US Secretary of State John Kerry warns of rise in 'authoritarian populism'

US Secretary of State John Kerry alights from a government plane at the airport in Hamburg, Germany on Dec 7, 2016.
US Secretary of State John Kerry alights from a government plane at the airport in Hamburg, Germany on Dec 7, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

HAMBURG (AFP) - United States Secretary of State John Kerry warned Thursday (Dec 8) of "the danger of authoritarian populism" sweeping many Western democracies and cautioned against backsliding on basic freedoms.

"Every chip away at the fundamentals of freedom is actually an ugly building block in the road to tyranny," he told a meeting in Germany of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

"And the fact is that we all need to beware of the danger of authoritarian populism," he told the 57-member forum.

Kerry was speaking at an OSCE meeting focused on rising east-west tensions since Russia's intervention in Ukraine, but also on a rise in populist and far-right movements across Europe, a spike in refugee flows from the Arab world, and Western concern about growing authoritarianism in Turkey.

"In too many places ... in the OSCE region, we have seen in recent days a rise of authoritarian thinking, accompanied by backsliding on human rights, on restrictions on independent media, a spike in acts of intolerance and hate crimes," Kerry said.

Addressing the meeting of foreign ministers in the northern port city of Hamburg, he bemoaned a "troubling shift away from democratic principles, away from openness, away from freedom".

Listing other ills, he spoke of "growing corruption... increasing authoritarianism, moves by certain leaders to change constitutions in an effort to consolidate power, false news being spread through new platforms of the media, torture being actually advocated in certain quarters".

"These developments are, simply put, a direct assault on the founding principles of the OSCE," he said. "Bigotry, repression and the silencing of dissent cannot become the new normal for any of us."

Kerry had earlier met civil society activists from Azerbaijan, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Ukraine.

According to the State Department, Kerry insisted that Washington would keep speaking out about "the shrinking space" for civil society activism caused by restrictive laws such as labelling groups "foreign agents" and through the misuse of broad anti-extremism laws.

Kerry is on his European farewell tour, six weeks before Barack Obama's administration hands over to Donald Trump on Jan 20.

Speaking on Monday in Berlin, Kerry had warned that "anxieties" were sweeping Western democracies, alluding to the US election, Brexit, Sunday's Italian referendum that cost Prime Minister Matteo Renzi his job, and the Austrian presidential vote where a far-right candidate came a strong second.

In his Hamburg address, Kerry said that "a free press, religious liberty, political openness, transparency in governance, a flourishing civil society - these are the signs of a confident and thriving nation."