World leaders will gather virtually this week for the second US-organised Summit for Democracy, an event critics say illustrates the halting progress the Biden administration has made in advancing human rights and democracy as a focus of its foreign policy.
Starting Wednesday, the event involves 120 countries, civil society groups and technology companies and will include strategically important nations where rights groups have expressed concerns about the state of democracy, such as India, Poland and Israel.
Rights advocates have praised the administration for putting a spotlight on democracy, but say there is little evidence the countries joining the summit have made progress on improving their democracies, and that there is no formal mechanism to hold participants to the modest commitments made at the first meeting.
The administration has also been reluctant to make the hard choices needed to show it is putting human rights at the heart of its foreign policy, experts said.
“I think this administration, like any other administration, has just found that that is too difficult,” said Tess McEnery, who worked on human rights issues in the Biden administration until August 2022 and is now with the Project on Middle East Democracy.
She added that because the US is unable to drastically change the relationship with countries vital to its strategic interests like India, “instead we have a summit.”
DEALING WITH DICTATORS
Crises like the war in Ukraine have only made Biden’s goal of rallying democracies against autocratic rulers more difficult.
Washington has accused Russia of committing atrocities in its invasion and rallied other countries to support Ukraine. But this has sometimes come at the expense of a firm line on democracy and rights elsewhere, including in Venezuela, where a US delegation visited in March to try to convince its authoritarian government to pump more oil.
“The Biden administration has gone so far as to negotiate with one dictator to counter another,” showing willingness to set aside principles to address pressing problems, said Christopher Hernandez-Roy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a briefing call ahead of the summit.
US officials reject criticism that they have pulled punches on human rights or democratic backsliding, but say they are aware of “legitimate criticism” directed at the administration over the issue.
“I will defend the fact that human rights comes up in every bilateral relationship we have,” a senior Biden administration official said.
Conceived initially as an in-person gathering, the first summit was held virtually due to COVID-19. The second summit was delayed by several months and will now also be mostly online.
The virtual format adds to a sense that the summit has been de-prioritised, making it harder for participants to push bold reforms, said one civil society activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are involved in organizing the summit.
This year’s summit will be co-hosted by the United States, Costa Rica, Zambia, the Netherlands and South Korea, an arrangement that US officials say will encourage the countries to be more involved in the process.