Illiberal Democracies: Protecting or Controlling?

Over the past few months, three Western countries, namely Canada, Australia and France, have been the targets of attacks that politicians quickly labelled as “terror attacks.” Now these three...
Photo by: Victor Prevost

Over the past few months, three Western countries, namely Canada, Australia and France, have been the targets of attacks that politicians quickly labelled as “terror attacks.” Now these three countries are all trying to pass bills that would extend the powers of surveillance institutions in order to guarantee public safety. But there’s a fine line between protecting and controlling the population.

On October 22 last year, Quebec-born Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot dead a soldier nearby the Canadian Parliament Hill, before running into the parliament building, exchanging fire with the police forces and eventually being shot down by the sergeant in arms. Two months later, it was Australia’s turn to be terrorized by a lone-wolf gunman who triggered a 16-hour hostage crisis at the heart of Sydney, leading to the death of two people. Only a few weeks later, in January 2015, France’s satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo`s headquarters and a supermarket were attacked by three French gunmen who took the lives of a total of 17 people.

The Australian, Canadian and French authorities hastily qualified the attacks as “terrorist attacks,”  though there exists no commonly agreed upon definition of the term “terrorism.” “The RCMP (Canadian Federal Police) has identified persuasive evidence that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was driven by ideological and political motives,” a press release read. Labelling a shooting a terrorist attack amounts to opening liberty’s Pandora’s box. Since 9/11, terrorism has been widely used by politicians from all sides to enact laws damaging the very foundations of an open society: privacy, freedom of speech and civil liberties.

In combination, these three tragic events resulted in the deaths of 25 people, including the perpetrators,  and are now leading to the creation of so-called anti-terror bills. To put things into perspective, 2,158 people lost their lives in traffic-related accidents in Canada in 2011. 3,268 in France in 2013 and 1,193 in Australia in 2013. Add up these figures and you get a total of 6,619 deaths. And yet, one never hears about new measures that would drastically scale back the traffic-related death toll.

Now, the question is: does the death of 25 people fully justify surveillance laws that would affect the lives of millions of innocent citizens and put into question Western liberal values. Is national security better preserved when citizens are being actively monitored by their governments?

It didn’t take long for the Canadian, Australian and French governments to push for bills strengthening the powers of their spy agencies. “The world is a dangerous place,” the conservative Canadian administration teaches us. And for this reason, it feels it necessary to exert tighter control over the population. Monitoring of emails and phone calls or setting up cameras and listening devices in private homes without the authorization of a judge could become a reality in France. In Canada, under proposed bill C-51, the country’s main intelligence agency would see its reach extended in order to foil terrorist attacks. However, there are growing concerns that the vaguely-worded piece of legislation, if passed, could also be used against political opposition, or even environmental groups. In Australia, the two leading political parties agreed on a new set of laws aiming at increasing the control over people’s private sphere, such as their Internet usage and phone calls.

These freedom-stifling bills are facing fierce opposition from human-rights groups, demonstrators, activists and some political parties. But if passed, will these new laws make the world a less dangerous place? Or are we just heading toward a new form of democracy – a democracy where privacy, freedom of speech and political activism are being kept under tight governmental control.

In 1997, American journalist Fareed Zakaria used the term “illiberal democracies” to refer to the political systems where although elections take place, citizens are deprived from their basic civil liberties. Basic civil liberties, in an open society, involve freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the right to privacy. Zakaria then warned us that “illiberal democracies gain legitimacy, and thus strength, from the fact that they are reasonably democratic.” Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared in a speech that “the new state [Hungarians] are constructing […] is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” In systematically and gradually stepping up the surveillance powers of liberal states after every attack, what kind of political system are we going to have to deal with in 20 or 50 years down the road? If, as Churchill asserted in 1947, democracy is the least worst from of government, then it should be preserved as it is – or was, and alternatives should be found to safeguard national security, such as embracing the new world order and put an end to erratic military interventions around the globe that are fuelling terrorism.

In trying to protect their citizens and governmental institutions from further terrorist attacks through greater control, Western states are eroding the very core of democratic values, such as human-rights and the rule of law. Terrorism actually deals less damage to democratic societies in harming or killing citizens than in providing governments with the pretext to redefine the limits of civil liberties for the “greater good.”

Victor Prevost

Victor Prévost is a junior geopolitics analyst living in Montréal, Canada. He owns a Master's in International Security and Defence and previously worked at United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna for the Civil Society Team, and for the French Ministry of Defence at the Canadian embassy in Ottawa. Having a strong interest in northern politics, he currently runs a blog on economic and defence issues in the Arctic, at
One Comment
  • Jim Ellwood
    19 May 2015 at 6:09 am
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    An interesting article, Victor. There are four issues at play in the world:
    – growth of the information age. This age permits inverted data to be taken as fact, supporting any ideological belief. Doubters of the status quo have a means to find support and reasons why they are being hurt, or their beliefs are being trampled.
    – scare resources due to population growth, People who believe that they have nothing else to lose will follow a leader who gives them hope, food and things that make them feel good. Water is such a resource, used to drink, to grow food and to wash in. Wealth is being focused in the top 1%. Those who have establish the rules for others to follow. In a community, this wealth can be monetary, natural resource, military, or information based. Those individuals, groups or countries with the wealth tend to want to keep it. Anger against this wealth accumulation show up in actions like Occupy Wall St.
    – fanatical tendencies are easy to find throughout human history, and continue to be present today. Anything can be justified if it supports the beliefs of the fanatic. Some of those beliefs become mainstream in society for a while, examples include puritan actions against alcohol, drugs, capital punishmen and environmental protection. Religious examples include the crusades and the current actions of ISIL.
    – military power through a volume of people and/or technology.

    Any group or individual which can gather all four of these factors together will have significant power and influence.

    In terms of the article about the rights of individuals vs the rights of society, you need to consider whether Churchill made his comments concerning an uneven playing field where big government had all the power, or if he would have included our current global society where those same governments are struggling to keep aware of the constantly changing environment of: information age, scarce resources, fanatical beliefs and military power.
    From the comfort of my home where I can drink water from my tap, use porcelain for my hygiene and sleep in my comfortable bed, I think the loss of some privacy is warranted. I have been to places where I did not have those luxuries and I appreciate what I am willing to give up for what I have..

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