Is the world turning back to authoritarianism ?

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By Cristina Valdés Argüelles

The 23rd of February 2016, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy took place in Geneva, assembling hundreds of activists, human rights promoters, former political prisoners from China, Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, among other countries, international human rights NGOs and interested listeners. This ceremony is held every year to lay the cards on the table ; to examine the international current situation ; to address actual human rights violations ; to listen to testimonies of true human rights heroes; to promote democracy and freedom ; to join forces so as to find solutions and, most important, to make the world a better place to live.

During the conference, an interesting discussion came up: Over the past decade, totalitarian authorities have raised and gained more power internationally, repressing the growth of democracy and undermining the population’s rights and values. It might be assumable that humanity, after more than three million years of evolution since the Australopithecus apheresis Lucy, has reached a great level of evolution and promotion of the values of human rights. However, the reality of the global arena seems to point into the opposite direction. Is the world coming back to authoritarianism?

Democracy and Human Rights

If we take a closer look to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international compilation of procedural rules within individuals, for everyone in every nation, we may perceive that the basis of democracy might be the core behind each of its articles. Or, if preferred, democracy is intrinsically and strictly linked to human rights and vice versa.

Democracy might be defined, summarized in a few words, as a political order of representative government in which the power flows from the people and for the people. Every citizen has inviolable rights – and obligations – that cannot be alienate and which are protected by a set of laws: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights); “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.” (Article 7, Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Therefore, it would be no wonder that democracy and the values it defends should spread all over the world. “We need to engage with the dismantling of the rule of law, of democracy and the like in the international arena. We need serious and substantive reform of our international institutions so that they adhere to the rule of law, universalism, human rights and equality.” (Hoey, 2016).

The threat to democracy

In the past decade, undemocratic regimes have become more and more noticeable internationally, especially in countries such as China, Russia, Venezuela or Saudi Arabia, among, unfortunately, a lot of other countries. These regimes act as a barrier to freedom and they challenge the development of a liberal, universal order. “Authoritarianism is resurgent at the same time as democracy is not only in retreat, but is being silenced.” (Cotler, 2016). Moreover, we can also perceive a growing gap between governments and the people in Western developed liberal countries. “The problem is not just over there – in Russia, in the CIS, in China, in Africa, in the Middle East. It’s here – in the heart of the leading democracies… There’s a crisis of democracy in the West, in the advanced Western democracies […] The symptoms are clear for anyone who wants to see them.” (Hoey, 2016).

In order to illustrate the above mentioned, some specific examples can be mentioned, such as, for instance, the TTIP negotiations, where the general outcome of the public consultation was largely negative. “The collective submissions reflect a wide-spread opposition to investor-State dispute settlement (ISDS) in TTIP or in general. There is also quite a majority of replies opposing TTIP in general. In these submissions, the ISDS mechanism is perceived as a threat to democracy and public finance or to public policies. It is also considered as unnecessary between the EU and the US, in view of the perceived strength of the respective judicial systems.” (European Comission, 2015: 14). Still, the project is on the table. Another example might be the cases of corruption and fraud that citizens of developed democratic countries have witnessed: Spain and Greece appear among the most corrupted countries in Europe; Italy, Member State of the EU and part of the G20 has one of the highest rates of corruption, along with South Africa and Senegal with a percentage of 44/100 (in a scale where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 very clean) according to the data of the Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Concerning corruption, also banking scandals have been the order of the day: “In Western Europe a relentless stream of banking scandals continued in 2015, as Deutsche Bank paid a record US$2.5 billion to settle allegations that it manipulated the Libor benchmark rate.” (Transparency International, 2015).

A liberal world order seems to be in decadence and the solution is not easy. This particular political regime is characterized by devolving the decision making to the people, the citizens. Therefore, it should not be transported and imposed from one place to the other; it would just be a contradictory principle. “Democracy is not ours to command – it’s wrong in principle and bad in practice. It’s wrong in principle because democracy cannot be introduced from the outside. Democracy means nothing unless it’s government by the people. It has to be fought for and won by the people and as an internal process. To think that you can bring democracy from outside in any other way is fundamentally undemocratic.” (Hoey, 2016).

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt



1) I. Cotler, J. Hoey, Y. Jianli and S. Zalishchuk. (2016). Panel on Authoritarianism. In: Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. Available at: [accessed on February, 2016].

2) Universal Declaration for Human Rights. Available in: [accessed on February, 2016].

3) A. Cooley, R. Deibert, P. Merloe (2015). Authoritarianism Goes Global. Journal of Democracy, Volume 26(3). Available at: [accessed on March, 2016].

4) European Commission. (2015). Online public consultation on investment protection and investor-to-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement. [online] Brussels: p. 14. Available at: [accessed on March, 2016]

5) Transparency International. (2015). Corruption Perception Index 2015. Available at: [accessed on March, 2016]

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