A crowd of people protesting for peace

Can the Summit for Democracy deliver?

The US-led Summit for Democracy, taking place on the 9-10 December 2021, promises to kick off a year of action to reduce corruption, defend against authoritarianism and protect human rights that will end in an in-person summit in December 2022.

The Prime Minister and other world leaders committed to tackling these challenges and to strengthening open societies globally at the G7 earlier this year. The Summit for Democracies is an opportunity for states to put these words into action, with each participating country required to make new international and domestic commitments.

The summit must deliver a step change for people whose lives are already affected by restrictions on their basic freedoms. Scant progress has been made to date, while democratic institutions and human rights are under renewed pressure in many countries around the world, including established democracies like the UK.

In September 2021, the UK was added to the Civicus Watchlist; a sign of the serious concern that exists internationally about the situation regarding democracy and civic freedoms in the UK. There is a risk the UK will not be taken seriously at the Summit for Democracy unless it sets out practical steps to address domestic challenges, such as the recent crackdown on protest rights.

How can the Prime Minister and other world leaders ensure that the Summit for Democracy delivers? We asked three experts to share their views.

Susannah Fitzgerald – UK Anti-Corruption Coalition

Although it often operates in the shadows, corruption is not a victimless crime. Its inclusion as a pillar at the Summit for Democracy is a welcome development. It gives leaders and civil society organisations a chance to highlight how corruption weakens democracy, distorts development, and even costs lives by undermining essential services or driving conflict and instability.

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The UK Anti-Corruption Coalition has called on the UK government to bring forward robust and ambitious commitments to tackle corruption at the Summit for Democracy. These should include measures to address the UK’s considerable role in facilitating global corruption, such as legislation to tackle the flow of stolen wealth into the UK economy and reinvigorating efforts to recover and return assets to the communities they were taken from. The UK should also show leadership on newer areas of corruption risk, such as the corruption that happens when extracting critical minerals, which could undermine global efforts to transition away from fossil fuels.

The UK must also recognise its own shortcomings at this year’s summit kick-off event. The past year has seen a litany of scandals in the UK, covering pandemic procurement, lobbying, and the misconduct of those in power, with experts warning of signs of state capture. While the Prime Minister was forced to deny that the UK is a corrupt country at COP26, the summit now offers a well-timed opportunity for him to prove it. The UK government should fix our flawed procurement system, put in place long overdue safeguards against corruption in public life, and show top-level commitment through a new Anti-Corruption Strategy.

For the Summit of Democracy to be taken seriously, countries like the UK must be honest about the problems they face and show real ambition in tackling them. Failing to do so will only leave the door open to charges of hypocrisy, further damage public trust at home, and ultimately make it harder to hold corrupt, abusive, and authoritarian regimes to account.

Aarti Narsee – CIVICUS

Civil society participation is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. Regression in civic freedoms goes hand in hand with democratic decline. This must be recognised and prioritised by leaders during the Summit for Democracy.

Deterioration is being witnessed globally, as documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks and rates civic freedoms. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the decline, with some governments using the pandemic as a pretext to further restrict fundamental rights. Around the world, political leaders are rolling back democracy by restricting civil society, tightening media control and stoking polarisation through disinformation campaigns. The aim is to dismantle independent institutions and systems of oversight.

It isn’t only states long ruled by authoritarians that are attacking democracy. Powerful states long considered established democracies are following suit. Civic freedoms are being eroded in Brazil as President Jair Bolsonaro undermines the electoral system and judicial independence. In India, under Narendra Modi’s leadership there has been increased use of draconian anti-terror legislation to detain scores of human rights defenders (HRDs), the targeting of journalists and increased restrictions on Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) accessing funding. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is intensifying authoritarianism with arbitrary arrests and detention of activists on fabricated charges.

In Africa, conflict, military coups and creeping authoritarianism are harming civic freedoms, including in the Sahel region, Mali and Kenya. Alarming trends are at play in Europe too. Hungary and Poland are consistently eroding civic freedoms, judicial independence and the rule of law. France has stepped up restrictive legislation targeting fundamental rights. The UK government is attacking the right to peaceful assembly through restrictive legislation.

These developments spill over borders as authoritarian leaders replicate these restrictions and justify their actions by pointing to those in established democracies like the UK.

World leaders should invest in open and transparent civic participation processes and mechanisms, support and protect grassroots mobilisation and tackle worsening inequalities to ensure that excluded groups are not left out of democratic processes. The protection of HRDs, civil society and journalists should be prioritised by commitments to release HRDs who are imprisoned, dropping legal actions and foreign agent designations against CSOs and committing to establishing a civil society envoy at the United Nations. Civic freedoms must be protected to promote healthy democracies. The UK and other established democracies need to step up as leaders in this regard.

Karla McLaren – Amnesty International UK

Because human rights are for everyone and states have a responsibility to respect them, human rights defenders (HRDs) are the thorns in the sides of autocratic governments and leaders. It is no wonder that those intent on amassing power often work hard to silence the individuals and organisations working to hold them to account.

HRDs are both the canaries in the mine – with attacks against them foretelling increasingly repressive and regressive regimes – whilst also being the most important partners for exposing those regimes, promoting respect for human rights and initiating social change.

States that are committed to resisting authoritarianism and promoting the international rules-based system should work with and support HRDs as a priority. But rhetorical commitments are not enough.

The UK, for example, has committed to working with HRDs as a priority action of its ‘force for good agenda’. But how this translates into action is yet to be seen. The Summit provides an opportunity to put much-needed meat on the bones of this commitment. To both oppose the global trend towards repression of HRDs and improve support in country to HRDs who need it – particularly those most marginalised such as women, LGBTI and land rights defenders – a strategic approach is crucial and should be a tangible outcome of the UK’s participation of the summit.

The UK’s warm words internationally are undermined by proposed restrictions to human rights at home, particularly in relation to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which would severely restrict the rights to protest – and the UK government’s plan to ‘overhaul’ the UK’s flagship human rights protection, the Human Rights Act.

The UK’s proposed restrictions to protest have been criticised by the UN and Council of Europe; while the latest plans to change the Human Rights Act suggest withdrawing the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which could lead to an unravelling of human rights protections across Europe. Hardly the calling cards of a State committed to promoting human rights and open societies. Both attempts to undermine our human rights must be scrapped if the UK is to have any legitimacy at the Summit for Democracy.


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