Not Free At Last

Around the world, freedom is on the ropes, as the number of ‘free’ countries continue to decline.


Just as many Americans are feeling better about the state of our democracy, it appears that democracy in some parts of the world is not faring so well. In the release of its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House, an independent U.S. non-profit organization in support of freedom and democracy the world over, begins its report with the following: “Global freedom suffered its third year of decline in 2008 … with sub-Saharan Africa and the non-Baltic former Soviet Union experiencing the most acute deterioration.”

This is troubling news, indeed. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, democratic trends were heading in the right direction. There was the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall fell, unifying Germany. We witnessed the liberation of Eastern Europe and growth of Asian democracies in Japan and South Korea. There was hope for a renaissance in African leadership after South Africa’s election of Nelson Mandela. A growing number of people were able to more freely participate in political processes, express themselves, and organize without fear of reprisal. Today, there are disconcerting signs of a retreat.
So what accounts for the decline in freedom over the past several years? It is easy to blame George Bush for all the world’s current troubles. We are getting good at it. But on this issue, that would be a cop out.

The Freedom House survey uses a trifecta system of “free, partly free and not free” to rate countries around the world. In 2008, 89 countries were judged free, 63 partly free and 42 not free. Thirty-four percent of the world’s population live in not free countries (half of this percentage lives in China). A closer look at the regional patterns in a map of freedom reveal striking data (note: the more green the better). For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 10 countries are designated free, 23 partly free and 15 not free with Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe squarely in the last category. As for the non-Baltic former Soviet Union, Freedom House indicates that it “lags far behind sub-Saharan Africa on the average scores for political rights and civil liberties.” Indeed the expansion of executive power in Russia and its influence in the region is not making things better for neighboring countries.

The Bush administration devised a national security strategy in 2006 that touted a grand “freedom agenda”. The strategy reads, “[to] protect our nation and honor our values, the United States seeks to extend freedom across the globe by leading an international effort to end tyranny and to promote effective democracy.” All eyes were on the Middle East; yet it remains one of the least free regions.

And although it preached freedom, the administration’s actions often did not heed its own calling, resulting in deserved, blaring criticism of its invasion of Iraq and use of torture and detention in a broader war against terrorism.