Standing Together for Freedom: A Commitment to 14 Democratic Principles

This week’s Summit for Democracy provides a moment to take stock of what’s at stake and recommit ourselves to the principles that will help advance a world where all people live freely.

Ukrainian school students participate in a June 2019 opening ceremony of a USAID-supported Parliamentary Education Center.
(Press Service of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, via the U.S. Department of State / Andrii Nesterenko)

Open any newspaper these days, and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter a story about people around the world fighting for their freedoms: Ukrainians bravely defending their land and democratic values from Russian president Vladimir Putin’s imperialist ambitions. Uyghurs courageously recounting the truth of their torture in the Chinese government’s prison camps. The brave women of Iran leading street protesters in the cry, “Woman, Life, Freedom!”—even as they risk brutal government violence.  

But as people around the world stand up for democracy and human rights, dictators are learning from one another how to suppress challenges to their rule more effectively. At home, they’re dismantling the institutions that undergird a free society, and taking aim at individuals who expose their misrule.

States should support gender equality by addressing harmful gender-related norms, stereotypes, and practices that undermine women’s participation in public life, and by reviewing legislation and policies to ensure that they promote women’s political participation.

Principle #9 from the Civil Society Declaration of Democratic Principles

Political imprisonment is on the rise in many countries, as journalists, protest leaders, human rights lawyers, women’s rights activists and others are thrown in jail on trumped-up charges to silence their calls for accountability, human dignity and freedom. Autocrats are also targeting their critics abroad via a phenomenon called transnational repression. The violence we’re witnessing in places like Ukraine and Iran is just a glimpse of what the world could be like without checks on authoritarian behavior.

The latest edition of “Freedom in the World,” Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties across the globe, found that in 2022, democracy declined globally for the 17th consecutive year. A staggering 80 percent of people on Earth live in countries that are not rated fully “Free.” As authoritarians are emboldened, countries that had built democratic institutions—like Hungary, Tunisia and Turkey—have slid toward autocracy. Even long-standing democracies are struggling, as we in the United States know all too well.

Although the most recent analysis from Freedom in the World reflects another year of decline, there is also reason to hope: The gap between the number of countries that experienced declines and those that experienced gains was the narrowest it has been since the 17 years of global deterioration started, suggesting we could be at a turning point.

That’s why this week’s second Summit for Democracy could not come at a more critical time. Led by the United States, the Netherlands, Zambia, South Korea and Costa Rica, this meeting of leaders from more than 100 governments provides a global policy stage to build stronger democratic alliances and double down on commitments to address the summit’s three themes: respect for human rights, combatting corruption, and countering authoritarianism. This is a critically important time to strengthen commitments to democracy, not just by supporting drivers of democratic change in countries that aren’t free, but also committing to reform in our home countries.

Advocates for democracy and human rights will be listening carefully as heads of state from around the world affirm commitments to advance fundamental freedoms, and share updates on how they’ve followed up on pledges made at the last summit in December 2021. This is a good start. But the chasm between government speeches and government action is vast, and bridging it requires sustained public attention and coordinated political pressure.

That’s why Freedom House, along with the Bush Center and the McCain Institute, led a coalition of organizations from around the world in drafting a Declaration of Democratic Principles in the run-up to the summit. It outlines wide-ranging, actionable recommendations for advancing democracy and countering authoritarianism. More than 90 organizations have signed, including Ms.

The declaration presents 14 core principles that all democratic governments should live up to. Among them are several that promote inclusive policymaking—including by giving citizens a greater voice in government, promoting youth involvement in democratic processes, and supporting gender equality and policies that encourage women’s political participation. Recognizing that all democracies are a work in progress, the declaration states that we must hold one another accountable in pursuit of these principles and work together to reinforce shared ideals and confront common threats. 

The 14 principles and associated actions in the declaration will be presented during the official summit programming to provide a roadmap for policymakers to fight back against dictators working to extinguish calls for freedom around the world.

This struggle is not an easy one. It will require considerable work and political will from governments and citizens alike. No country can do it alone; it will require a global coalition working to hold one another accountable and to make the powerful case for democracy: it is the best form of government for ensuring peace, prosperity, sustainable development, and human dignity because it is rooted in the recognition of human rights, and allows for the orderly reconciliation of competing views and interests.

The fight for freedom is not the work of months or years, but of decades. This week’s Summit for Democracy provides a moment to take stock of what’s at stake and recommit ourselves to the principles that will help advance a world where all people live freely. This is not a task of governments alone; it requires each and every one of us to remain informed and engaged, and to stand up for freedom for all people everywhere.

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Katie LaRoque is the deputy director for policy and advocacy, and Summit for Democracy coordinator at Freedom House.