Dominos fall down, each domino has a letter on it and together they form the word "Democracy".

Competition for Values

The transatlantic bridge needs to be readjusted. As America has increasingly focused on Asia in recent years, Europe will have to take more responsibility for its own security, European politician and security expert Gijs de Vries is convinced. Above all, Europe must fight for democracy and human rights.

Russia and China are harnessing information and disinformation as instruments of foreign policy. Both Moscow and Beijing work hard to divide the European Union, and their strategy is not without success. But where Russia appears to concentrate on disruption, China poses a perhaps more fundamental, long-term challenge in terms of values and ideas. China makes more systematic use of soft power, and Europe is still far from formulating an effective response.

Democracy is central to Europe’s identity, and EU governments have long been promoting democratic reforms around the world. For decades, democracy spread across the world, but in recent years the tide has turned.

According to the American think-tank Freedom House, in 2017 democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades as 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, and only 35 registered gains. For the 12th consecutive year the Freedom House Index of global freedom declined. Since 2016, it reckons that 113 countries have shown a net decline, and only 62 showed a net improvement. Freedom House ranks 88 countries (representing 39 percent of the global population) as free, 58 as partly free (24 percent of the global population), and 49 as not free (37 percent of the global population).


Less Acceptance

The Bertelsmann Transformation Index, which measures the transition of authoritarian states to democracy and market economies, similarly reports a decline in the acceptance of democratic institutions across the world.

In South Africa, 62 percent of the population say they are willing or very willing to give up elections in exchange for security, housing, and jobs. 

For several years analysts have warned of global democratic backsliding, even in North America and Western Europe. The political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk found that citizens in these regions have become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. In Europe, for example, only 36 percent of millennials were found to strongly reject the notion that a government’s incompetence can justify a military take-over. In one survey of 38 nations in different parts of the world, a median of 49 percent of respondents said that rule by experts, rather than elected representatives, would be a good way to govern their country. In South Africa, 62 percent of the population say they are willing or very willing to give up elections in exchange for security, housing, and jobs. A spate of recent publications discusses the trend.

Such pessimistic assessments have not gone uncontested. First of all, international opinion surveys provide a mixed picture. Across Africa, popular demand for democracy exceeds citizens’ perception of available supply, and large majorities reject authoritarian alternatives such as presidential dictatorship, military rule, and one party government. Arab citizens, too, voice strong support for democracy. In a 38-nation poll the Pew Research Institute found that more than half in each of the nations polled consider representative democracy a very or somewhat good way to govern their country. Waning support for democratic values is also not a consistent trend across Western countries.

Authoritarian leaders are, in effect, learning how to game the system and erode democracy by stealth – including in Europe.

Secondly, a focus on recent developments risks obscuring more positive, long-term trends. In fact, the number of democracies in the world has grown significantly over time. According to one influential analysis, democratisation has progressed in waves. A first wave followed the widening of suffrage in the 19th century and brought the number of democracies in the world to some 29 by 1926. Reversals in the 1930s and 1940s reduced the number to 12, but following the allied victories in World War II the number of democracies grew to 36 by 1962. A third global wave of democracy began with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974 and swept through Latin America, parts of Asia, and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet-Union, and sub-Saharan Africa from 1989. The number of electoral democracies grew to well over 100.


In a parallel development, ratification and (partial) implementation of international human rights treaties grew significantly, culminating in the foundation of the International Criminal Court in 1998. So it would be an exaggeration to claim that democracy is dying. In the past half century, the world has become notably more democratic, and considerably more free.

In recent years, however, the long ‘third wave’ of democratisation appears to have crested. The change is well documented by research at the University of Gothenburg. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project produces the largest global dataset on democracy. Researchers use the data to distinguish between four regime types.


A sign with the inscription "vote".
In recent years, however, the long ‘third wave’ of democratisation appears to have crested, photo: Tara Winstead via pexels

From Poland to Fiji

First, most of the world’s countries are in the democratic spectrum (56 percent): 35 states qualify as liberal democracies and 62 as electoral democracies. Of the remaining countries 56 (32 percent) are electoral autocracies and 21 (12 percent) are closed autocracies.

Second, the world saw a gradual but steady increase in liberal democracy until around the year 2005. Since then, levels of democracy have been relatively stable across the world and remain close to an all-time high. However, there is a clear downward trend in the number of countries making democratic advancements since at least 2008, and the number of countries regressing towards autocracy has increased since roughly around the turn of the century.

Third, the picture looks different if levelsof democracy are weighted by the size of each country’s population. Whereas a number of smaller countries have made progress on democracy, such as Bhutan, Burkina Faso, and Fiji, only one major country has (Nigeria). Big, populous countries have shown the greatest declines in democracy, including Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States. The number of people living in non-democratic countries is growing.

Fourth, while multi-party elections continue to improve, they are at risk of losing their meaning. Media autonomy, freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, and the rule of law have undergone the greatest declines among democracy metrics in recent years. This trend affects both autocracies and democracies.

A final key finding concerns inclusion. Although liberal democracies are systematically better than other regimes in securing people’s democratic rights, even in democracies women, minorities, and the poor are systematically disadvantaged in their access to political power.

[...] even in democracies women, minorities, and the poor are systematically disadvantaged in their access to political power.

These global trends do not tell the whole story, as they may obscure much countryspecific variety in regime transitions. In any given year several dozen countries change status. In 2017 alone, 24 countries advanced and another 24 regressed. In Europe over the past ten years negative change has outweighed improvements. Albania joined the group of liberal democracies, but four EU Member States – Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia – lost their status of liberal democracies to become electoral democracies, while Serbia fared even worse and became an electoral authoritarian state.


Precious and Vulnerable

In an underground vault, several signs hang on the wall, each one saying "Brotherhood" in a different language.
To counter the gradual erosion of democratic liberties the role of citizens will be absolutely crucial, photo: Nazrin Babashova via unsplash

Democracy is too precious and too vulnerable to be left in the care of politicians alone. To counter the gradual erosion of democratic liberties the role of citizens will be absolutely crucial.

As democracy’s ultimate stakeholders it is for citizens to raise their voice in protest at democracy’s detractors, and in solidarity with the victims of autocracy. The price for doing so can be high, as prisoners from Turkey to Russia will testify, and the courage shown by those who stand up to defend democracy merits active support from fellow citizens both at home and abroad.

A type of democratic rot is setting in, not only in far-flung places, but even within EU Member States. The rot is spreading as autocrats learn from foreign examples and copy techniques that work. President Trump’s efforts to deter scrutiny by US media (‘fake news’) are being emulated across the world, from Malaysia to Turkmenistan.

Restrictions on foreign NGOs are proliferating, from Belarus to Cambodia. Hungary’s limits on judicial independence have inspired similar restrictions in Poland.


Human Rights under Attack

These are not isolated cases; they are part of a growing, international trend, and international action is indispensable to stop the contagion. As democracy is being undermined across borders, initiatives to defend and strengthen democratic liberties must similarly be organised across borders. Where problems go, solutions must follow. To preserve our own liberties we need to help protect those of our neighbours. 

As democracy's ultimate stakeholders it is for citizens to raise their voice in protest at democracy's detractors, and in solidarity with the victims of autocracy.

Among other things this will imply a rethinking of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. Citizenship, in today’s interdependent world, can no longer be conceived in exclusively national terms. Citizenship of the nation-state will increasingly need to acquire a cross-border dimension. The challenge will be to develop this dimension so that people embrace it as an extension of national citizenship, and not in opposition to it.

Shaping this change will be a work of many hands, including teachers and other educators. Artists and cultural organisations can do much to bring innovative practices to the fore, create free spaces for dialogue, and set the tone of the debate. Is the post-1945 era of international institutions and international law drawing to a close? Have we perhaps even entered the ‘endtimes’ of human rights? At first sight, the signs are ominous. Open societies, where citizens are free to speak, write, meet, and criticise their leaders, are under attack.

Dictatorships have long been notorious for the killing of journalists. In 2018, journalists investigating corruption were murdered even in Malta and Slovakia. Dozens of countries around the world have passed laws and taken measures to curtail the work of civil society organisations. Government pressure forced the Konrad Adenauer Foundation to close its offices in Ecuador; the British Council has had to downgrade its presence in Moscow. Human rights groups face an unprecedented global crackdown.

Dictatorships have long been notorious for the killing of journalists.

At the same time, international institutions charged with defending rights and freedoms are being undermined from within. Russia has stopped paying its contribution to the Council of Europe in retaliation for the suspension of its voting rights in the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) after its illegal annexation of Crimea. Burundi withdrew from the International Criminal Court (ICC); other countries ignore 15 outstanding ICC arrest warrants and surrender requests, including that of the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who stands accused of war crimes. The British Foreign Office warns that China and Russia ‘are attacking the human rights functions within the UN system’, and that China is using the Human Rights Council to promote its ‘alternative vision of human rights’.

In Egypt, president al-Sisi gets away with torture and oppression, having no doubt noted EU Council President Tusk’s appreciation for the fact that illegal migration from Egypt to Europe fell from almost 13,000 in 2016 to almost none in 2018.


Not all black

The picture is not all black, however. Human rights law does bite. In 2016 an ad hoc tribunal in Dakar found the former Chadian president Hissène Habré guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The International Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia gave a voice to victims of war crimes and genocide. The International Criminal Court reminds future perpetrators of mass atrocities and aggression that they will be held individually accountable. In 1977 only 17 countries had abolished the death penalty; today, 140 have – nearly two-thirds of countries in the world.

Weak and disappointing as international human rights law may be, we are no longer living in a world without rules, the world Thomas Hobbes saw as condemned to live in a perpetual state of war. In only a few decades, most of the world’s sovereign states have agreed to abide by treaties that set out the right to a life lived in dignity. The numbers tell the story.


The European human rights regime is one of the most stringent in the world. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) sees to it that the 28 EU Member States respect human rights as general principles of European law, and that they abide by the EU Charter of Human Rights. Some of the most notable cases have involved terrorism. In a series of landmark cases the Court has ruled that governments and the EU must respect the right to privacy in the fight against terrorism, and that suspects of terrorism are entitled to due process.

The ECJ also verifies if governments respect the rule of law. In October 2018 it ordered Poland to suspend changes to its Supreme Court which violated the rule of law. The ECJ lets itself be guided by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, which has jurisdiction in the 47 countries of the Council of Europe.

On a lamppost there is a sticker that says "Every Human has a Right".
Human rights are central to how Europeans see their role in the world, photo: Markus Spiske via unsplash

The European Court of Human Rights cannot effectively protect human rights on its own. Its rulings must be carried out by national authorities who often drag their feet. Thousands of human rights judgments are still waiting to be implemented. Often, it takes pressure from civil society and the media to make the authorities budge. 

The EU could help by supporting local NGOs and journalists to monitor European human rights law. European foundations, NGOs and cultural institutes could help to raise awareness – but some of them would need to take an interest first. Take, for example, the case of the Turkish publisher Fatih Tas. Tas has long published books and periodicals that irk the Turkish authorities, who try to silence him. Five times he has taken Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights, and five times the Court ruled in his favour. A gesture of support from the European Publishers Council, or a similar NGO, would not be remiss.

All EU Member States have accepted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. They must therefore prevent and eradicate all forms of racial discrimination and incitement to racial hatred. There is a growing pile of EU documents that attest to their determination to do so and stand up for European values. But the evidence shows that Europeans are falling short. Europe’s collective failure to control discrimination is affecting its credibility in the eyes of the world.


Racial Discrimination is Commonplace

On a grey wall, "Who is watching?" is written in thick, black letters.
Authoritarian rulers who are looking to suppress criticism often turn to European surveillance technology, and European companies are happy to oblige, photo: Claudio Schwarz via unsplash

Racial discrimination and harassment in Europe are commonplace. People of African descent face systematic racism and discrimination in labour markets, housing, and healthcare. Muslims too face discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes. Anti-Semitic abuse in Europe has become so common that many victims no longer bother to report the incidents. A recent survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that 28 percent of Jewish respondents in 12 Member States had experienced harassment, 40 percent worry about physical attack, and 89 percent considered anti-Semitism online a problem in their country.

On the day the report was published police in Rome said it was investigating the theft of 20 memorial plaques commemorating the Holocaust. The small brass plaques, dedicated to members of a Jewish family, De Consiglio, had been dug out from the pavement.

Europe has other unfinished business. Authoritarian rulers who are looking to suppress criticism often turn to European surveillance technology, and European companies are happy to oblige. The British arms manufacturer BAE Systems used its Danish subsidiary to export cyber-surveillance systems to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Morocco and Algeria. BAE’s ‘Evident’ system had previously been used by Tunisia’s strongman Ben Ali to stifle opposition. Turkey and Bahrain are reported to have used software from the German firm FinFisher to monitor critics. When governments order cyber surveillance systems, they claim it is needed to fight terrorism. But such technology is dual-use and can just as easily be used to stamp out peaceful opposition. In 2016 the European Commission proposed to change European export control rules to prevent technology from being used in human rights violations. In 2018 EU governments were still discussing the idea.

What else can Europe do to push back against oppression across the world? A first priority for EU diplomats could be to urge more countries to join the main international human rights regimes.

A first priority for EU diplomats could be to urge more countries to join the main international human rights regimes.

It is hard to think of a reason why countries like India or Singapore could not be persuaded to join the UN Convention Against Torture, or why Malaysia must remain outside the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. And, occasional outbursts from Washington grandees notwithstanding, there is no reason why the EU should not continue urging its partners to end impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by joining the ICC. Around the world victims of oppression look to Europe for support, but too often Europeans fail them. There is no lack of glowing EU policy statements about human rights; delivery is where Europe tends to come up short.

In countries that violate human rights EU governments and the European institutions sometimes follow a good cop, bad cop routine, whereby national diplomats discuss trade and security but leave more controversial subjects such as human rights to the European Commission. Foreign governments tend to be familiar with the ritual and graciously allow the Europeans to punch below their collective weight.

There is a time for quiet diplomacy but there is also a time to speak out in support of victims of oppression, and European diplomats should do so more often. 

About the Author
Gijs de Vries

Gijs de Vries is a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is a former member of the Dutch government and of the European Parliament. He has served as a board member of the European Cultural Foundation and was a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations as well as the Transatlantic Policy Network.