U.S. and European Officials Examine “Backlash against Democracy” at IRI Sponsored Seminar

As the promotion of democracy and human rights assumes an increasingly important role in the United States and the European Union (EU), democracy promotion is experiencing a backlash in many countries around the world, confronting deliberate measures by regimes to frustrate freedom’s progress and suppress human rights.

To look at this issue, the International Republican Institute (IRI) gathered politicians and activists from some of the world’s most repressed countries, including Belarus, Burma, Tunisia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, along with many of the leading democracy promoting institutions and foundations of the United States and Europe for a roundtable seminar entitled, “Atlantic Responses to the Backlash: The EU and U.S. Engagement on the New Impediments to Democracy and Human Rights Promotion,” in Belgrade, Serbia, March 23 to 24.

Elizabeth Dugan, Vice President for Programs at IRI, opened the roundtable saying, “There’s no one in this room who needs to be convinced of the threat that this backlash movement has presented to the momentum of our dedication to supporting the growth of open, democratic, free societies in the world.  The debate on the existence of that threat is over.  So instead, our task is to consider how we may collectively counter it.”

Activists from Zimbabwe joined the seminar via live video teleconference.  Roy Bennett, with the Movement for Democratic Change, addressed the gathering from Johannesburg, South Africa.  “When regimes like this continue with impunity, it only emboldens them.  It’s by virtue of people speaking out in solidarity that regimes like the Mugabe regime around the world can be exposed,” he said.

With the benefit of first-hand accounts from political leaders like Bennett, the seminar was intended to offer a detailed illustration of the nature of the “backlash” against democracy as well as advance the debate on appropriate approaches to democracy promotion at a time when many, particularly in Europe, are giving these questions careful consideration.

“Those of us who follow the international democracy and human rights agenda have long endorsed the “democracy backlash” analysis,” Vice President of the European Parliament Edward McMillan-Scott commented on the differences between U.S. and European approaches.
“Europe should now follow the U.S. example by establishing a European Endowment for Democracy, at arm’s length from the EU, and EU-level political party foundations to internationalize the party-to-party democracy promotion agenda.”

Drawing from the report issued last year by the National Endowment for Democracy on the Democracy Backlash, the Belgrade seminar examined the political and legal nature of the new obstacles, offered a detailed look, from the perspective of several specific country cases, at the practical effects of this growing opposition to democracy promotion, and offered recommendations for a more effective response.

“We helped Solidarity in Poland.  We didn’t ask the government of Poland’s permission to help Solidarity in the 1980s,” recalled National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman.

“You need something that is transparent, something that is open, something that is nongovernmental,” Gershman continued, supporting the McMillan-Scott proposal, “so that you can continue to operate without being constrained by the diplomatic concerns and priorities of the European Union.”

Other participants in the transatlantic seminar included: Ewa Björling, Sweden; Eduardo Guttierez, Spain; Jörg Ketelsen, EU Commission; Jeffrey Krilla, Department of State, USA; David Moore, USA; Claudia Nolte, former federal minister, Germany; Pantelis Sklias, Greece; and Rein Tammsaar, EU Council.  

The seminar was made possible with funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and support from the Constantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Spain’s Foundation for Social Analysis and Studies, and the Eduardo Frei Foundation.

Up ArrowTop