Op-Ed | Can Joe Biden Reverse the Dwindling Trend in Democracy and Freedom? | Mubashar Hasan

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The pandemic has pushed iconic democracies like the US and India too. It has tested the strengths of their democratic institutes and pluralism, as reports have suggested rising social xenophobia (sometimes backed by ruling party men) against minorities, racism and rise of conspiracy theories in partisan line.

It is not new news that worldwide, freedom is under assault. The pandemic has exacerbated this trend as governments worldwide have applied strict measures to control the freedom of mobility across the border, adhered to mass surveillance techniques and opted for enforced quarantine facilities.

The world went into the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 with the already declining trend of freedom where a Freedom House survey found “individuals in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties.”

For many authoritarian states as well as hybrid regimes (those who operate like a tyrannical government but use the rhetoric of democracy) in Africa, Middle East, Russia and Asia, the pandemic has opened up new avenues to reassert control over their “subjects” including suppressing information about the pandemic through repressive laws and under-reporting, hackling and imprisoning political opponents and critics for raising questions about the quality of health care and protective gears. Their objective was to look good in the paper.

After all, those who study authoritarian regimes know very well that dictators and populist leaders hate to be embarrassed and look weak  (in the sense that they lost control of a crisis) in front of the public. For them, authority must be established and respected, and if necessary, multiple tools of coercion and techniques would be deployed to promote a culture of fear and influence public opinion.

That is why many journalists, academics and civil society activists, who challenged the authorities and their inadequate response to the pandemic, were disappeared, arrested and jailed by these regimes. These regimes intensified using surveillance techniques including Facebook profiling of the critics, illegal phone and email hacking, facial recognition and psychological warfare to silence critics and divide public opinions.

The underlying message from these governments is simple “if you die of this virus, die silently, don’t question the authorities or their capabilities.”

The pandemic has pushed iconic democracies like the US and India too. It has tested the strengths of their democratic institutes and pluralism, as reports have suggested rising social xenophobia (sometimes backed by ruling party men) against minorities, racism and rise of conspiracy theories in partisan line.

Both countries are led by leaders who are worshipped as messiahs by a considerable number of followers; to these followers, messiahs are beyond accountability. They think what their messiah decides is right for them. That did not, however, deter the loss of hundreds and thousands of lives.

However, the good news is in the US, President Trump is almost out of the office. This should give hopes to thousands of democracy activists and human rights defenders across the globe who have found themselves largely abandoned by the leader of the free world in the past years.

In my personal interaction with a few human rights organisations, budget cuts and an inward-looking policy were cited as whittling down democracy promotion activities abroad. My interaction with activists living in exile from authoritarian regimes have revealed that they were frustrated with Trump’s attitude of “give me business, I’d look the other way even if you violate rights.” Therefore, there is a widespread hope that the President-elect Joe Biden hopefully will reengage the US with the rest of the world. Simultaneously, the paradigms of respecting human rights and civil liberties would constitute a bedrock for his foreign policy.

As the news of a Covid-19 vaccine is looming large to usher new hopes to the world next year, there are several ways the forthcoming leader of the free world could reverse the dwindling trend of freedom.

But to do that it should recognise without any reservation that the Western model of freedom is in deep trouble. The belief that an open market would eventually promote freedom and wither away the control of the state over citizens is facing strong challenges from two fronts.

First is the omnipresent rise of the social media dictating all aspects of our lives, including our emotions and sentiments, is a reality. The social media, which was supposed to establish a global trend of the US 1st Amendment rights, has put the lives of many human rights activists worldwide in deep trouble.

With the rise of surveillance capitalism, Facebook has become a useful tool for dictators to identify, profile, isolate, imprison and disappear dissents and critics. They also reportedly use this platform to promote disinformation.

Therefore, effective oversight of human rights activists in authoritarian countries by Facebook, including providing early security alerts to the activists, is needed.

Moving into the post-Covid-19 era, a Biden administration could pressurise Facebook to make human rights and the protection of its advocates integral to its business model.

The second challenge for Biden administration is that an authoritarian model of development at the expense of freedom and rights is now popular worldwide. How it could reverse this trend is a matter of further research, but it is worth pointing out that dwindling freedom is also the West’s own making.

In the past, officials of multiple Bretton Woods organisations were too comfortable with non-democratic rulers. They have praised the progress and economic growth sans freedom in Ethiopia and Rwanda. A similar trend is emerging in new autocracies in Asia. They know many of the data on development,  economic and social progress is manipulated,but they hardly question them. Researchers have identified a growing trend of exaggerating the effectiveness of Western aid too.

The Biden administration needs to decide whether it would continue to overlook and ignore human rights violations in non-democracies in exchange of abstract and manipulated economic statistics, grand strategies, “stability” and development like its predecessor or promote freedom and development.

If it decides to follow Trump’s way, there will be long-lasting and counterproductive implications for the US. Anti-West sentiments would rise, persist and authoritarians who do not represent people would continue to be the brokers of stability and peace at the expense of gross human rights violations. This will not win the hearts and minds of the people and eventually weaken popular support for democracy. In hindsight, it will be a tactical win for anyone other than liberal democracies, including the US.

 

Mubashar Hasan PhD is a Sydney based Bangladeshi Australian author, researcher, and freedom activist. His website is www.mubasharhasan.com

 

 

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