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Rights Group Reports Global Progress in Democracy, Civil Liberties - 2003-12-18


An annual survey of democracy and civil liberties indicates freedom is on the rise in many countries around the world. The advocacy organization Freedom House counts Iraq as among those making gains this year.

Twenty-five countries around the world made progress toward freedom in 2003, according a report released by Freedom House, while 15 registered reversals. According to the annual report - which categorizes 192 countries as "free," "partly free" or "not free." and ranks nations on a scale of 1 to 7 - Iraq has moved up from seven, the lowest score, to five on the freedom rating scale, since the U.S.-led invasion began.

Senior analyst Adrian Karatnycky explains that Iraq remains a low scorer in political rights and freedoms, but has made improvements in civil liberties.

"The beginnings of some kind of a consultative process, the emergence of some media, and media that by comparison to the Baathist media, are much more reliable," he said. "The fact that there is a lot of civic life, there are protests, all those kinds of things were scored as gains. Naturally, the ongoing terrorism insurgency, counter insurgency, all that sort of stuff doesn't allow the country to move forward."

The survey also registered improvements in Burundi, where Hutus were included in the political process for the first time since the genocidal civil war there killed 200,000 people. Yemen also showed signs of progress in its political life.

Declines in freedom were experienced in 13 countries, including three countries that joined the ranks of the "not free" - the Central African Republic, Azerbaijan and Mauritania. Freedom House also expresses concern that the war on terrorism has led to repression in certain countries and regions, such as Central Asia, where the group says counter-terrorism is sometimes used to justify the stifling of dissent.

The report points to a continuing freedom divide between countries that have a Muslim majority and countries in which Islam is a minority religion.

Twenty-eight countries in which Muslims are the majority are considered not free and 17 are partly free. Mali and Senegal are the only two predominantly Muslim countries in the world the group considered free.

Mr. Karatnycky points out that the report's findings do not suggest that Islam is a driving force in preventing freedom. Instead, he says, in many cases, poverty and geography contribute to the lack of freedom in Muslim countries.

"Certainly a lot of the Muslim faith has spread in desert societies," he said. "Some of them who are without oil are much poorer. It has spread in areas of North Africa which have not been all bequeathed with the greatest bounties in terms of resources and so on, so a lot of these factors have to do with the historical spread of where the Muslim faith has spread."

The report says 44 percent of the world's population live in countries that are "free," meaning they enjoy a broad range of rights. It ranks 61 percent of the 192 governments surveyed as electoral democracies.

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