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American Paralysis Fuels Freedom’s Retreat

With the United States and its allies no longer enforcing international norms, human rights abuses are becoming the rule instead of the exception.
March 31, 2020
Featured Image
The Chinese flag behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. - A recurrence of the Urumqi riots which left nearly 200 people dead a decade ago is hard to imagine in today's Xinjiang, a Chinese region whose Uighur minority is straitjacketed by surveillance and mass detentions. A pervasive security apparatus has subdued the ethnic unrest that has long plagued the region. (Photo by GREG BAKER / AFP)

[Editor’s Note: This article discusses the results of Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report for 2019, including the trends of authoritarianism leading up to the outbreak of COVID-19. For discussion of developments related to the novel coronavirus pandemic, see here.]

The steady erosion of democracy around the world in recent years may be reaching an alarming inflection point. In the first decades after the Cold War, authoritarian states and illiberal regimes were largely content to wield and abuse power without extensive violence or bloodshed. But today, they are casting off their reticence and openly crushing any civilian populations or scapegoated groups that stand in their way.

The most egregious example is unfolding in plain sight in Syria, where the Assad regime, with military support from Russia and Iran, is pulverizing civilian targets in the country’s last pocket of opposition-held territory.

But the Indian government’s brazen attacks on the rights of the Muslim population in Kashmir and elsewhere, coupled with Beijing’s campaign to annihilate the culture and identity of its own Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, show how far other governments are willing to go even in the absence of military conflict.

One feature that unites these disparate actions is the lack of any coordinated response from the world’s democratic powers, including the United States. There have been targeted sanctions and murmurs of disapproval from some quarters, but democracies have made it clear that attempting to halt human rights atrocities is not a major priority. The risk is that each set of violations, if left unchecked, will metastasize, making genocides like those in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s potentially more common.

The recent attacks against vulnerable groups represent a crescendo in the broader resurgence of authoritarianism chronicled by Freedom House. For 14 consecutive years, countries that experienced a decline in political rights and civil liberties have outnumbered those that experienced an improvement, according to the 2020 edition of the annual Freedom in the World report.

In the early years of this democratic recession, authoritarian powers like Russia often relied on less violent tactics to perpetuate their domestic control, such as crippling independent courts or shutting down civil society groups. Today, authoritarian regimes have gone beyond these relatively subtle measures and used force more openly at home and abroad.

Glaring instances of government-backed persecution of minority groups and others have touched nearly every region and encompass major and minor powers alike: Russian authorities have criminalized Jehovah’s Witnesses, tortured gay people, and persecuted Crimean Tatars. Saudi Arabia viciously murdered a well-known journalist and indiscriminately bombed Yemeni civilians. Myanmar’s military forcibly expelled hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. Many of these abuses are ongoing.

The cases of India and China are arguably the most unsettling, however, because they implicate the world’s most populous countries and two of the top five economies. These are not anomalous “rogue” actors. They are influential, well-integrated global powers whose behavior is changing international norms.

Beijing’s campaign against the Uighur minority and other predominantly Muslim groups has been well documented. In addition to mass detention in prison-like indoctrination camps, ordinary Uighurs have endured arbitrary prison sentences, forced labor, confinement of their children in state-run boarding schools, and draconian bans on ordinary religious expression. Tens of thousands of security officers and state-of-the-art surveillance systems enable constant monitoring of the general population, converting the Xinjiang region into a dystopian open-air prison.

India’s more recent crackdown on the rights of Muslims escalated dramatically last August, when the central government abruptly revoked the autonomy of its only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, dividing it into two “union territories” that will be controlled more directly from New Delhi. The sweeping reorganization was accompanied by troop deployments, assembly bans, mass arrests of local political and civic leaders, and a communications blackout of unprecedented duration.

Later the same month, authorities in the eastern Indian state of Assam published a new citizens’ register that excluded nearly two million residents, many of them Muslims, effectively stripping them of citizenship. The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to carry out a similar procedure nationwide, and in December it passed a law that offers fast-track citizenship only to non-Muslims from neighboring Muslim-majority countries. These policies raised the prospect that the authorities would eventually render millions of Muslims stateless while ensuring citizenship for any Hindus and other non-Muslims caught up in the registration purge.

It is disturbing, but not surprising, that a one-party dictatorship like China would impose totalitarian levels of persecution on a maligned minority. The fact that India, the world’s largest democracy, would move so aggressively to abrogate the fundamental rights of so many citizens—and that it could do so with few public objections from traditional democratic champions like the United States—says something more profound about the state of world freedom.

Attempts to isolate, disenfranchise, expel, or annihilate specific populations are not just violations of basic human rights. They are a direct inversion of democracy, in which the people are meant to choose their leaders. Humanity could be headed for a grim future, including even greater violence, if leaders are allowed instead to choose their own people.

Michael J. Abramowtiz and Arch Puddington

Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. Arch Puddington is the senior democracy scholar at Freedom House.