An impressive array of more than 500 prominent world leaders, academics, and Nobel Laureates have written “A Call to Defend Democracy” in the face of a worldwide rise in government authoritarianism during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic.
The June 25 text declares that beyond health concerns the COVID-19 pandemic is “a political crisis that threatens the future of liberal democracy.”
“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,” the document asserts.
“Authoritarian regimes, not surprisingly, are using the crisis to silence critics and tighten their political grip,” the authors note. “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,” the document proclaims.
Among the many noteworthy signatories of the text are 13 Nobel prize winners, 34 former national presidents, 7 former vice presidents, 20 former prime ministers, along with the former secretary-general of NATO, the Secretary-General Organization of American States, a former U.S. Secretary of State, and numerous governors, congresspersons, members of parliament, and government ministers.
“Repression will not help to control the pandemic,” the document states. “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,” the authors add.
Perhaps surprisingly, the leaders are not shy about pointing to the origins of the coronavirus and to call out China for its grievous mishandling of the disease.
“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 punished those warning about the dangers of the virus — warnings that were seen as spreading rumors harmful to the prestige of the state,” the text declares. “When voices of responsible citizens are suppressed, the results can be deadly, not for just one country but for the entire world.”
The text asserts that Democracy is not just a cherished ideal but also “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,” they writers state.
The text not only affirms the importance of the democratic process, but also the uncensured flow of information and the vital defense of free speech, which are necessary so that free citizens can make decisions for themselves.
“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 disinformation that seeks to tear societies apart,” the document reads.
It is only through democracy that society can strike a sustainable balance between “implementing an effective response to the crisis and protecting people’s civil and political rights in accordance with constitutional norms and guarantees,” the authors observe.
“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,” they add.
Democracy is not a panacea and “does not guarantee competent leadership and effective governance,” the text acknowledges. “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.”
“The current pandemic represents a formidable global challenge to democracy,” the writers conclude.
“Democracy is under threat, and people who care about it must summon the will, the discipline, and the solidarity to defend it,” they state. “At stake are the freedom, health, and dignity of people everywhere.”