Democracy under siege – yet resilient

Week of 1 March 2021

Democracy under siege – yet resilient

The year 2020 has gone down in the world record books as a challenging year on many fronts. This trend unfortunately continues when looking at the state of the world’s democracies over the last year. Freedom House’s flagship Freedom in the World Report for 2021 finds that civil rights and political liberties declined in a number of countries as part of a broader global erosion of democracy. 2020 marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with nearly 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year. Yet, the non-profit sees room for optimism in the resilience of democracy even in the face of significant challenges.

Freedom House, a non-profit researching and advocating for global democracy and good governance, released its flagship annual report for 2021, Freedom in the World: Democracy Under Siege, which assesses the state of political rights and civil liberties globally. The report examines 195 countries and 15 territories based on a set of core democracy and governance indicators. 

The 2021 report, tracing developments over the course of 2020, reveals some alarming trends towards declining democratisation and eroded civil and political rights: “As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.” (To see just some of the real-life repercussions of this trend, look no further than the devastating numbers of human rights and environmental defenders threatened, injured or killed for speaking out against harmful business activities: over 600 in 2020, as reported by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in its recently-launched report In the Line of Fire, which documents these attacks.)

At the same time, there have been some key successes towards strengthening civil and political rights in individual countries, and Freedom House believes that the events of 2020 show the overall resilience of democracy despite new failings.

We’ve pulled out some of the most important results and diagrams below.

Significant findings for 2021

  • COVID-19 created and exacerbated conditions for decline of democracy around the world: “As COVID-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum repeatedly resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms like movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions by police and nonstate actors.”
  • Governments reacted to widespread 2019 protest movements by cracking down on dissent in 2020: “The widespread protest movements of 2019, which had signaled the popular desire for good governance the world over, often collided with increased repression in 2020. While successful protests in countries such as Chile and Sudan led to democratic improvements, there were many more examples in which demonstrators succumbed to crackdowns, with oppressive regimes benefiting from a distracted and divided international community. Nearly two dozen countries and territories that experienced major protests in 2019 suffered a net decline in freedom the following year.”
    • The shifting international balance”: In 2020, the number of countries viewed as free reached its lowest level since the beginning of a 15-year period of global democratic decline. Some powerful authoritarian governments “tipped the international order in their favor time and again, exploiting both the advantages of nondemocratic systems and the weaknesses in ailing democracies.” For example, the report cites the example of China: in particular, “the mechanisms that democracies have long used to hold governments accountable for violations of human rights standards and international law are being weakened and subverted, and even the world’s most egregious violations, such as the large-scale forced sterilization of Uighur women, are not met with a well-coordinated response or punishment.
    • Some countries faced significant setbacks in 2020 after seeming “posed to make democratic gains”: The report cites the examples of Venezuela, Algeria, Ethiopia, Belarus, India and Hong Kong.
  • Meanwhile, democratic strongholds like the United States experienced alarming declines in democratisation, with global implications: “The exposure of US democracy’s vulnerabilities has grave implications for the cause of global freedom. Rulers and propagandists in authoritarian states have always pointed to America’s domestic flaws to deflect attention from their own abuses, but the events of the past year will give them ample new fodder for this tactic, and the evidence they cite will remain in the world’s collective memory for a long time to come.”
  • However, overall results show that “democracy is remarkably resilient and has proven its ability to rebound from repeated blows”: The report cites examples of success in Malawi and Taiwan, and “[m]ore broadly, democracy has demonstrated its adaptability under the unique constraints of a world afflicted by COVID-19. A number of successful elections were held across all regions and in countries at all income levels, including in Montenegro, and in Bolivia, yielding improvements. Judicial bodies in many settings, such as The Gambia, have held leaders to account for abuses of power, providing meaningful checks on the executive branch and contributing to slight global gains for judicial independence over the past four years. At the same time, journalists in even the most repressive environments like China sought to shed light on government transgressions, and ordinary people from Bulgaria to India to Brazil continued to express discontent on topics ranging from corruption and systemic inequality to the mishandling of the health crisis, letting their leaders know that the desire for democratic governance will not be easily quelled.”


The report also includes recommendations for governments and companies on protecting and promoting democracy. We highlight key recommendations for the private sector below:

    • “Nurturing opportunities for global democracy”:
      • Adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and conduct periodic human rights impact assessments, with a commitment to doing no harm.”
      • Evaluate potential partners’ adherence to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”
      • Engage in continuous dialogue with civil society organizations to understand the practical effects of company policies and products.”
    • “Countering threats to global democracy”:
      • “Companies should speak out against human rights abuses in countries where they operate, and fiercely defend the rights of employees and other affected stakeholders.”

Read the full report here: Freedom House, Freedom in the World Report 2021: Democracy Under Siege (March 2021)

“As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny. Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes in the name of public health, while beleaguered activists— lacking effective international support—faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings. These withering blows marked the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006. The long democratic recession is deepening.”

Sarah Repucci, Vice President of Research & Analysis, and Amy Slipowitz, Research Manager, Freedom House, Freedom in the World Report 2021: Democracy Under Siege (March 2021)