March 10, 2021

Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on State of Democracy Around the World

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave opening remarks at a committee hearing on the state of democracy around the world. The committee heard witness testimony from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky, National Endowment for Democracy Reagan-Fascell democracy fellow Peter Biar Ajak, PhD, Burma Campaign UK campaigns officer Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, and pro-democracy activist and former Hong Kong legislative council member Nathan Law.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following opening statement:

“Thank you very much. I concur that it is appropriate that the first policy hearing we have this Congress is on the state of democracy around the world. Because after all, when it comes to foreign relations or the success and operation of a country, democracy is foundational to that.

“The United States remains the gold standard for democracy. Yes, we do wind up having disagreements and a little pushing and shoving as to how we execute democracy. But we have in place an independent judiciary to resolve those disputes. We then accept those and move on and execute the democracy that the founding fathers gave us.

“While we have been rightly focused on combatting the Coronavirus pandemic, another worldwide threat is taking shape: that is the decline of democracies and democratic principles, many of which you have referred to, Mr. Chairman, in your opening remarks. I concur on those.

“Before COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, democratic backsliding had already become a serious global concern. The ongoing pandemic has given opportunistic leaders another excuse to grab power and suppress their own citizens’ fundamental freedoms and human rights. It’s happening even in countries who had once struggled to actually reach a level of democracy.

“I don’t think we have to look very far. Right in our own neighborhood, Venezuela went from a country that was as much as anything a democracy into what it is today which is anything but. One of the disheartening things is how quickly something like that can happen in very short order, with just one or two leaders who are not committed to rule of law and democracy.

“Rather than keep its promise, the Chinese Communist Party is doing everything it can to erase Hong Kong’s autonomy. One of the largest threats to rights and freedoms is Beijing’s so-called “national security law,” which has been used to arrest and instill fear among teachers, journalists, and activists in Hong Kong.

“While COVID-19 infected the world, the restrictions used to fight the virus were also used to fight democracy, including by limiting protests, delaying elections, and implementing oppressive state-sponsored censorship. Just this week, 47 Hong Kong democracy activists were charged under the new national security law.

“In Africa, countries like The Gambia, Sudan, and Ethiopia have seen important moments of democratic progress in recent years. However, the pandemic and the political, economic, and security realities have put these democratic transitions under tremendous strain and jeopardized their progress.

“At the same time, we’ve seen countries like Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe further backslide in the face of increasingly authoritarian and corrupt behavior by their leaders. Despite these challenges, democracy remains in high demand among most Africans.

“After enjoying some democratic progress since 2011, Burma’s recent military coup has set the country back, dramatically back. Courageous citizens protesting this authoritarian regime have been met with violence, leading to scores of deaths and injuries of innocent protestors. Hundreds have been arrested including the father of one of our witnesses today. The military, in an effort to squash all dissent and momentum for protests, also weaponized access to the internet to avoid and block communication between those who want to communicate in protest fashion.

“While news of democratic backsliding around the globe can be disheartening, it is a reminder that we must fight for and defend democracy and democratic values. The United States needs to continue to lead the world in supporting democracy and the rule of law.

“The United States has robust programs to promote democracy, the rule of a law, and respect for human rights across the globe. We support civil society organizations in election preparation, in improving media literacy, and in increasing women’s participation in the political process. This work continues despite significant obstacles. Authoritarian governments in places such as Russia and China continue to enforce draconian anti-NGO laws, which limit our ability to support civil society.

“Even as we remain focused on our domestic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not turn a blind eye to democratic back-sliding across the globe. I look forward to hearing from the witnesses today on how the United States can continue to lead on promoting democracy and supporting civil society actors around the world.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on foreign.senate.gov.

###