The Washington-based group Freedom House
said the cause of freedom around the globe took another hit in 2013, as the group released its Freedom in the World 2014
report Thursday. The authors warned of serious setbacks in some of the world’s more influential countries.
Perhaps nowhere was the fall from freedom more visible than in Egypt, where angry protests gave way to a military coup and a crackdown on dissent.
Freedom in the World 2014
report author Arch Puddington argued that in many ways, Egypt was not alone.
“We are at a time right now where the leaders of the authoritarian community are more self-assured and arrogant than they’ve been in the past and there’s a kind of a loose coalition, alliance of the repressive countries,” said Puddington.
Puddington expressed concern that today’s authoritarians have learned the lessons of the Soviet Union and of the so-called "color revolutions". As a result, modern autocrats are very averse to reforms of any kind; once started, they can create a momentum that is hard to stop. These leaders have also learned that permitting the opposition to freely protest on the streets puts their own leadership in jeopardy, and therefore work to marginalize both the opposition and civil society organizations.
The Freedom House report rated 195 countries and 14 territories based on political rights and civil liberties. It found the level of overall freedom had declined for the eighth consecutive year, with 60 percent of the world’s population - almost 4.3 billion people - living in countries that are only partly free or not free at all.
“The political elites don’t always have to use violence. They don’t have to put people up against the wall, but they are still able to control politics and marginalize the political opposition,” explained Puddington. “This is the eighth straight year in which more countries have suffered a decline in freedom than have experienced improvements… What we’re also seeing is an inability for freedom to make any kind of serious breakthroughs in countries like Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela… where you have political leaderships that are smothering the opposition and controlling the press.”
Almost no region fared worse than Eurasia, which saw increased persecution and media crackdowns in Russia and Ukraine. According to Freedom House, 78 percent of the region’s population lives in countries that are "not free.”
In the Middle East, Syria ranked among the 10 worst – or least free countries – while 83 percent of the region’s total population also live in countries rated as "not free."
In the Asia-Pacific, the report found China was even more intolerant in 2013. Overall, 43-percent of the region's population lives in countries rated as “not free."
In Africa, 35 percent of the region's population lives in countries rated as "not free."
As for the United States, the country continues to rank among the freest in the world, but Freedom House said there is reason for Washington to be concerned.
Click on the highlighted areas to see individual country rankings:
David Kramer, the president of Freedom House, thinks less free countries abroad reduces opportunities for cooperation.
“When you have freedom on the decline that suggests you have fewer stable countries, fewer and less reliable partners,” said Kramer.
Democracy under duress
Freedom House said democracies, especially the U.S., also seem plagued by self-doubt, unable or unwilling to act, a condition creating adverse outcomes elsewhere in the world. The group cited the lack of progress in the Middle East as a prime example.
The Washington Institute’s David Schenker said surveys suggest U.S. citizens are more interested in internal affairs.
“The United States public is not at all interested in having a more, military involvement in the Middle East or even financial involvement or diplomatic involvement. We’ve seen that in the polling. They’re more focused on domestic matters,” said Schenker. “You still have advocates and activists and human rights defenders in many places around the world looking to the U.S. for leadership and they’re just not finding it the way they would like.”
While acknowledging the limits of U.S. power in the region, Schenker also pointed out that earlier rhetoric from the Obama administration regarding cooperation in the Middle East referred to the governments of the region, not their people. He claimed this approach has resulted in the U.S. becoming too passive and missing chances to promote democracy.
“When President Obama came in, his administration focused on the now infamous Cairo speech. He talked about mutual interests and mutual respect but he was talking about U.S. relations with governments, not with the peoples of the region, and so we saw a very hands-off approach, for example, on Egypt,” said Schenker.
Puddington also touched on the lack of concern from solidly democratic nations for those whose democracies are under pressure.
“What we seem to be seeing in the democracies is a lack of stalwartness in their support of democracies, democratic forces under duress and in their attitudes toward these large authoritarian countries where they seem to be primarily willing to make deals and to improve the diplomatic climate and to ignore the acts of oppression that are going on,” said Puddington.
That domestic focus leaves those seeking freedom wondering where to turn.