On this International Day of Democracy, the Ukrainian people’s resistance to Russia’s ongoing war against their country is a powerful reminder of the immense courage that is required to defend democracy and safeguard the survival of an entire nation and its citizens.
There are now even interactive courses that teach people to “Be Brave Like Ukraine!” At GMF, we believe it is vital to highlight the role of individual courage not only in fortifying and protecting democracy but also in its ability to inspire others to unify and rally for the cause of freedom.
While Ukraine’s struggle receives international attention, every day around the world, courageous individuals prioritize democracy over their own careers, reputation, and personal safety. Most of them do not make the news and are unknown to the wider world. Many represent millions who are denied freedom and dignity as they live under corrupt and oppressive regimes. They include the politician who puts forward election legislation that disadvantages her party but is the fair and democratic thing to do, the civic activist who exposes human rights violations committed by the most powerful government officials, or the journalist who continues to write the truth about illegal activities despite governmental clampdowns.
Democracy’s survival depends on such courage by individuals to demand it.
In the United States in 2020, a Republican election official in Georgia, Gabriel Sterling, stood up to immense pressure to overturn the results of the free and fair presidential election. He repeatedly spoke publicly to Georgians to explain the counting process, to debunk lies about fraud, and to call for calm. For this, he was labeled a “traitor,” and he and his family endured a raft of attacks, including sexualized messages and death threats. Despite personal and professional risk, Sterling defended democratic elections.
In Belarus this summer, Katsiaryna Andreyeva, having earlier been convicted on trumped-up treason charges, was sentenced to a further eight years in prison. Her crime was to livestream the 2020 protests demanding the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko when he refused to step down after a fraudulent election. Andreyeva is one of dozens of journalists who—in addition to opposition leaders and activists—have been arbitrarily raided, detained, imprisoned, and violently abused by state officials.
Shehla Masood dedicated her life to exposing corruption in India regardless of the perpetrators—from the high ranks of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to mining companies in her state of Madhya Pradesh. Despite threats, she filed right-to-information cases and lawsuits against high-ranking officials and industrialists. In 2011, at the age of 34, she was murdered on a busy street. There has been no progress in finding those who shot her. She is quoted as saying: “I fear for my life but I will continue working… the fight is between the powerful and the weak.”
These are inspiring individual acts of courage, but sustained success depends on all of us uniting around universal democratic principles and working together to strengthen and hold accountable the institutions that embody them. Rising autocratic actors, in our countries and outside them, work every day to erode trust in democracy and reduce democratic institutions. While they have had some success of late, the motivating power of freedom and the unquenchable desire for dignity remains.
Democracies’ endurance is not foreordained; it requires constant vigilance and unity of purpose to protect it.
On this Democracy Day, the German Marshall Fund of the United States reaffirms its commitment to be courageous and unite with its civil society partners to fortify democracy and uphold the dignity of the individual by supporting civil society, crafting evidence-based policies and solutions, and providing fora for democrats to unite and share best practice. All of us together must “Be Brave Like Ukraine” in fighting for our democracies.