The world’s freedom – up or down?

By Jonathan Power

The Cold War ended and the good times began – the big powers stopped using their veto in the UN Security Council, the number of wars fell dramatically, human rights improved all over the world including in Russia and the number of democracies increased substantially.

Where have all the flowers gone? The veto has returned. The number of civil wars has started to rise again. The number of democracies has begun to decrease. Perhaps better human rights practices are still holding their ground – in China they are improving slowly, including a more open press and more freedom for academics in the universities, but in Russia after some opening up under the presidency of Dimitri Medvedev freedoms are now retreating under Vladimir Putin. The Arab Spring continues its uncertain course with Egypt awash with uncertainty. Only in Tunisia does freedom seem secure.

Freedom House has a long history of measuring progress on some of the key human rights indicators- democracy, freedom of the press and the courts. It has produced some interesting results in its new report.

• The number of countries it ranks as “free” at the end of 2012 is 90. 27 countries showed significant declines in freedom, compared with 16 that showed notable gains. Nevertheless, the number of electoral democracies was a handsome 117. (At the end of the Second World War it was only 7.)

• Among the most striking gains was Libya which advanced from “Not free” to “Partly free”. Among the other countries that have improved their performance are Burma, the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Lesotho, Senegal, Tanzania and Sierra Leone. The declines include Kenya (which is about to have an election whose outcome will either sharply upgrade it or downgrade it). The declines also includes Mali, Nigeria, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Paraguay and Surinam. On balance Africa improved.

• In the Arab world, despite Egypt’s present troubles it is still in a better state than it was under Hosni Mubarak. (For that matter so is Russia much better compared with the old Soviet days.) Tunisia is the star. Syria is its antithesis. Morocco has done well. But there have been setbacks in Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and among most of the Persian Gulf states.

• The countries with the worst records are Eritrea, once one of the shining stars of Africa, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Two occupied territories, Tibet and the Western Sahara, also are among the very worst.

• The following countries are just a notch higher: Belarus, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos and South Ossetia.

Still, all is not right with Freedom House’s report. The organization does have flaws. One man’s judgement is another man’s poison, although that is to put it too strongly.
When I look at its report on Nigeria, a country I have visited a dozen times over 30 years, I think back on my visits and recall that every time I go I feel astonished by its progress both political and economic.

It’s only 14 years ago that it was ruled by a brutal dictatorship. Under its first elected government freedom of the press and assembly were instantly granted. A strong attack was made on its embedded corruption. The courts were freed to do their job and steadily improved their quality.

The first election was flawed but since then there have been three general elections and each time they have become fairer. The legal system has improved and the government has been challenged in the courts including over the election results when the court in one knife-edged judgment decided there had been a good deal of fraud in the election but that the cheating wouldn’t have altered the results. Newspapers have become more daring in their criticisms.

The deeply embedded culture of corruption continues unabated. Prosecutions on Nigerian soil have only netted one imprisonment. But Freedom House don’t mention the successful conviction of a big time politician in a UK court, with the evidence supplied by Nigeria. Moreover, the sense of impunity has diminished. The cabinets of the three governments have been almost corruption-free.

The police have been reformed and its boss was sacked for corruption by Obasanjo. However, they still retain their propensity for violence, and road blocks to halt drivers until they pay a bribe are common in some parts of the country.

The army is much improved. I have watched it at work in Liberia after the bloody dictator, Charles Taylor, was deposed. It behaved impeccably.

At home its second tier troops have exhibited brutality, as have the police, when dealing with tribal flare ups and their tracking down of Boko Haram, the extremist Muslim guerrillas in the north.

Nevertheless, I feel positive: if one looks at the world’s population in total, rather than measuring states, my guess is that freedom is still improving.

Copyright 2013: Jonathan Power.

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