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Dictatorships have 'overtaken democracies by GDP'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
David Milliband. Photo: Ian West/PA Images via Getty Images

The world is witnessing a shift in the balance of power from liberal democracies to autocratic regimes, the head of a global humanitarian charity has warned.

David Miliband, a former UK foreign secretary and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, also argued a new “age of impunity” threatened businesses as well as human rights.

He urged major firms to “step up” in defence of the rule of law and in tackling global problems in a speech at the summit of global leaders in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday.

Miliband also claimed more of the world’s economic output was now in undemocratic countries than democratic ones.

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“Last year was the first year in 120 years when the GDP of countries that are democracies was less than the GDP of autocracies,” he said, but did not provide further detail or the source of the figures.

A widely read annual report by the US think tank Freedom House last year warned of a 13th consecutive year of “decline in global freedom.”

It said many countries that democratised after the end of the Cold War had “regressed,” with corruption rampant, illiberal populists on the rise, and breakdowns in the rule of law.

Miliband said: “The age of impunity is here, and it’s dangerous. Everything goes, and the law is for suckers. When war crimes go unpunished, and the laws of war become optional.

“A time when militaries, mercenaries and militias in conflicts around the world believe they can get away with anything. We’re seeing less outrage about it and less accountability for it.

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“The cheques that were written in 1945 to the most vulnerable in the world — cheques marked humanitarian law, cheques marked rights of civilians — those cheques are bouncing. The most basic rights are under threat.”

He presented a graph suggesting attacks on health facilities last year were around triple the level only a few years earlier.

Ethnic cleansing was “on the rise” with 11 cases worldwide last year, while attacks on aid workers in the past five years were twice the level 15 years earlier, he said.

He blamed part of the growing problems on shifts in power from a unipolar to multipolar world, from west to east and from liberal to illiberal governance.

Miliband also appealed to businesses to acknowledge such issues were not only a concern for policymakers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

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“Don’t believe that the rule of law will be sacrosanct in economics if it’s weak in politics. The business of business has to include the defence of the rule of law, not just for moral reasons but for reasons of interest.

“When power is not accountable in matters of life and death, it’s all too easy for it  to become optional in more mundane matters of dollars and cents. Countries which sneer at human rights are usually also a threat to property rights.”

He highlighted many firms’ decision to boycott the Future Investment Initiative or ‘Davos in the desert’ summit in Saudi Arabia over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

But he added: “It’s not good they did attend that conference a year later without any progress on accountability for that crime. It’s almost better not to make a stand than only do so temporarily and then retreat before there’s proper accountability.”