On Apr. 2, Kyrgyzstan’s president signed into law a restrictive bill targeting the country’s nonprofit sector and modeled on Russia’s restrictive “foreign agents” law. Civil society organizations (CSOs) that receive support from abroad and engage in “political activities” – a term so vaguely defined that civil society fears it may be applied to virtually any activities the government disfavors – fear arbitrary application of the new law. The measure is already leading some organizations to close out of fear for the safety of staff.

On Mar. 21, India’s Federal Enforcement Division arrested well-known anti-corruption activist and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal has been a prominent figure in the opposition to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His arrest was immediately decried by opposition and civil society as an attempt to silence criticism of the government in the lead up to India’s federal elections, which begin on Apr. 19.

On Feb. 12, the government of Cambodia shut down one of the country’s last independent media organizations, the Voice of Democracy. The order to close came two days after Prime Minister Hun Sun, who has ruled the country since 1985, attacked the organization on Facebook.

And an ocean away, in Honduras, four union leaders, Xiomara Cocas, Delmer Garcia, Lesther Almendarez and José Rufino Ortiz, were shot and killed at a birthday party in June 2023. Though police blamed gangs, the killings took place in an environment of pervasive threats and violence against unionists in a country where labor unions have bolstered both rule of law and a fragile democracy.

The stories above are unfortunately illustrative. Around the world, anti-democratic actors – primarily, but not exclusively States – have long sought to weaken democracy by attacking pro-democracy norms. These actors have grown increasingly brazen in recent years in attacking defenders of democracy as well, targeting a wide range of organizations and individuals across a number of sectors. As the examples above demonstrate, targets have included civil society, opposition political figures, journalists, and labor activists, as well as judges, lawyers, academics, businesspeople, electoral officials, and others who safeguard democracy.

At the same time, anti-democratic actors have expanded the methods they use to attack defenders of democracy. Their toolkit of repression includes the “weaponization” of law, closing democratic space by restricting the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. These laws affect both individuals and organizations. Individuals have been targeted by measures ranging from criminal defamation suits for criticizing government officials, arrested under national security laws for social media posts, and jailed for protesting in public spaces. Organizations have been subjected to burdensome regulation, restrictions on access to funding, and forced closure. Law is, however, only one tool in the toolkit of repression. Democracy defenders, as well as their friends, families, and loved ones, also face extralegal threats, including stigmatization, harassment, intimidation, and extrajudicial killings.

The international community has established a number of efforts to address particular aspects of these threats. Among these are excellent and much-needed initiatives, such Reporter’s Shield, a program that defends print and online media and civil society organizations that report in the public interest from legal threats, and the Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, which provides ”small, short-term emergency grants to CSOs threatened because of their human rights work.” Other laudable programs, such as Scholars at Risk, and the Journalists in Distress Network, find temporary positions abroad for academics under threat in their own countries and help journalists find trauma support, replace lost equipment, or relocate to safety.

At the multilateral level, initiatives such as the CSO Coalition on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, of which the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (where I work) is an active member, seek to protect democratic norms and prevent authoritarian States from misusing multilateral bodies to justify the closing of democratic space. Another example is the Open Government Partnership, where civil society and governments co-create commitments to advance democracy with robust accountability mechanisms.

These examples are but a few of many efforts underway to support those who defend democracy. Unfortunately, gaps arise, and many individuals and organizations under threat are unable to access support matching their particular needs. It is important for supporters of democracy to take a page from the authoritarians and respond with a more holistic effort to defend defenders.

As a first step, supporters of democracy, led by democratic governments, should work together to map existing initiatives and assess what groups are left uncovered and what threats remain unaddressed. Next steps should be determined in consultation among democratic States and democracy defenders, but should include at least three broad categories of action:

  1. Promotion of Democratic Values. As part of their effort to undermine democracy at home, authoritarian governments are promoting the narrative that democracy fails to deliver. The response must include a concerted effort to counter the anti-democratic narrative. To succeed, this effort should take place at the community, national, and international levels. At the multilateral level, democratic States should strengthen both norm creation and accountability by promoting more transparent and participatory processes, including at the United Nations. At the community and national levels, democratic governments should make support for democracy defenders available to a broader set of democracy defenders, more flexible, and more practical, including digital and communications training and cross-sectoral network building.
  2. Prevent Closing of Democratic Space. Democracy supporters should seek to safeguard democratic space. At the national level, this effort should include efforts to prevent the weaponization of law to close democratic space, such as the adoption of foreign agents laws or overbroad counter-terrorism measures. At the international level, democratic States should work to protect and strengthen human rights norms key to sustaining democratic space, such as the right to access international funding, and prevent misuse of norms and mechanisms, such as the abuse of Interpol and the misuse of Recommendation 8 of the Financial Action Task Force.
  3. Protect Democracy’s Defenders. Governmental and nongovernmental supporters of democracy must do more to establish a comprehensive and holistic set of protection mechanisms to support those who come under attack and mitigate the harm they experience. To succeed, this effort should acknowledge the breadth of threats faced by supporters of democracy and offer diverse forms of assistance, including risk assessment and scenario planning support, access to flexible and emergency funding, physical and digital security training, legal assistance, reputational protection and rehabilitation, psychosocial support, trauma counseling, relocation and visa support, and help continuing vital work while in exile. It should build on and do more to link the existing protective initiatives, learn from their successes, and fill any gaps in protection that remain.

While the scale and scope of attacks on democracy defenders make this renewed effort necessary, democratic States and democracy defenders have the means and the motivation to respond. At stake are both the wellbeing of the people who support democracy and democracy itself.

IMAGE: The recording studio room at the office of online media outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD) in Phnom Penh on Feb. 13, 2023, after the Cambodian prime minister said VOD would have its operating licence revoked. He ordered the shutdown of one of the country’s few remaining local independent media outlets after taking issue with a news report about his son.(Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images)