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Rights Group Finds Democracy Spreading Across Globe


In its annual survey on freedom, the human rights monitoring group Freedom House finds that democracy is steadily progressing across the globe in spite of the threat of terrorism and a downturn in the worldwide economy.

Freedom House focuses on two major categories, political rights and civil liberties, in its annual assessment. In 2002, the group says 29 nations made gains while 11 experienced setbacks. Free elections, regime changes, and vibrant civic activity moved four nations, Brazil, Lesotho, Senegal and Yugoslavia, into the ranks of nations described as "free." The group's president, Adrian Karatnycky, says greater political freedoms take the edge off of extremism. "One of the things we are seeing is that the global economic downturn has, as in past years, exerted pressure. But in decades when anti-democratic ideologies were dominant, people would turn to communism or to some form of fascism or some form of ultranationalism as an answer," he said. "I think that, increasingly, because there is the infrastructure of democratic governance, people are basically turning to more moderate alternatives in policy."

Mr. Karatnycky says the biggest disappointment of 2002 is the African nation of the Ivory Coast.

"The greatest setback that we register this year is Cote d'Ivoire, which has had a terrible military rebellion, which has divided the country in a rampant civil war, which has jeopardized its political freedoms," he said. "Guatemala, we were worried about and have seen increased violence and the reappearance of death squads amid substantial corruption. It has had a bit of slippage, although not as dramatic as we see in Cote d'Ivoire."

The Freedom House survey rates nations as "free," "partly free" or "not free." Nations that tolerate some degree of respect for political rights and civil liberties fall into the "partly free" category.

After three decades of little change, Mr. Karatnycky says the study found a few signs of limited progress in the Islamic world during the last year.

"We point to Senegal, which is a majority Islamic country, which also had a rotation of power, an opposition coming into power after an entrenched political party had been in power for a long time," he said. "We see it in Bahrain where its monarch has decided one of the ways to counter political radicalism is to allow greater civic discussion and open civic political participation. So that country is progressing. There is a discussion about a similar reform going on in Qatar."

The group also finds limited progress in the areas of personal freedom and privacy in China, but not enough to change its ranking as one of the world's least free societies. Iran also remained unchanged in the Freedom House survey as the widespread civic ferment of previous years abated.

As it marks the 30th anniversary of the survey, Freedom House head Adrian Karatnycky says the group has witnessed a dramatic trend toward freedom.

"It is really remarkable that in 1972 there were 43 countries that we rated as free. It is up to 89 now. It has more than doubled. The number of countries in which there are basic rights and civil liberties, not perfect countries by any means, has not only doubled, but gone up as a proportion of the world from 29 percent to 46 percent while the number of "not free" countries has gone from 46 percent in 1972 to only one-quarter of all the countries. So there has been this substantial increase."

According to the survey, 63 percent of the nations of the world have democratically elected governments, a sign, Mr. Karatnycky says, of an indomitable will toward democracy and political participation.