in the interest of democratic states to support pro-democracy forces in civil societies around the world. In their study, the authors develop a strategy that includes new approaches to support civil resistance movements and to constrain repressive authoritarian regimes as well as a new normative framework: the Right to Assist.
Read more in the study “Fostering a Fourth Democratic Wave: A Playbook for Countering the Authoritarian Threat”, published in March 2023.
Persecuted by the Taliban
On the situation of LGBTIQ people and women in Afghanistan
The Taliban’s return to power in August 2021 has had a profound impact on the lives of all Afghans, but especially on women and girls as well as minorities. The militant Islamists have gradually stripped women and girls of their rights and have largely banned them from public life. LGBTIQ Afghans are being persecuted and are facing abuse and death. A recent study by Outright International features testimonies describing the dire reality of queer people in Afghanistan. And in a new study, Amnesty International has examined the situation of women and girls, accusing the regime in Kabul of crimes against humanity.
In January 2022, Outright International and Human Rights Watch published an initial report on the situation of LGBTIQ people in Afghanistan. The organisations interviewed queer Afghans who reported on abuse and threats by members and supporters of the Taliban. In many cases, however, the initial threats came from family members, neighbours or partners. A year later the situation has changed, as Outright International’s new study shows: the Taliban seem to be targeting LGBTIQ people more systematically. Members of the militants are collecting intelligence on activists and community members, hunting them down and subjecting them to violence and humiliation. Based on interviews with 22 queer Afghans, the report presents a series of case studies and analyses the situation in the country as well as the response of the international community.
In a new report, Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) call for the restrictions on women’s and girls’ rights in Afghanistan to be investigated as a possible crime under international law. Combined with the use of imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, the draconian restrictions could amount to the crime against humanity of gender persecution, as the organisations lay out in their analysis. The report also makes recommendations to the international community to counter the Taliban’s system of gender-based persecution.
Read more in the study “A Mountain on My Shoulders: 18 Months of Taliban Persecution of LGBTIQ Afghans”, published in February 2023, and in the report “The Taliban’s War on Women: The Crime Against Humanity of Gender Persecution in Afghanistan”, published in May 2023.
Press Freedom Around the World
New developments in a time of crises
On World Press Freedom Day, 3 May, Reports Without Borders (RSF) published its new report on the state of freedom of the press around the world. The report paints a bleak picture: wars and the rise of authoritarianism are responsible for a global situation marked by instability.
Among the 180 countries surveyed, the state of press freedom is “good” or “satisfactory” in 52. In contrast, the situation is “problematic” in 55 countries, “difficult” in 42 and “very serious” in 31. This means that working conditions for journalists are problematic or worse in about 70 per cent of all countries. Three countries slipped into the worst category this year: Tajikistan, India and Turkey. According to RSF, the biggest problems for include difficult security environments – whether in war zones like Ukraine and Yemen or due to the risk of imprisonment as in China, Myanmar and Iran – as well as organised disinformation by political actors.
The top spots in this year’s RSF ranking are occupied by Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Germany dropped five places to rank 21, compared to last year. One of the reasons is cited is the growing violence against journalists, which is at its highest level since 2015. 103 physical attacks were documented last year, 87 of which involved conspiracy ideology, antisemitism and right-wing extremism. At the bottom of the list, North Korea ranked last, once again, followed by China, the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, and Vietnam, Iran and Turkmenistan.
Democracy on the Brink
How the fight against gangs threatens democracy in Central America
For more than a year, President Nayib Bukele has ruled El Salvador with emergency powers. He has justified the state of emergency in the country in Central America with the fight against criminal gangs. Indeed, the region has some of the highest murder rates in the world, mainly due to gang violence. But critics accuse Bukele, who once called himself the “coolest dictator in the world”, of disregarding fundamental rights and transforming the country into an autocracy. According to V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Index, El Salvador is one of the countries that have seen the worst deterioration in recent years, classifying the country as an electoral autocracy since 2022. A new study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies provides an overview of anti-crime strategies in El Salvador and its neighbouring countries and examines their impact.
Images of overcrowded prisons have become emblematic of Bukele’s policy of “mano dura” (zero tolerance). Tens of thousands have been arrested, often merely on the basis of being suspected or accused of being a gang member. The arrest of innocents as well as mistreatment and death of inmates are taken as a matter of course, according to the Washington think tank. Yet despite his authoritarian policies, the president enjoys the support of a broad majority of the population. This is mainly due to the fact that many citizens’ subjective perception of security has improved as a result of a decline in extortion and street violence, the authors claim. But without a sustainable strategy that includes not only incarceration but rehabilitation and economic revitalisation, the cycle of organised violence will not be stopped and the remnants of democracy will erode further. It is therefore all the more problematic that Honduras and other countries in the region have begun to adopt similar strategies to deal with gang violence.
Read more in the study “Democracy Dies Under Mano Dura: Anti-Crime Strategies in the Northern Triangle”, published on 12 April 2023.
Resistance in Myanmar
How young people are fighting for a democratic future
The military coup in Myanmar on 1 February 2021 put an abrupt end to its citizens’ hopes for a democratic future. The democratically elected head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, was sentenced to more than 30 years in prison and mass protests broke out in many cities and regions. The military junta’s brutal crackdown on the “Spring Revolution” led thousands to join the armed resistance. Since then, the regime has been waging a bloody campaign against the opposition, yet it has lost control over large parts of the country. In several recent studies, the International Crisis Group examines the developments in Myanmar’s civil society since the coup two years ago.
In the study “Breaking Gender and Age Barries amid Myanmar’s Spring Revolution”, the Brussels-based think tank takes a look at the role that young people, and young women in particular, play in the resistance against Myanmar’s military regime. With the exception of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s politics have been dominated by men of older generations and political priorities have been skewed against women and young people. The fact that the younger generation and women are playing an important role in Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, thus challenging traditional societal norms, could lead to long-term change in the country’s politics and society, beyond the resistance.
The study “A Silent Sangha? Buddhist Monks in Post-Coup Myanmar” takes a look at the role Buddhist monks and nuns have played in recent years. Unlike in previous political crises, they have largely kept a low profile since the coup, as monastic communities are divided and the resistance pursues a secular agenda that includes violent action. The absence of the Sangha has allowed the younger generation to take a leadership role in the resistance against the military regime – an encouraging development for civil society, but one that, according to the International Crisis Group, could provoke a backlash.
Finally, the study “A Road to Nowhere: The Myanmar Regime’s Stage-Managed Elections” examines the announcement of elections by the military junta and the possible developments they might entail. The think tank writes that it is likely that the elections will lead to an escalation of violence and will be used by the regime as a pretext to intensify the fight against the opposition.
Read more in the studies “Breaking Gender and Age Barriers amid Myanmar’s Spring Revolution”, “A Silent Sangha? Buddhist Monks in Post-Coup Myanmar” and “A Road to Nowhere: The Myanmar Regime’s Stage-Managed Elections”, published in February and March 2023.