The failure of democratic leaders to effectively champion democratic values and rights is enabling the rise of autocrats worldwide, Human Rights Watch's outspoken head told AFP in an interview.

There is a dire need for democratically-elected leaders to show bold and principled leadership in the face of global challenges like Covid and as anxiety over looming climate disaster grows, Kenneth Roth argued.

"Our fear is that if democratic leaders don't rise to the occasion (and) demonstrate the kind of visionary leadership that is called for today, they are going to generate the sort of despair and frustration that are fertile grounds for the autocrats," the HRW executive director said.

And indeed, it would appear that autocracy is on the rise.

HRW's more than 750-page annual report on rights abuses around the world, published Thursday, details intensifying crackdowns on opposition voices in places like China, Russia, Belarus and Egypt.

It also highlights several recent military coups, including in Myanmar and Sudan, and the emergence of leaders with autocratic tendencies in countries once or still considered democracies, such as Hungary, Poland, Brazil, India, and until last year, the United States.

And even though efforts by former US president Donald Trump and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 elections failed, Roth cautioned that US democracy is still "clearly being challenged today".

Last year's Capitol riot by Trump supporters "was really just the beginning", he said.

Roth said he feared the January 6 riot was "a ham-fisted effort to overturn the elections, and now a much more sophisticated effort is under way, aiming for the next presidential elections."

"There is an urgent need to defend democracy in the United States."

While acknowledging the threat, Roth meanwhile challenged "the conventional wisdom these days... that autocracy is ascending and democracy is on the decline", insisting that many of the world's autocrats in fact find themselves in an increasingly vulnerable position.

He highlighted the emergence of broad alliances of widely disparate political parties banding together to oust "the corrupt autocrat", as in the Czech Republic and Israel.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) executive director Kenneth Roth said there is a dire need for democratically-elected leaders to show bold and principled leadership Human Rights Watch (HRW) executive director Kenneth Roth said there is a dire need for democratically-elected leaders to show bold and principled leadership Photo: AFP / Fabrice COFFRINI

And he pointed to the large pro-democracy demonstrations and massive civil disobedience movements, even in countries with brutal military regimes like Myanmar and Sudan, despite the risk of detention or being shot.

"There is a battle under way with very significant resistance against those that want to reimpose or perpetuate autocracy," Roth said.

In the face of mounting resistance, autocrats who previously strived to keep up a semblance of a democratic process have, in many cases, stopped pretending.

Instead, places like Russia, Hong Kong, Uganda and Nicaragua have held "electoral charades" after overtly getting rid of all opposition, shuttering media and banning protests, Roth said.

While they may win, he said such "zombie elections" do not "confer any of the legitimacy that they sought."

Faced with overt power-grabs and cronyism, people can more easily see through empty promises and turn away from the autocrat, providing an inroad for democratic forces.

But for now, many democratically-elected leaders are failing to display the principle and leadership needed to clearly show the benefits of democracy, Roth said.

"Globally, I think we are seeing dissatisfaction with democratic leaders, partly because significant parts of democratic societies feel left behind.

"There is an urgent need for better governance within the democracy, (and) a more consistent approach to defending human rights around the world."

In the United States, for instance, President Joe Biden has vowed to make human rights a core value of his foreign policy, but while he had "stopped kissing up to every friendly autocrat, the way Trump did", Roth lamented that he had largely failed to deliver.

In relations with "friendly repressive governments like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Israel", he said, "his foreign policy looks pretty conventional".

Biden and other democratic leaders were taking "modest steps", he acknowledged.

But such "short-term incrementalism", he warned, was "not adequate to meet the big challenges before us or ultimately to prevail in the global tough test with autocracy."