Over the past three years, the Arab uprisings have created the idea that the climate, internationally, for democracy and human rights has been improving. As I write in my new book Democracy in Retreat, the Arab uprisings have been essentially canceled out by regression, over the past ten years, in parts of South and Southeast Asia, Eastern and Southern Europe, and Africa. Many other reports have come to similar conclusions, including Freedom House’s annual report and the new Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) study of global democracy, released earlier this month.
Now the U.S. Department of State weighs in. Its annual country reports on human rights are necessarily more politicized than Freedom House or the EIU—there is lobbying inside the State Department about the reports that never would happen at a nongovernmental reporter, and it is loath to condemn some of the United States’ closest allies. Still, its report notes similar trends as Freedom House and my book. Globally, civil society, the lifeblood of democracy, is being challenged more than ever, the report states. “Increased headwinds buffeted civil society in 2012, as governments continued to repress or attack the means by which individuals can organize, assemble, or demand better performance from their rulers,” it notes in the overview of the report. “From Iran to Venezuela, crackdowns on civil society included new laws impeding or preventing freedoms of expression, assembly, association and religion; heightened restrictions on organizations receiving funding from abroad; and the killing, harassment, and arrest of political, human rights, and labor activists.”
Meanwhile, although reforms in Myanmar and some Arab countries appear promising, other once-promising young democracies like Sri Lanka, Kenya, Hungary, and many others continue to stagnate or backslide toward repression. Even in the Arab world, retrenchment by autocrats and cynicism by populaces about democratic governance already threatens hard-fought gains. And while I think it is highly doubtful that the change is Myanmar is due much to the “sustained U.S. and international pressure to reform [there]” that the report offers credit to, it is true that the country has witnessed dramatic shifts since 2010. Still, the possibility of Myanmar disintegrating into a failing state remains just as high as it prospering into a stable democracy.