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Summit for Democracy 2021 – taking stock one month later

Annika Silva-Leander (with the support of Elisenda Balleste-Buxo) of International IDEA made an initial analysis of the (verbal) country commitments made at the Summit. It was conducted by coding the written transcripts of the official statements made by countries and is aimed as a resource for civil society and other actors to aid in their advocacy efforts as they monitor the outcomes of the Summit. The analysis is likely to change once the written country commitments have been made public by the end of January 2022.

Read the full analysis here on the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance website.

The main points include:

  • In response to the increasing challenges to democracy worldwide, the first ever global Summit for Democracy was held in December 2021, at the invitation of the United States administration. A second one is planned for the end of 2022, after a ‘year of action’, during which governments will implement their commitments and civil society and the media will monitor their progress. The Summits provide a historical opportunity to strengthen collaboration between democracies of all kinds to collectively address common challenges in the face of increasing authoritarian threats.
  • While some have lauded the initiative of the Summit as a historical opportunity to strengthen democracy globally at a time of historic democratic decline, others have voiced concerns over the risk of lofty goals, unfulfilled promises and a divisive approach that risks reinforcing geopolitical rifts.
  • Governments have the 2022 year of action to implement their commitments and report back on their achievements by December.
  • 110 countries, in addition to the President of the European Commission and the United Nations Secretary-General were invited by the United States. 100 countries accepted the invitation and 97 plus the United States made virtual statements. Countries that did not attend were mostly from Asia (Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Timor Leste, and five Pacific Islands), and two from Africa (Seychelles and South Africa). Concerns about offending China were put forward as a reason for non-attendance by some analysts.
  • Fewer than half of the statements referred to specific commitments. As could be expected from brief recorded video interventions, the majority of official statements included generic or no commitments (53%) and 65% of statements referred to existing reforms rather than forward-looking commitments.
  • Some countries (29) stood out for presenting more specific and new commitments. However, against what some may have expected, the most ambitious ones were not necessarily made by the most advanced democracies (although some like Canada, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the United States did) but also by some more recent democracies (i.e. Dominica, Dominican Republic, Kosovo) and non-democratic regimes (the Democratic Republic of the Congo). On the other hand, no articulated commitments could be discerned in statements of high-performing democracies such as Switzerland or mid-range ones such as Argentina, Lithuania and Slovenia. Some older democracies such as Denmark and Iceland left their contributions very general. It remains to be seen whether their written commitments will provide more specificity.
  • Most (but not all) countries presented some form of commitment to strengthen democracy at home (89 countries or 91%). Thirty-eight countries presented commitments to strengthen democracy abroad, including several newer democracies that are not traditionally known for providing democracy assistance (i.e. Czechia, Republic of Korea and Taiwan); 32 countries made both types of commitments; 5 countries only made commitments to strengthen democracy abroad; and 9 countries promised increased funding for international democracy assistance, including some of these newer democracy assistance countries.
  • Among the efforts to strengthen democracy at home, corruption came out as a first priority for most governments (51 countries), followed by efforts to promote inclusion of marginalized groups and to fight discrimination (36 countries). The issues that were least prioritized were parliaments, access to justice, public service delivery and civil society.
  • However, there was some mismatch between domestic and democracy abroad commitments, with media freedom topping the list of the latter, followed by efforts to fight disinformation and create a safe and inclusive digital space, combat corruption, support civil society, protect human rights and promote gender equality. The issues that were least prioritized abroad were judicial independence, access to justice, parliaments, social rights and basic welfare, and social group equality (the latter which came out among the top of domestic commitments). To achieve the greatest impact and be credible, international support needs not only to be matched by domestic efforts and political will in recipient countries, but donor countries should lead by example with domestic efforts to address critical issues at home.
  • Canada and Taiwan, which also scored high (as did the United States), in addition to Brazil and Japan, top the list of countries to have first made their written commitments publicly available within one month of Summit, 26 January 2022, these were the only countries to have done so.
  • The written commitments from Canada, Taiwan and the United States are all ambitious in nature, tackling both democracy at home and abroad. However, verbal commitments that also seem promising in terms of their ambition levels at home and abroad include Estonia and the Republic of Korea. Costa Rica, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Malta stood out for their efforts to strengthen democracy at home.
  • The most ailing democracies attending the Summit—apart from the host country—did not impress with plans to tackle their democratic shortcomings. Backsliding Slovenia made no commitment at all; Brazil, India and Poland left theirs generic; while President Duterte of the Philippines stuck to promising free and fair elections in 2022.
  • What the Summit made clear is that, while the democratic world is diverse and contains varying democratic trajectories, newer and older democracies also face many common challenges, ranging from foreign interference in elections, disinformation and hate speech, to discrimination against minorities and women. They all stand to learn from each other in the quest for better democracy. The Summit exposed interesting democratic innovations worth of sharing with other countries—such as the youth parliament in Grenada, municipal youth councils in Colombia and anti-corruption education in Kenyan schools. The Summit’s most telling example of a more level playing field in the global democracy landscape was the world’s smallest democracy, Micronesia, urging one of the world’s largest democracies (United States) to protect its democracy by passing the Freedom to Vote Act.
  • Going forward, pressure is on those 93 remaining countries that have not yet made their commitments publicly available to do so by the end of January 2022. Scrutiny will be intense over the timeliness and quality of these commitments as well as their implementation. Civil society and the media will play important roles in monitoring progress and holding governments to account on these commitments and should be invited (in addition to other stakeholders) to provide inputs and feedback on them in dialogue with governments. The accountability dimension of the Summit however raises complex questions. Who are governments accountable to for delivering on these commitments, apart from their national constituencies? The United States, other participating countries or a democratic international community outside the United Nations system? Will governments be able to deliver on reforms that may not pass parliamentary approval and will civil society have a voice in opining on their relevance? Finally, the most ambitious plans are likely to need more than a year to bear fruit. Clearly, more than two Summits for Democracy will be needed to strengthen democracy worldwide and plans should already be made for the post-2022 agenda.