On June 25, the Stockholm-based International IDEA and the National Endowment for Democracy initiated an open letter, “A Call to Defend Democracy,” warning of governments using the covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to tighten their grip on power and restrict democratic freedoms. More than five-hundred political and civil leaders, Nobel laureates, and prodemocracy organizations have signed the letter, which is below:
The covid-19 pandemic threatens more than the lives and the livelihoods of people throughout the world. It is also a political crisis that threatens the future of liberal democracy.
Authoritarian regimes, not surprisingly, are using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their political grip. But even some democratically elected governments are fighting the pandemic by amassing emergency powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance without regard to legal constraints, parliamentary oversight, or timeframes for the restoration of constitutional order. Parliaments are being sidelined, journalists are being arrested and harassed, minorities are being scapegoated, and the most vulnerable sectors of the population face alarming new dangers as the economic lockdowns ravage the very fabric of societies everywhere.
Repression will not help to control the pandemic. Silencing free speech, jailing peaceful dissenters, suppressing legislative oversight, and indefinitely canceling elections all do nothing to protect public health. On the contrary, these assaults on freedom, transparency, and democracy will make it more difficult for societies to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis through both government and civic action.
It is not a coincidence that the current pandemic began in a country where the free flow of information is stifled and where the government [End Page 189] punished those warning about the dangers of the virus—warnings that were seen as spreading rumors harmful to the prestige of the state. When voices of responsible citizens are suppressed, the results can be deadly, not for just one country but for the entire world.
Democracy is not just a cherished ideal. It is the system of government best suited to addressing a crisis of the magnitude and complexity of covid-19. In contrast to the self-serving claims of authoritarian propaganda, credible and free flows of information, fact-based debate about policy options, the voluntary self-organization of civil society, and open engagement between government and society are all vital assets in combating the pandemic. And they are all key elements of liberal democracy.
It is only through democracy that societies can build the social trust that enables them to persevere in a crisis, maintain national resilience in the face of hardship, heal deep societal divisions through inclusive participation and dialogue, and retain confidence that sacrifice will be shared and the rights of all citizens respected.
It is only through democracy that independent civil society, including women and young people, can be empowered to partner with public institutions, to assist in the delivery of services, to help citizens stay informed and engaged, and to bolster social morale and a sense of common purpose.
It is only though democracy that free media can play their role of informing people so that they can make sound personal and family decisions, scrutinize government and public institutions, and counter disin-formation that seeks to tear societies apart.
It is only through democracy that society can strike a sustainable balance between competing needs and priorities—between combatting the spread of the virus and protecting economic security; and between implementing an effective response to the crisis and protecting people’s civil and political rights in accordance with constitutional norms and guarantees.
It is only in democracies that the rule of law can protect individual liberties from state intrusion and constraint well beyond what is necessary to contain a pandemic.
It is only in democracies that systems of public accountability can monitor and circumscribe emergency government powers, and terminate them when they are no longer needed.
It is only in democracies that government data on the scope and health impact of the pandemic can be believed.
Democracy does not guarantee competent leadership and effective governance. While democracies predominate among the countries that have acted most effectively to contain the virus, other democracies have functioned poorly in responding to the pandemic and have paid a very high price in human life and economic security. Democracies that perform [End Page 190] poorly further weaken society and create openings for authoritarians.
But the greatest strength of democracy is its capacity for self-correction. The covid-19 crisis is an alarming wake-up call, an urgent warning that the freedoms we cherish are at risk and that we must not take them for granted. Through democracy, citizens and their elected leaders can learn and grow. Never has it been more important for them to do that.
The current pandemic represents a formidable global challenge to democracy. Authoritarians around the world see the covid-19 crisis as a new political battleground in their fight to stigmatize democracy as feeble and reverse its dramatic gains of the past few decades. Democracy is under threat, and people who care about it must summon the will, the discipline, and the solidarity to defend it. At stake are the freedom, health, and dignity of people everywhere.
Following the imprisonment of her husband, presidential candidate and activist Siarhei, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya ran for office against longtime incumbent president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. After the government announced that Lukashenka had won a sixth term in an August 9 landslide, hundreds of thousands participated in the largest nonviolent demonstrations in Belarusian history. (See essays by Sławomir Sierakowski on pp. 5–16 and Lucan Ahmad Way on pp. 17– 27.) An excerpt follows from Tsikhanouskaya’s August 21 televised statement, the first after she went into exile in Lithuania.
Our common goal is simple. We do not want to live anymore in fear and lies. We want what all people in the world have a right to— the right to live, the right not to be beaten in the streets, the right not to be jailed without trial, and the right to [an] honest, transparent, and fair election. Belarus has woken up now. Hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets of towns and villages say “Go away!” Thousands of workers have proclaimed strikes to say “Enough!” Enough of lies, enough of intimidating people, enough of lawlessness and violence. Violence should stop, political prisoners should be released, given freedom, and the elections should be conducted again in a free, honest, and transparent way. This is what the Belarusian people demand. . . .
On 31 October 2017, Osman Kavala, founder of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey and advocate for that country’s Kurdish and Armenian minorities, was taken into custody by national authorities [End Page 191] on dubious charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Representatives of five nonprofits sent an open letter to the U.S. Department of State on July 23 to mark one-thousand days since his arrest. The full text follows:
As representatives of Amnesty International USA, Freedom House, PEN America, and the Project on Middle East Democracy, we are writing to draw your attention to an important matter concerning Turkey.
Monday, July 27 will mark the one-thousandth day of Turkish civil society leader Osman Kavala’s unjust imprisonment. Kavala has devoted his life and wealth to nonviolent social causes aimed at promoting a more civil and just Turkey. Kavala has been a particular champion of dialogue between Turkey’s Muslim-Turkish majority and Kurdish, Armenian, and other minorities.
Since Kavala was taken into custody in October 2017, he has been charged, absurdly and without evidence, with attempting to overthrow the government through mass protests; aiding a coup attempt; and conducting espionage on behalf of the U.S. government. A December 2019 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)—whose decisions Turkish courts are bound to implement—found no evidence against Kavala and ordered his immediate release. In February 2020, Kavala was acquitted of “attempting to overthrow the government.” In March, however, the prosecutor brought forth the espionage charge—in a move largely seen as a way to bypass the ECtHR ruling and keep Kavala in prison under a new case for political reasons.
Kavala’s case is emblematic of the thousands of people arbitrarily detained in Turkish prisons in the context of politically motivated prosecutions, simply for exercising their rights to peaceful opposition and freedom of expression. We believe that this issue is of utmost importance for Turkey’s fundamental freedoms and human rights record. We therefore urge the United States government to make a public statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Kavala and all prisoners of conscience in Turkey, on July 27, the thousandth day of Kavala’s unjust detention.
Turkey’s human rights record is an essential U.S. interest because of its close correlation with the country’s long-term stability. Turkey must urgently stop its unlawful and unjust detentions of civil society leaders, journalists, academics, politicians, and ordinary citizens for political reasons. A U.S. statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Kavala would send a strong message to the Turkish government that the United States views human rights in Turkey as a priority. [End Page 192]