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The Case for Canada Advancing Democracy

  • Policy
  • 1 Jun 2019
  • Thomas S. Axworthy

The early years of the 21st century have been marked by two seismic global phenomena: The Fourth Industrial Revolution and the retreat of democracy. Not only have countries such as Venezuela and Hungary witnessed a rollback of freedom; the United States, the world’s flagship democracy, has been besieged by dysfunction. In a piece adapted from his recent presentation to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tom Axworthy writes that Canada has a role to play in turning the tide.

Democracy and human rights are intrinsic to Canada’s identity and traditions. They are among the values we hold most dear. Much of the world’s population, however—nearly 40 percent, according to Freedom House—does not enjoy these liberties. Worse, the trends are all going in the wrong direction; for 13 years, there has been a decline in the number of countries improving their democratic status. And, as the wave of democratization rolls back in many countries, there is an ebb tide in established democracies as populist nationalism ignores established norms.

Retreating democracy in much of the world is not only a moral outrage that should concern freedom loving men and women everywhere, but it is a serious danger too. Weakened democracy leads to instability which can result in conflict and violence. The retreat from democracy in Venezuela, for example, has led to mass protests and violence in that once prosperous country, forcing three million Venezuelans, nearly 10 percent of the country, to flee, causing a refugee crisis, in turn, in Colombia. Preventing a crisis is always better than managing a crisis and the relatively modest amounts spent on good governance, the rule of law, pluralism and constitutional reform are true value for money if they can prevent a state meltdown.

Thomas Carothers, the dean of scholars writing on democratic development, has recently written that “authoritarianism appears to be gaining a global surge of self-confidence.” In the Freedom House 2019 Democracy Index, for example, Hungary’s status declined from free to partly free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by the governing Fidesz party. In 2018, Freedom House reports there were declines in democracy of 35 percent in Turkey, 30 percent in the Central African Republic and 23 percent in Venezuela. In 2018, Freedom House estimated that 39 percent of the world’s population was free, 37 percent not free and 37 percent partly free.

There was a democratic wave after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union’s collapse, but this surge of progress has stalled and is now being rolled back. There are few quick wins in democratic development. Many countries moved positively forward after 1989 but progress stalled, and then setbacks occurred. Democracy is hard: Hungary, for example, became free in 1990 but, according to the index of Freedom House, then went without progress for 13 years (without improving transparency, financing of parties etc.), declined steadily for 5 years (moving against media freedom etc.) and in 2019 fell back with a thud under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The current ebb and flow of democratic development in much of the world is depressing but perhaps to be expected. What is less normal is the distemper of populist nationalism that has turned so many democratic nations inward. Demagogues in Europe have blamed refugees and migrants for wage stagnation and income insecurity. The United States, too, has been pulled off course. Donald Trump’s attacks on the media, immigrants and international governance have encouraged anti-democratic populists everywhere. Carothers has termed this the “autocratic relief syndrome.” In Hungary, Orban has said about Mr. Trump: “We have received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world so we can now also put ourselves in first place.”

This vacuum in leadership has been happily filled by Russia and China. If today there is an ebb tide in established democracies, it is a high tide for skilled autocratic players. Vladimir Putin has been a strategic disrupter of American and European elections, has become the dominant external influence in the Middle East since the retreat of the U.S., and continues to put pressure on Ukraine through his annexation of Crimea. Through the Belt and Road initiative, China has sponsored the greatest investment pool for infrastructure since the Marshall Plan and unlike that earlier American initiative, human rights and democracy are not high on the Chinese agenda. It is telling in the current Venezuela crisis that dozens of countries in the European Union, Canada, the United States and most of Latin America have endorsed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, while it is Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, and Turkey that are keeping Nicolas Maduro in place despite his three-year economic and security war against his own people. The democratic-authoritarian divide has never been clearer.

There is now a large democratic leadership gap. Can Canada fill it? In February 2019 Canada played host to foreign ministers from the Lima group of South American nations trying to restore democracy in Venezuela. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke on the phone pledging support to Guaido. This is democracy promotion on steroids.

The high profile/high politics drama of the Venezuela crisis is likely what many people have in mind when you raise the issue of democracy promotion. But such a crisis is not what most democracy promotion and human rights advocates usually do. mostly it is low-level brick-by-brick building of institutions, listening, mutual learning and a great many workshops and professional development exercises. The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development got it right when it wrote in its 2007 report Advancing Canada’s Role in International Support for Democratic Development: “Democratization is a long, difficult and inherently indigenous process and that should be supported but not imported from abroad.” That is why the 2009 Advisory Panel on the Creation of a Canadian Democracy Promotion Agency set up by the Harper government to implement the recommendations of the 2007 report ar

Retreating democracy in much of the world is not only a moral outrage that should concern freedom loving men and women everywhere, but it is a serious danger too.

gued for a stand-alone agency that would quietly sponsor the long and often drawn-out work of building institutions. The advisory panel knew that local knowledge cannot be acquired quickly or on the cheap; therefore, it recommended field offices (annual cost CAD$3-5 million each) in the countries of highest priority (full disclosure, I chaired the panel). The 2009 recommendations calling for a new agency with a 50 milliondollar budget, however, were caught up in the fiscal crisis of 2008-09 and the Harper government eventually declined to move on its own idea.

A second reason to create a standalone agency reporting to parliament but not part of the government is that it can be a more flexible instrument than relying solely on local ambassadors and dedicated Global Affairs officers in Ottawa. Democracy promotion work often requires regular meetings with opposition figures or members of civil society critical of the existing regime, tasks difficult for an accredited ambassador. Time on task is one argument for a dedicated agency but effectiveness is another. A local representative of a democracy promotion agency has freedom to meet with whomever can contribute to democracy-building without embarrassing our accredited ambassador or high commissioner or the government of Canada. Why deny ourselves such a supple instrument, especially as it is almost universally acknowledged in the international community that Canada has a wealth of talent and skilled practitioners in areas like federalism, diversity, gender equity, party management and constitutional protection of human rights?

Democracy and human rights promotion abroad also enjoys multi-party support in Canada and this consensus is important in a world where partisanship grows more pervasive. Both the Liberal and Conservative parties have in the recent past committed to establishing such an agency in their election platforms. The New Democratic Party was a strong proponent of Rights and Democracy, the defunct government-funded agency. And in the field, former MPs and supporters of all parties have made common cause in trying to use their expertise to help emerging democracies be born, survive and grow. Whatever divides us in Canadian politics at home dissolves abroad when you are working on the fundamentals of free expression, gender equity, human rights and good governance. In a partisan age, multipartisan support for a good idea is no small thing and should be acted upon readily.

Never has the time been better for Canada to step up and make democracy and human rights promotion a central priority of our foreign policy. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, in 2019, has again held hearings on the need for human rights and democracy promotion abroad. An all-party Democracy Caucus has been created in the 42nd Parliament. All parties have, at one time or another, made democratic and human rights promotion central to their election platforms: The Harper Conservatives in the 2008 election, and the Liberal party in the 2011 campaign are cases in point. As our parties robustly contend in our own democratic election in 2019 what better legacy could there be from that contest than a multi-party commitment to do our best to help others on our planet enjoy the benefits of liberty?

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