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How Biden Can Fight Abuses of Power to Save Democracy

The 2023 Summit for Democracy, beginning on March 28, is a genuine personal commitment from President Biden. And rightly so—for democracy is under assault around the world. Only 20% of the world’s population live in countries that non-profit group Freedom House judge to be “fully free.” But the great danger is not just that democracy is under attack, but that the rule of law and systems of accountability are being eroded in all areas of life.

Impunity, in other words, is the rising global instinct of choice. The notion that “rules are for suckers” is on the march, and everyone is paying the price—from civilians in conflict zones to future generations staring down the long-term effects of the climate crisis. As I wrote during the first Summit for Democracy in 2021, framing the defense of democracy within the wider battle for accountability would sharpen the Summit’s agenda, and build greater buy-in from many of the Global South countries for whom the framing of democracy versus autocracy has not been convincing.

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The recently released Atlas of Impunity, published by the Eurasia Group and the Chicago Council for Global Affairs, highlights how widespread impunity has become. The Atlas, which is based on more than 65 independent, credible global data sources, scores 197 countries and territories across five areas of impunity: abuse of human rights, unaccountable governance, conflict and violence, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation. Each of these sites of impunity reflect the concentration and abuse of power.

By using impunity rather than democracy as the prism through which to understand global challenges, the Atlas captures the multidimensional nature of global challenges. This approach also highlights the work required from all countries, whether they are democracies or not. The “great powers,” especially the United States, are a case in point: the U.S. ranks 118th out of 163 countries in the Atlas, putting the U.S. closer to countries in the Global South like Argentina or South Africa than to countries like Germany or Japan. Although most residents in the U.S. enjoy full civil liberties and low levels of mass conflict or violence, the U.S. has a higher level of impunity than many of its high-income peers due to middling scores on discrimination, inequality, and democratic access. The country’s arms exports are an even bigger negative factor.

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An impunity framing also acknowledges that while accountability is essential to democracy, a democratic system of government alone is insufficient to guarantee an accountable society. It should be a strong point of emphasis in the Summit for Democracy that democratic countries like the U.S., India, Israel, and Malaysia all perform more poorly on human rights indicators than on governance measures. Similarly, while many liberal democracies like Canada perform well on most indicators of impunity, its poor performance on environmental degradation highlights the spaces impunity continues to thrive even within otherwise accountable societies.

As the Atlas of Impunity highlights, impunity is the driving force behind many of the world’s greatest shared challenges. But the Biden administration will miss an important opportunity to achieve its goal of uniting countries around a common global agenda if it fails to link its defense of democracy with promotion of the rule of law. As the international reaction to the war in Ukraine has shown, critical swing voters in the international system have not been swayed by arguments from the West about the vital need to defend Ukraine.

Two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries that are officially neutral or supportive of Russia, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, and these countries do not fit into a convenient “axis of autocracy.” They include South Africa, India, Indonesia, and Brazil to name four democratic countries, as well as plenty of the undemocratic world, and many in between. Instead, the Biden administration should use the Summit for Democracy to situate the defense of democracy within the wider global battle for accountability, which would widen the coalition and speak more directly to the concerns of these ‘swing voters.’

With this impunity framework in hand, here are three things the Summit for Democracy could do to launch a global accountability agenda and fight back against rising impunity around the world:

First, attendees at the summit should commit to holding their own governments and militaries accountable for abuses. The U.S. Department of Defense has taken an important step in this direction through the recently released Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, which puts protection of civilians at the core of military missions, creates conditionality for U.S. security partners and establishes better pathways for accountability when civilians are killed.

Second, participants should pledge to support accountability mechanisms in the international system. The measures here range from the technocratic—like support for the now defunct Group of Eminent Experts investigating the war in Yemen—to the more political, including support for the International Criminal Court. Then there are even more ambitious proposals, like the idea of France and Mexico to suspend the U.N. Security Council veto in cases of mass atrocities.

Finally, acts of impunity will not be deterred through acts of accountability alone. That will require systems and cultures of accountability to counter systems and cultures of impunity. Summit participants build countervailing power against impunity by partnering with private sector and civil society groups to develop a global counterculture of accountability, starting with transparency over state and non-state actors violating the global rule of law.

The Summit for Democracy is an important and rare moment to bring a large swath of the world together to unite for a common global agenda. It is critical not to misuse this moment or leave behind potential coalition partners. By using the fight against impunity as its rallying cry, the Biden administration can build a truly global coalition, establish a clear agenda not only on democratic governance but on a range of shared challenges, and start the fight back against impunity in a world overrun by it.

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