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When authoritarians get a free pass, activists pay the price

The Biden administration must make protecting the lives of activists and journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi a priority

Regan Ralph in interview with Mary
Regan Ralph
2 May 2021, 12.00am
President Biden should know the price of authoritarian impunity is paid by the victims
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Newscom/Alamy Live News

Much ink has been spilled about US president Joe Biden’s non-response to the confirmation by US intelligence services that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman directed the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018. Most of it, like Joseph S. Nye, Jr.’s recent article ‘Biden and Human Rights’, focuses on the political consequences.

The real price of authoritarian impunity, however, is paid by the victims. Pulled punches – like refusing to sanction the crown prince – endanger the lives of brave individuals standing up for democratic values. If the Biden administration is to deliver on its promise to “stand firm behind our commitments to human rights, democracy, [and] the rule of law”, it must make protecting the lives of activists a priority.

In 2020, 50 journalists were killed worldwide. For activists and advocates, the numbers are even grimmer – at least 331 human rights defenders in 25 countries were murdered. Countless others were detained, beaten, and threatened with worse. Women, especially, are singled out for sexualized violence and harassment. And the number of human rights activists killed, harassed, or thrown in jail is steadily rising. According to UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor, 1,300 peaceful activists were murdered between 2015 and 2019.

Like journalists, frontline activists are targeted by the powerful institutions they publicly criticize. Last month marked five years since the murder of Honduran environmental justice advocate Berta Caceres. She was gunned down in her home on the night of 2 March 2016, after a years-long campaign of harassment and intimidation. Caceres was killed because of her peaceful struggle against the Agua Zarca dam project, which threatens the land and livelihoods of indigenous Lenca communities in western Honduras.

Investigations into Caceres’s murder indicated an elaborate web of co-conspirators, including high-level government officials, former military personnel, and top executives at Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA)—the company building the dam. Seven men, hired by DESA executives, were convicted in 2018 for Caceres’s murder. DESA’s president, a former military intelligence officer, will stand trial next month. He is indicted as the “intellectual author” of the assassination.

These brutal murders are tragedies. They also reveal the costs incurred when we indulge authoritarians as they crack down on voices of dissent.

Not long ago, it seemed that the price of oppression was on the rise. There was a growing consensus that brutal, autocratic actions would isolate a country from the international community. Powerful actors on the world stage, including the US State Department, could and did support the right of independent voices to criticize abuses of power and call for accountability.

Then the new authoritarians came to power. In countries across the world, illiberal and autocratic strongmen granted each other the gift of impunity and permission to silence critics without consequence. Human rights advocates watched with grim resignation as former president Donald Trump’s administration excused gross rights violations and embraced abusive regimes.

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Existential threats to human rights activism are not theoretical; they grow more concrete and specific every day

The now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), for example, was established in 2006 with political and financial support from the United States and the United Nations. It scored groundbreaking victories against corrupt and abusive political and military figures. In 2015, Joe Biden, then US vice-president, helped keep the CICIG alive while the then Guatemalan president Perez Molina – later imprisoned on corruption charges – tried to shut it down. But in 2019, when the Guatemalan government dismantled the CICIG, there was nary a peep from Washington.

Existential threats to human rights activism are not theoretical; they grow more concrete and specific every day. As the Trump administration turned a blind eye, the Egyptian government cracked down on critics, harassing or jailing thousands of activists and journalists. Local advocates say President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been emboldened by the lack of consequences over his government’s flagrant disregard for human rights.

Civil society activists are vulnerable wherever they live and travel. Khashoggi’s murder shows the lengths to which an unchecked authoritarian will go to silence critics. This is what happens when heavyweight governments like the United States abdicate their moral leadership—frontline advocates everywhere in the world pay the price. It is unfathomably cruel to valorize the bravery of human rights advocates on the one hand and refuse to hold their murderers accountable on the other.

US leadership should offer the kind of moral suasion that will effectively counter and curtail attacks on human rights defenders. Others, including Khashoggi’s own colleagues at The Washington Post, have outlined the immediate actions Biden can take to hold Saudi Arabia’s crown prince accountable. But beyond sanctions for egregious violations, the Biden administration must do more to proactively support the thousands of courageous individuals who risk their lives to promote democracy and justice.

First, the administration should consistently apply the human rights norms it espouses—at home and abroad. Second, it must lend political and, where appropriate, financial support to those building democratic movements and institutions, especially when their efforts are attacked. Last, it should explore the creation of a novel global security compact, following the collective protection model pioneered by local activists. The safety of human rights defenders anywhere is the concern of governments everywhere, and policymakers must take measures to ensure that all civil society actors can carry out their vital work in safety.

The schoolyard teaches us that bullies don’t back down when they get what they want; instead, they demand more. It’s time to stand up to autocratic bullies and hold them accountable for their actions. The lives of countless brave activists may depend on it.

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