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Biden, seeing 'turning point' for democracy, offers funding push

Democratic values 'under assault', warns UN chief

By AFP - Mar 29,2023 - Last updated at Mar 29,2023

US President Joe Biden speaks during the Summit for Democracy virtual plenary on 'Democracy in the Face of Global Challenges' in the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington, DC, on Wednesday (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday promised nearly $700 million to support a global "turning point" toward democracy, painting a portrait of progress at a summit despite the growing assertiveness of China and Russia and concern elsewhere over backsliding.

Biden invited 121 leaders for his second, largely virtual "Summit for Democracy," where he also announced an alliance by like-minded countries on rules for surveillance technology — seen as a growing tool by China as its technology advances.

Biden hailed a "turning point for our world toward greater freedom, greater dignity and greater democracy."

"I believe this is the defining challenge of our age and, today, we can say with pride that the democracies of the world are getting stronger, not weaker," Biden said.

"Autocracies of the world are getting weaker, not stronger," Biden said.

His optimism stands in contrast to the latest annual report from the Swedish-based V-Dem Institute, which found that global advances in democracy over the past 35 years had been wiped out.

Freedom House, the US-backed research group, said that democracy deteriorated last year, although it also saw a growing number of bright spots.

Addressing the summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world was undergoing a "dramatic upheaval" in which democratic values are "under assault", pointing to rising attacks and restrictions on media and human rights defenders.

"Today, we see more and more despotism and less and less enlightenment," Guterres said.

Biden nonetheless pointed to progress including efforts by Angola to build an independent judiciary, anti-corruption plans by the Dominican Republic and Croatia and, at home, US voters' rejection of Donald Trump-backed deniers of the 2020 election results.

Saying it was crucial to “keep the momentum going”, Biden announced $690 million to promote democracy overseas.

The funding followed a commitment of $424 million offered at the first summit in 2021. The new funding will back programmes to stage free elections, advance independent media and strengthen action against corruption.

After criticism that the first summit was too US-focused, with Biden seeking to turn the page from Trump’s norm-shattering presidency, Biden tapped leaders on each continent — from South Korea, Zambia, Costa Rica and the Netherlands — as co-hosts.

“We must embark on a new journey to revive democracy, which is currently under attack,” said South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who announced his country would spearhead the third Summit of Democracies.

The United States also gave prominent roles at the summit to Taiwan, a self-governing democracy claimed by China and not recognised by Washington, and Ukraine, which is defending against a Russian invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the summit that his country was the frontline against a threat to all democracies from Russia.

“We should get rid of the illusion that compromising with evil can give something to freedom. The enemies of democracy must lose — and only this can be the basis of true security for democracy,” Zelensky said.

Just Tuesday, Biden voiced alarm about Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed to weaken the judiciary, unleashing massive protests with critics accusing him of denigrating democracy.

Netanyahu, who put the measures on at least temporary hold in the face of a general strike, told the summit that the alliance with the United States was “unshakable” and called Biden “a friend of 40 years.”

Addressing foreign critics, Netanyahu promised that Israel “was, is and will always remain a proud, strong and vibrant democracy as a beacon of liberty and shared prosperity in the heart of the Middle East”, and said he wanted a compromise that protects civil liberties.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, courted by the United States as a bulwark against China, also extolled the virtues of democracy days after the opposition chief was expelled from parliament over a conviction for defaming the right-wing leader.

Modi called India the “mother of democracy” — a title more frequently taken by Greece — as he pointed to the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata’s call for leaders to exercise power through consultation.

“Democracy is not just a structure; it is also a spirit,” said Modi, whose government is also accused of a growing clampdown on media.

Biden declined to invite a number of leaders over concern on their records including Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces reelection in May after two decades in power, and, alone among European Union members, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an outspoken critic of liberal values.

Close US partners who failed to make the cut include Bangladesh, Singapore and Thailand.

China — identified by Washington as the sole long-term adversary to the US-led liberal international order — and Russia both described the summit as hypocritical.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said the summit “hypes up confrontation” and will “stoke division in the name of democracy.”


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