On December 8, Bouthaina Shaaban, political and media adviser to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, said that China, Russia, Iran and India are changing the world from a unipolar system dominated by the United States to a multipolar system, where power is distributed.
Shaaban’s comments came via video during the South-South Human Rights Forum, a conference organized by China. The forum, first held in Beijing in 2017, touts the idea that each state should choose a human rights development path that suits its specific conditions.
This year, the forum coincided with the December 9-10 Summit for Democracy organized by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to promote democratic norms, with a focus of confronting authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting human rights.
More than over 100 countries were invited to the summit, but China, Russia, Nicaragua and most countries of the Middle East, except for Iraq and Israel, were left out.
Both conferences arrive against a backdrop of what Freedom House, the U.K. watchdog group, said is a worsening decline for democracy worldwide. And the countries largely responsible for that decline include China and Russia, where power is concentrated in autocratic leaders.
“The ongoing decline has given rise to claims of democracy’s inherent inferiority,” Freedom House said it its 2021 annual report.
“Proponents of this idea include official Chinese and Russian commentators seeking to strengthen their international influence while escaping accountability for abuses, as well as antidemocratic actors within democratic states who see an opportunity to consolidate power.
“They are both cheering the breakdown of democracy and exacerbating it, pitting themselves against the brave groups and individuals who have set out to reverse the damage.”
Shaaban’s comments align with that Chinese-Russian narrative, which warps the definition of democracy. Iran is an Islamic dictatorship, while India, according to Freedom House, has become less free and democratic under Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party.
Shaaban claimed that the U.S.-sponsored summit was comprised of countries hand-picked by Washington in accord with democratic standards set by the West. She further said that the uninvited countries might in fact be the most democratic countries in the world.
“[In] Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has just won a landslide victory in his elections. While the U.S. does not acknowledge Nicaragua as a democracy … 74% of people voted for Daniel Ortega,” Shaaban said.
But that is false. Syria is an autocracy, not a democracy, and the elections in Nicaragua fell far short of meeting the requirements for a truly democratic vote.
In fact, most countries called Nicaragua’s presidential election, held in early November, a “sham” after President Ortega jailed opposition candidates and silenced the press, clearing a path to win a fourth consecutive term, alongside his vice president and wife, Rosario Murillo.
Nicaraguan authorities arrested dozens of critics and opposition leaders under guise of security concerns. Ortega claimed that the government has the right to defend the peace in the country against what he called “terrorists.” In June, Human Rights Watch accused the government of a “a broader strategy to suppress dissent, instill fear, and restrict political participation”:
“The administration of President Daniel Ortega has launched a campaign of arbitrary detention and harassment of government critics, including human rights defenders, journalists, and members of the political opposition. At the same time, the government has used its majority in the National Assembly to enact far-reaching restrictions on civil and political rights and an electoral “reform” that in fact makes it easier to remove potential political rivals.”
Facebook said it shut down a troll farm of nearly 1,000 fake accounts linked to Ortega’s government that spread defamatory information about the opposition and praised the regime.
Urnas Abiertas, a Nicaraguan election observation group, said that, contrary to the claims made by media outlets close to Ortega’s government that there was “massive participation” in the election, more than 80% of eligible voters did not show up at the polls.
Amnesty International warned that Ortega’s re-election will spur a new cycle of human rights abuses.
“The elections were marked by arbitrary arrests of activists and journalists, among other acts of harassment, coercion and political violence. Press freedom has also been in the government’s crosshairs, and the media have denounced restrictions and obstacles that have made it impossible for them to carry out their work,” Amnesty said.
The United Nations describes democracy as a system that “provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in which the freely expressed will of people is exercised.”
The Universal Declaration for Human Rights states that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”
Those principles were not upheld in Nicaragua’s elections, nor in Syria.
Syria’s own presidential election, held in May, handed President Assad a fourth seven-year-term, and was portrayed by Damascus and its allies as “free.” Assad’s re-election was his second during a decade in which civil war killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
U.S. human rights groups and Western officials said the Syrian presidential election was a “sham” with no serious competition for Assad. Millions of refugees could not vote in the election, and many of the people who did participate in Syria did so under compulsion.
The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in northeastern Syria dismissed the elections because they did not meet U.N. protocols. It called on the Syrian government to release thousands of political detainees who have been held in underground prisons for years.
Following is what Freedom House had to say about China, Russia, Iran and India in its latest report on the status of democracy. All are categorized by Freedom House as “not free” except India, which slipped in status from “free” to “partly free” last year:
“China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the state bureaucracy, the media, online speech, religious groups, universities, businesses, and civil society associations, and it has undermined its own already modest rule-of-law reforms.”
“Power in Russia’s authoritarian political system is concentrated in the hands of President Vladimir Putin. With loyalist security forces, a subservient judiciary, a controlled media environment, and a legislature consisting of a ruling party and pliable opposition factions, the Kremlin is able to manipulate elections and suppress genuine dissent.”
“Ultimate power rests in the hands of the [Iran’s] supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control. These institutions, including the security forces and the judiciary, play a major role in the suppression of dissent and other restrictions on civil liberties.”
“While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized.”
Finally, Freedom House scored Syria next to the bottom of its global freedom ranking, which measures political and civil liberties. Syria received a total of 1 point out of 100 possible. The group’s bottom line on Syria:
“Political rights and civil liberties in Syria are severely compromised by one of the world’s most repressive regimes and by other belligerent forces in an ongoing civil war. The regime prohibits genuine political opposition and harshly suppresses freedoms of speech and assembly. Corruption, enforced disappearances, military trials, and torture are rampant in government-controlled areas. Residents of contested regions or territory held by nonstate actors are subject to additional abuses, including intense and indiscriminate combat, sieges and interruptions of humanitarian aid, and mass displacement.”
“In June, President Bashar al-Assad dismissed the prime minister, who had held his post since 2016. The move came amid deteriorating economic conditions and just ahead of parliamentary elections in July, which were conducted only in regime-held areas and featured no meaningful competition.”