The state of democracy in the world (Freedom House)

Anna Triponel

March 10, 2023
Our key takeaway: Democracy is on the decline. Freedom House reports a consecutive 17-year decline in overall political rights and civil liberties, spanning every region across the globe. This decline impacts companies: fewer freedom and rights in countries where they operate, source and sell makes it harder to respect human rights in their operations. Takeaways: Strengthen and follow through on commitments to respect the rights of human rights and environmental defenders, journalists, trade unionists and other members of civil society. Also: conduct human rights due diligence that incorporates the level of civil and political repression in a country. 

Freedom House released its 50th annual Freedom in the World report (March 2023):

  • Democracy continues to decline steadily, but may be at a turning point: Freedom House found that global democracy and freedom has declined for the 17th consecutive year, based on its study of 95 countries and 15 territories during 2022. The report cites pivotal moments where freedom has declined in 2022: the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, including human rights atrocities in Ukraine; coups and attempts to oust democratically elected governments in Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Peru, and Brazil; and the continuing trend of severe repression of human rights and civil liberties in Guinea, Turkey, Myanmar and Thailand by authoritarian governments. Two of these countries were downgraded in their rating: Peru went from “Free" to “Partly Free” and Burkina Faso moved from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” Over the past ten years, declines have been seen in every part of the globe, including the United States, which dropped ten points since 2012. Since 2023, the most significant decline has been in Burkina Faso, which dropped 23 points in a single year, followed by Ukraine which has dropped 12 points. On the other hand, 2022 also saw some notable progress towards political and civil rights. The largest one-year gains in 2022 were seen in Lesotho (+3), Malaysia (+3+, the Philippines (+3), Zambia (+3), Kenya (+4), Kosovo (+4), Slovenia (+5) and Colombia (+6). In line withe these findings, Freedom House found that the scoring gap between countries that improved and countries that declined “was the narrowest it has ever been through 17 years of global deterioration.” The report attributes this narrowing in part to “more competitive elections as well as a rollback of pandemic-related restrictions that had disproportionately affected freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.” 
  • Infringement of freedom of expression is a significant trend on the rise: Freedom House reports that attacks on human rights and environmental defenders, journalists, trade unionists and other members of civil society are increasingly targets of repression, persecution, prosecution and physical violence. This is a “key driver of global democratic decline.” For instance, “[o]ver the last 17 years, the number of countries and territories that receive a score of 0 out of 4 on the report’s media freedom indicator has ballooned from 14 to 33, as journalists face persistent attacks from autocrats and their supporters while receiving inadequate protection from intimidation and violence even in some democracies.” In addition, “[s]cores for a related indicator pertaining to freedom of personal expression have also declined over the years amid greater invasions of privacy, harassment and intimidation, and incentives to self-censor both online and offline.” Freedom House highlights the role of unregulated technology as a driver of these trends, where technology-enabled government surveillance is increasing in prevalence and sophistication. This suggests a need for stronger human rights due diligence on the part of technology companies and investors in emerging tech.
  • What can be done: The report issues five recommendations for governments to protect declining democratization: “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.” Two of these actions are of particular importance for companies. For one, the report urges the private sector to “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.” This is particular true for companies in sectors like natural resources, manufactured goods, and technology. Second, companies should demonstrate a commitment to respect the rights of human rights and environmental defenders, while actively promoting and supporting the role of a free press, transparency, information-sharing and preservation of civic space through the protection of civil rights and political liberties.

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