This year has not been great for the cause of democracy – in fact, 2017 could easily be called the Year of the Authoritarian. Hardliners from Asia to Latin America tightened their grip on power, granting themselves sweeping powers: controlling their judiciary, rewriting their constitutions or, in fact, enshrining their doctrine into their country’s constitution.
Rights groups, think tanks, and other non-governmental organizations around the world compile data on governments, creating metrics by which to measure authoritarianism, and pretty much no one has a rosy view of 2017.
“We’re not seeing a resurgence of absolute dictatorships but the developments are not in the right direction…There’s very little to be optimistic about in the world today,” said Arch Puddington, distinguished scholar for democracy studies at Freedom House, which pulls together an annual index on democracy and authoritarianism.
In Europe, the refugee crisis continues to aid the rise of the right, said Puddington. In fact, political success almost depends on taking a populist approach.
“No serious politician can get into power without taking a strong position on keeping Syrian immigrants out of the country, and the same thing is going to be true of migrant workers. Once it became clear that the right can effectively use that issue as a wedge to enhance their influence, you’re not going to hear serious European politicians saying, ‘No,no, no, we have to be tolerant and take these people in’ — very few people are going to do that,” said Puddington.
Generally speaking, the U.S. response to most of these issues in the countries of concern has been muted at best (when it’s not acting in full support). In some cases, turning a blind eye certainly predated the administration of President Donald Trump. But experts say having a figure like Trump in office has intesified the damage.
“Trump is dismissive of democratic norms. He’s accelerating the erosion of American democratic institutions,” said Puddington, adding that in some ways, “Trump is behaving even more aggressively” than Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The only reason things aren’t as bad in the United States yet, he adds, is due to Trump’s “lack of personal discipline.”
Things are getting considerably worse elsewhere, though.
“I would say 2017 was a disastrous year for human rights, for civil liberties, for violations of international humanitarian laws,” said Raed Jarrar, Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International. He points to a spike in war crimes carried out by all sides in Syria and Yemen.
“We saw a deterioration in human rights and respect for international law across the region, with authoritarian governments, with democratic governments…they have one thing in common: They’ve all been abusing human rights in 2017,” said Jarrar.
“The Trump administration has signaled to the world that they no longer have to be ashamed of their record of human rights violations because they will no longer be held accountable…and they will no longer pay a price for those violations.”
With all of this in mind, ThinkProgress is taking a look at some of the countries that have been the focus of international news this year to see how they’ve fared:
Chinese President Xi Jinping executed a power-grab in October that left observers of his country’s politics breathless. In starting his second term, he ensured that there was not a single person on his politburo that could possibly succeed him, signalling that he might want to stay in office well beyond two terms. Then he had his name and ideology enshrined in the Communist Party constitution. What’s taking place is China is almost a deification of Xi, with criticizing him becoming entirely intolerable, leaving journalists and civil society activists almost no room to breathe.
“Much of this can be laid at the doorstep of Trump, but not all of it,” said Puddington. “Obama’s policy of gradual disengagement set the table for what Trump has done [in the region].”
“It’s very clear that under Xi Jinping, China is moving to center stage in the world. He brags about the China model as being more appropriate for the development countries that want to build a strong economy. He belittles democracy, western value and rule of law,” said Puddington. This, he says, but Xi in a category unto himself in terms of his messaging and a departure from the more subtle signaling of previous Chinese leaders.
U.S. role: “We’ve let China think that it can have this special place in the world as this great developing country,” said Puddington, adding that China has now become a “global bully.” Under several previous administrations, the United States has “tolerated China’s unfair trade practices…and we could have insisted that China engage in fair trade practices and that would have sent a signal that we’re serious about our relationship with China…As it is, we ignored the trade violations, and we ignored the human rights violations as well.”
Over the last year, conditions have deteriorated dramatically in Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain, Israel, and Egypt when it comes to crackdowns on civil society. But Saudi Arabia has combined its crackdowns — which include new laws that have allowed for the arrests of activists and human rights defenders — with the death penalty and the use of “special courts” Jarrar said are used “as a political tool to silence dissent.”
Saudi Arabia has also been leading a coalition against Yemen, pounding the country with thousands of airstrikes since October 2015, with U.S. backing. The U.N. has agreed to investigate allegations of war crimes against Saudi in the deaths of thousands of civilians — roughly half of the 10,000 who have been killed since the start of the civil war there were civilians. Saudi, for its part, has denied all such allegations. It has also promised changes to its laws, allowing women to drive in 2018 (although they still not will be able to purchase a car) and allowing them to attend some sports events. Women continue to live under male “guardianship,” requiring male permission for almost everything, and will not have legal agency for the foreseeable future.
U.S. role: President Trump has all but accepted Saudi’s vision for the Middle East, as made evident in a speech he gave to Arab leaders during a trip to Riyadh in May (a long, opulent photo opportunity, complete with gold chains and weapons deals). Since then, Trump has looked the other way when it comes to Saudi attacks in Yemen, supported Saudi in the Qatar crisis, singled out Iran for the root problems in the region, and remained silent on Saudi Arabia’s prolific and ongoing executions of activists and Shia Muslims.
Saudi Arabia is a close U.S. ally, so there is “a lot that the Trump administration could have done and should do to stop human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law,” said Jarrar. But so far, the Trump administration has signaled to its allies in the region that “it will not impose any restrictions on military sales based on their record of human rights violations.
“That is extremely concerning,” said Jarrar, and out of line with previous administrations and had conditions on weapons sales.
Saudi Arabia is the number one importer of American weapons – it has also enjoyed a close relationship with several administrations, and the Trump administration is certainly no exception. In fact, Amnesty International said it confirmed that a bomb used by Saudi Arabia in an apparent war crime in August in Yemen was made in the United States. “The U.S. is not a spectator to the war crimes going on the region, but might be complicit in many of these violations of international humanitarian law, and some of them might amount to war crimes,” said Jarrar.
Human rights in Turkey have been on a downward spiral accelerated by the July 2016 attempted coup that resulted in thousands of arrests across the country and seemed to spare no one. Judges, journalists, police, teachers, and human rights activists alike have been rounded up in the name of national security since then. The Freedom House study estimates that some 150,000 people were arrested, detained, or fired from their jobs as part of these crackdowns instituted by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The coup gave the Erdogan government the rationale to do what they will with civil society, with the press, with the judges and prosecutors and even the mayors now,” said Puddington, referring to the fact that roughly 90 mayors have been removed in Turkey and replaced by Erdogan party appointees.
This past year has seen little improvement – Erdogan consolidated power in April in a referendum that will go into effect in 2019, switching Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. This means Erdogan will have power over the judiciary and the ability to issue decrees.
U.S. role: Turkey also buys lots of weapons from the United States – number eight on our frequent arms buyers list. “Obama treated Erdogan as an ally and a friend…and we did rely on Turkey for various security issues,” said Puddington. “But there was no reason to embrace him and regard him as our closest friend in the region — and now we have a president who seems to admire Erdogan and doesn’t seem to care about what’s happening in the country.”
Indeed, Trump not only failed to criticize the April referendum, but actually called to congratulate Erdogan on a job well done. Former presidential adviser Gen. Michael Flynn was also open to doing Erdogan’s bidding, even if meant kidnapping Erdogan’s political bête noire Fethullah Gülen from his home in Pennsylvania and sending him back to Turkey. Erdogan, said Puddington “had every reason to believe that a Trump government would go along with that.”
Poland has been cracking down on peaceful protesters and undermining the judiciary (two-fifths were just pushed into “retirement”). In July, thousands of protesters around the country expressed their opposition to the government’s proposal that threatened the independence of judges. Police responded by trying to scatter or “kettle” protesters, keeping them out of sight and allowing only pro-government demonstrations to take place in central, visible locations.
“The most concerning thing from our perspective…is that the Polish government engaged in a pattern of harassment, surveillance and persecution of peaceful and law-abiding demonstrators,” said Dan Balson, director for Europe and Central Asia advocacy for Amnesty International. “So, in many cases, protesters were initially given fines for participating in assemblies, and those who refused to pay these fines had their cases escalated to a criminal matter,” said Balson, noting that this is in violation of European law.
The demonstrators, he said, are being charged with “vague” violations — everything from trespassing to preventing officials from carrying out their duties. Police, he said, have also been showing up at the homes of demonstrators, unannounced, for informal questioning of which they kept not official records.
U.S. role: The United States, said Balson, is “quite well-positioned” to express its concerns about the direction in which Poland is going. “President Trump has not done so. In fact, there have been multiple opportunities that have been missed by this White House and this administration to condemn Poland’s disrespect of fundamental human rights, most notably but not exclusively, President Trump’s speech in Warsaw,” he said. “Silence from Washington has in large part emboldened Polish authority to carry out their crackdowns,” he added.
It’s not just Trump who can weigh in on Poland — Balson also points to senior figures in the administration such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who could publicly speak out about “Poland’s slide towards human rights violations” but have not. Congress, he said, also has the opportunity to speak up, as it has with Erdogan.
While the Trump administration has kept mum about Poland, the European Union has not. The EU executive on Wednesday made the unprecedented move to suspend Poland’s voting rights.
The European Commission asked EU governments to say that the changes made to Poland’s judiciary demonstrate “a clear risk of a serious breach” of European values. It gives Poland three months to reverse course and respect the rule of law.
Egypt has been continuing its arrests of journalists and activists this past year under the governance of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. This is unlikely to let up given that Sisi is facing an election in the coming year and thus promoting himself as a military strongman amid ongoing attacks from the remote Sinai region to the capital of Cairo. In June, a number of rights and civil society groups drafted a letter calling on Sisi to stop targeting human rights defenders and civil society groups there. And in August, the United States said it would withhold nearly $100 million in aid to the north African country over “failure to make progress on respecting human rights and democratic norms,” to no avail.
By September, a massive crackdown on the anti-LGBTQ community started, with authorities targeting people on dating apps and social media alike. Dozens of people have arrested and sentenced for years in prison following a concert in late September, when a few audience members waived rainbow flags.
U.S. role: “Unfortunately, the Trump administration has failed to bring this issue up or to condition military aid and assistance based on [the LGBTQ crackdowns],” said Jarrar.
Even the cut in aid, said rights groups and activists at the time, was a “half-hearted measure” at best and did not affect Egypt access to weapons. In state media, official statements made it clear that if the United States were to continue targeting Egypt on human rights issues, Egypt would retaliate by moving away from being a U.S. security partner in the region. Indeed, Sisi’s recent meeting with Putin and the increasing closeness between Russia and Egypt signal something pretty crucial, said Puddington.
“What [Sisi] is saying is ‘I’m still America’s friend, but I know I have options,'” he said.
President Nicolas Maduro has tightened his grip on power in Venezuela, moving to rewrite the constitution, instituting a bloody crackdown against protesters, and ordering mass arrests of activists and political opponents alike. All of this has been going on as a series of cascading economic blows — declining oil prices, sanctions, gross corruption and mismanagement — have triggered serious food and medical shortages in the country.
“It’s become clear that the Maduro government will do anything to stay in power. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that so many are complicit in crimes of all sorts — oppression of citizens, all sorts of corrupt measures, drug trafficking, and so forth, [meaning that] if they ever lose power, they will be vulnerable to prosecution,” he said.
“They came up with some kind of pseudo-legalistic rationale for replacing the parliament. And the next thing they’re going to do is eliminate the opposition from next year’s presidential election,” said Puddington. They are already discussing ruling out any party that boycotted the highly flawed local elections around the country, which, said Puddington, means “the major politicians of the opposition will not be able to compete.”
U.S. role: The Trump administration has imposed sanctions that make it almost impossible for the rest of the world to do business with Venezuela, and this, said, Puddington, is in fact hurting the Maduro government. “The Bush and Obama administrations made the decision to take a low-profile approach to [former President Hugo] Chavez…and that was totally the right approach to take,” he said, adding that what made it effective was having Latin American democracies as partners that would exert pressure on Venezuela. “Now, Latin American countries have been very reluctant to take serious measures,” said Puddington, adding that these governments have since been bought off by Venezuela. “The U.S. also seems helpless in the face of Russian and Chinese interference.”