This perspective is part of SEI’s Currents 2023 event examining key global issues on the horizon. Join us for the online event on 11 January 2023.

More than 1 million march in Protest against controversial extradition bill, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, 9 June 2019

Protesters in Hong Kong marching to oppose a controversial extradition bill that was eventually withdrawn.
Photo: Joseph Chan / Unsplash .

Global freedom is under threat. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing norms. The world has experienced a decline in global freedom for 16 consecutive years, according to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World assessment .

In just the last year, we’ve seen coup attempts in countries from Peru to Germany ; with two successful coups in Burkina Faso alone . The Sahel region of West Africa has seen at least 12 coups and coup attempts in the last four years , with 2021 experiencing the most overthrown governments since 1999.

Across the globe, China has escalated tensions with Taiwan as it continues to crack down on democracy in Hong Kong . All this occurs against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine in its attempt to seize sovereign territory.

The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated, according to the V-Dem Institute’s 2022 Democracy Report , which says the levels of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen has shrunk to 1989 levels. About 70% of the world’s population now lives under a dictatorship – and 2021 saw a 50-year record in the number of nations ramping up autocracy.

“Autocratizing” of democracies

Even countries viewed standard-bearers of democracy are experiencing anti-democratic currents. In the US, former President Donald Trump’s denial of his own 2020 election loss has sown distrust among Republican party voters in the American election system, leading to efforts to overturn valid elections. French voters elected a record number of far-right National Rally deputies to its National Assembly and Italy’s newly elected prime minister , who has long praised Mussolini, portends a neofascist rise.

Even in the EU, the V-Dem Institute says 20% of countries are “autocratizing.”

These trends naturally extend to the freedom of expression. Indonesia in December passed a new law forbidding the criticism of the president, vice president, state institutions, the Indonesian state ideology and the national flag. The UK passed a law placing limits on the freedoms of protesters and is considering punishments for journalists reporting on leaked government information. The government-imposed shuttering of newspapers across Hong Kong in 2020 and 2021 left about 1,000 reporters out of work and put newsroom leaders in jail .

A record 35 countries suffered significant deteriorations in freedom of expression at government whims in 2021 – an increase from only five countries 10 years before. The same year, a record high number of journalists were jailed across the globe. More broadly, major tracking indices say freedom of media and public expression have been declining worldwide for the past 10 years.

Implications for civil society and sustainability

Repression of civil society organizations is the top indicator observed among backsliding democracies in the past 10 years, having “worsened substantially” in 44 countries. For SEI and others working on climate and sustainability issues, this trend is likely to have profound impacts for on-the-ground groups that have been key partners and are critical to the implementation and scaling of policy work.

With recent research suggesting that island countries are more vulnerable to government oppression after natural disasters, the increased frequency of severe storms due to climate change could lead to the rise of more autocracies around the world.

The Conference of Parties (COP) events – among the most critical venues for international climate policy negotiation – are occurring in countries with repressive governments. COP27 host Egypt was the third-worst jailer of journalists in 2021. A US citizen who criticized the Egyptian president and called for peaceful protest ahead of COP27 was arrested in United Arab Emirates – the location of the next COP – and held for extradition to Egypt, showing authoritarian cooperation among COP hosts.

Public responses

Recent events have also demonstrated public efforts to uphold democracy and human rights. Brazilian democracy has remained intact, even after the looting of government buildings by supporters of the outgoing authoritarian president. US election deniers suffered a blow in the 2022 legislative elections, failing to gain the level of control anticipated.

Shows of anti-authoritarian rebellion have even caught fire in traditionally repressive states. Iranians across the country have persisted in their protests against the government in the wake of the death of a 22-year-old woman at the hands of the morality police, even amid violent crackdowns. The morality police, which regulates women’s dress, has been at least temporarily suspended .

In China, severe “zero Covid” restrictions that imposed inhumane lockdowns and quarantines sparked the country’s largest protests since Tiananmen Square and is seen as the tipping point for China’s surprising retreat from the policies .

Where does the state of democracy go from here? What are the causes and consequences of rising authoritarianism? And what are the implications for sustainable development and climate change – which require monumental and united efforts to address?