Covid exposing ‘weaknesses of democratic leaders,’ HRW says

Leaders must do more to protect democratic values, the report said

Thomas Kingsley
Thursday 13 January 2022 09:30
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<p>File photo: Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Russia, 28 December 2021 </p>

File photo: Police officers detain a demonstrator as people gather in front of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, in Moscow, Russia, 28 December 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of democratic leaders, a landmark report has said.

The annual report by NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said while democratic leaders developed effective vaccines at speed, they failed to tackle issues of social inequality and poverty that were exacerbated during the pandemic.

Additionally, the report, led by HRW executive director, Kenneth Roy, said, leaders had to do more to protect their democratic values.

“In country after country, large numbers of people have taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, which shows the appeal of democracy remains strong,” Roth said. “But elected leaders need to do a better job of addressing major challenges to show that democratic government delivers on its promised dividends.”

This year’s Human Rights Watch World Report, its 32nd edition, describes the human rights situation in nearly all of the approximately 100 countries where the group works.

Protesters chained themselves to the fence surrounding the headquarters of Poland's Border Guards and put barbed wire on top of the fence to protest the government's refusal to let in a group of illegal migrants, in Warsaw

Mr Roy challenged the slowness of democratic leaders in addressing often debated issues such as the spread of disinformation online, hate speech on social media platforms and rising invasion of privacy. He also called on democratic leaders to do more than spotlight the inevitable shortcomings of autocratic rule.

The report claimed that the government of former German Chancellor Angel Merkel orchestrated global condemnation of the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, but while holding the EU presidency, Germany helped to promote an EU investment deal with China despite Beijing’s use of ethnic Uyghur forced labor.

Additionally, in the face of an autocratic trend in Central America, Biden mainly prioritized efforts to curtail migration rather than autocracy.

“Promoting democracy means standing up for democratic institutions such as independent courts, free media, robust parliaments, and vibrant civil societies even when that brings unwelcome scrutiny or challenges to executive policies,” Mr Roth said. “And it demands elevating public discourse rather than stoking our worst sentiments, acting on democratic principles rather than merely voicing them, and unifying us before looming threats rather than dividing us in the quest for another do-nothing term in office.”

Conversely, the report also took aim at the world’s autocrats, pointing to the growing resistance against them with political parties finding new ways to topple repressive politicians. A range of opposition political parties had begun to compromise on policy differences to build alliances with a common interest of removing corrupt leaders.

In the Czech Republic, an unlikely coalition defeated Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. In Israel, an even unlikelier coalition ended the long-time rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Similar broad alliances of opposition parties have formed for forthcoming elections against Viktor Orban in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.

Many autocrats claim to serve their people better than democratically elected leaders, while mainly delivering for themselves and manipulating electoral systems so citizens cannot deliver a negative verdict, the report said.

Autocrats typically try to divert attention with racist, sexist, xenophobic, or homophobic appeals, Mr Roth said with the Covid highlighting the self-serving tendency with many autocratic leaders downplaying the pandemic, turning their backs on scientific evidence, spreading false information, and failing to take basic measures to protect the health and lives of the public.

However, to persuade people to abandon the self-serving rule of autocrats, democracies need to do better in addressing societal ills, Mr Roth said.

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