The unprecedented and brazen move by the Russian government to block an annual human rights meeting is a blow to a key transatlantic institution, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), with implications beyond the transatlantic community. The OSCE’s 57 member states form the world’s largest regional security organization with a remit that includes democracy and human rights. The OSCE’s Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) should have taken place in September to continue an annual gathering in Warsaw, Poland, of hundreds of senior government figures, international experts in the field, and civil society activists.

Moscow’s obstruction of this regional assembly is just the latest, deeply troubling episode by one of the OSCE’s non-democratic member states to throw a wrench into its human rights mechanism. Even more critically, it is part of a much larger pattern of obstruction that speaks to a serious problem for democracy around the world – the determination of authoritarian powers to tear at the fabric of rules-based institutions and, in the process, reset the rules of the road.

In the transatlantic context, the OSCE built on the 1990s consensus that democratic accountability, security, and stability are integrally linked. Within the OSCE (known until 1995 as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe), the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) developed as a key element with a mandate for safeguarding free media and minority rights, and for observing elections.

But democracy is being challenged on parallel fronts. At the grassroots level, repressive governments are building on years of authoritarian governance to clamp down on activists, journalists, news outlets, and opposition figures. From Belarus to Zimbabwe to Nicaragua to the Philippines, autocrats are tightening the screws and operating with ever greater impunity on independent thought and action. China and Russia, whose regimes are in the throes of brutal crackdowns on their own populations, are standard setters for repression. They increasingly are employing digital technologies as a bulwark of their authoritarian rule.

It would be a mistake, however, to see the surging global assault on freedom as simply about instances of repression within certain countries, with perhaps an occasional spillover such as an assassination of a dissident abroad, or that it’s only about a given tactic that autocrats employ to control speech or action.

This brings us back to the OSCE and multilateral organizations writ large. A crucial front in today’s struggle over human rights and democracy centers on efforts by the authoritarians to reset norms in key standard-setting bodies. This includes the OSCE but is also the case within institutions such as the Organization of American States, whose charter enshrines values of democracy and political freedom, but where the likes of Cuba and Venezuela take great pains to hobble the protection of values such as freedom of expression and association, and the rule of law more generally. The OSCE and OAS, along with other organizations such as the Council of Europe and the African Union, seek to hold governments to their democracy and human rights commitments. Unwilling to be challenged or otherwise held accountable at home, the autocracies take steps to insulate themselves from international obligations. China and Russiaalong with a cast of other authoritarians, have focused efforts at marginalizing independent civil society participation in United Nations human rights bodies. A recent Journal of Democracy article lays out in extensive and grim detail the extent to which Beijing, working in concert with other authoritarian governments, misuses its seat on the U.N. NGO Committee to block applications from civil society groups seeking U.N. consultative status.

Through such systematic actions, non-democratic governments are chipping away at the “infrastructure” of the rules-based system that is integral to the health of democratic and human rights. With time, a negatively reinforcing cycle has emerged: as norms and standards have come under more intensive assault and been eroded at a system level, so too have activists and civil society on the ground.

This all takes on greater urgency given the rapid diffusion of emerging technologies. The autocrats are influencing key governance bodies throughout the U.N. system to shape the rules related to the technologies central to freedom in the future. A recent report by scholar Nicholas Wright points out that, absent the establishment of norms that “harness the benefits of artificial intelligence-related technologies,” we risk creating technological affordances that could lead to a “spiraling into new authoritarian forms of surveillance-based governance.”

Authoritarians are Undermining the Democratic Infrastructure

For more than a decade and a half, autocratic regimes have made a concerted effort, to the extent permitted, to hollow out from within critical institutions safeguarding fundamental freedoms. In essence, the autocrats are renegotiating standards that a quarter center ago seemed non-negotiable. One must reckon with the notion that the longstanding corrosive efforts of the Russian authorities, for example, to challenge and attack key rules-based institutions in the European context helped pave the way and give permission to the behavior that has emerged from other countries, including EU member states such as Poland and Hungary.

Autocrats, of course, have a worldview that prioritizes control over freedom, and they pursue it vigorously. To achieve their objectives, increasingly networked authoritarians are pursuing a multifront attack that couples deepening — and today often technology-based — repression at the grassroots level, with growing ambitions in standardmaking bodies that set the rules of the road.

As part of this multifaceted project, the authoritarians are also focused on the ideas realm. Over a period of years, they have made consistent arguments to assail and undermine human rights norms and standards. As Anne Applebaum observes, the autocrats, led by China, are working to “rewrite the operating language” of the international system. Central to this narrative ambition is upending the notion that state sovereignty is tied to a concept of universal human rights, a connection that the OSCE and other such bodies have sought to make real – and that autocrats are working to sever.

Forging a Response

Any response to this challenge therefore itself must be pursued on multiple fronts, including more purposeful ways to protect and support besieged activists on the ground, both within and beyond the borders of their homeland. New initiatives also are necessary to bolster the ability of democracies to compete and defend crucial principles in standard-setting organizations. This includes dedicated attention from governments and nongovernmental organizations to the funding of key international organizations, as well as to such organizations’ committee appointments, staffing, and reporting activity. Autocratic governments have made their engagement with standard-setting bodies a priority. Democracies must do so as well if we expect these institutions to fulfill their promise. This presents an opportunity in the context of the Biden Administration’s upcoming Summit for Democracy to identify more forward-leaning approaches to defending and fortifying democratic institutions and ideas.

New forms of international cooperation also are needed that incorporate the private sector and civil society into rules-setting and decision-making. Such cooperation can help fill critical gaps left by multilateralism, which operates solely on the basis of state interaction and is the clear preference of the authoritarians, who as a rule seek to sideline independent voices. Particularly in the technology sector, alternative channels for ideas, participation, and oversight could help address complex, emerging challenges. For instance, civil society should more actively participate in such bodies as the International Telecommunications Union, International Organization for Standardization, and International Electrotechnical Commission to contribute to the creation of standards for technologies like 5G and “Internet of Things” devices and to put into the discussion harmful efforts by the Chinese authorities to do the same.

More fundamentally, some serious thought should be devoted to whether the critical set of consensus-based organizations whose democracy and human rights mechanisms must contend with persistent, debilitating obstruction need to be adapted for the times? Or if new mechanisms with a more solid composition of democratic members are necessary? Given the depth and breadth of the human rights crisis globally, such questions are as relevant as at any time in the last three decades.

Open societies are under grave threat and are in this struggle together. Given the determination with which autocrats are working to shift the center of gravity within and beyond their borders, the free world must respond with its own sense of purpose to rally in defense of democracy’s infrastructure, principles, and ideas.

IMAGE: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Meeting of the Standing Committee, Vienna, July 5, 2021 (Photo courtesy of OSCE Parliamentary Assembly via Flickr)