Freedom Declining Worldwide Despite Democratization

Freedom has declined for eighth consecutive year, according to Freedom House

Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt / AP
January 23, 2014

Freedom in the world has declined in recent years despite a sweeping wave of democratization in the last few decades, according to a new report.

Freedom House found in its annual "Freedom in the World" report that global freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2013 after rising steadily in the 1980s and 90s. The pro-democracy group said 54 countries registered declines in political rights and civil liberties last year, while 40 made gains.

Freedom House has published the report for the last 41 years and bases its scores on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It ranked just 25 percent of the world’s independent states as "free" in 1975, but that percentage increased to 45 percent in 2000 after a "third wave" of U.S.-supported democratization engulfed Latin America, Eastern Europe, and East Asia.

The recent decline in freedom represents a bit of a paradox when compared with slight improvements globally in political rights and the number of electoral democracies, the report notes.

Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House and author of the report, told the Washington Free Beacon that while scores for elections and political rights have improved in the last decade, civil liberties such as freedom of the press and association and the rule of law have declined.

He attributed the conflicting trends in freedom to the rise of leaders who practice "modern authoritarianism."

Freedom House cited examples of declining freedom around the world.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe extended his three-decade rule in peaceful elections last year that were marred by widespread reports of voter intimidation and suppression. Latin American presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador continued the legacy of former regional strongman Hugo Chavez by limiting press freedoms to secure electoral victories. And authoritarian governments in Russia and China perpetuated crackdowns on political dissidents.

Additionally, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan jailed reporters at high rates and Egypt’s military marginalized political opposition to enact a favorable constitution.

Although Puddington said the resilience of authoritarian leaders does not signify a "pell-mell decline" in democratic freedoms, their recent success is a cause for concern.

"You have these increasingly powerful and assertive and self-assured authoritarian regimes, which say 10 or 15 years ago would have been apologetic about democratic deficiencies, now claiming that they have a system of government that is in every way as legitimate as what we have in the U.S. or Europe," he said.

"We’re not making minimal progress toward democratic breakthroughs in places like Eurasia or the Middle East," he added. "Even in a relatively positive environment in Latin America you’re seeing worrying trends."

Puddington raised concerns in particular about the Middle East and North Africa, where U.S. funding for democracy promotion has declined in recent years.

President Barack Obama initially said America would "support transitions to democracy" in the region after the so-called Arab Spring revolutions, but Puddington said the president has since been in a "full-scale retreat."

President Obama has abstained from intervening in Syria’s civil war and backed a Russian plan last year to remove Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. Assad’s government has continued to attack rebel-held civilian areas with shrapnel-filled "barrel bombs" and reportedly tortured and killed thousands of detainees.

The administration has also appeared to back a resumption of about $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, with some conditions for ensuring free and fair elections after the recent passage of a new constitution. However, experts say the constitution broadly grants autonomy to the military, police, and judiciary.

Puddington said the Egyptian military led by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has reneged on the original promise of the Arab Spring—to provide ordinary people relief from overbearing security forces.

"What [people] wanted from the Arab Spring more than anything else was a sense of justice—this kind of treatment would not go unpunished, and there would be reforms," he said.

"What you have in Egypt is a signal that the forces in power can do whatever they want and they will not have to face any consequences," he added. "You’ve gone back dangerously close to conditions under [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak."

The only thing that will bring true stability to the region is the spread of democracy, Puddington said.

"When things start going in the wrong direction, our government is saying democracy is not a priority in this part of the world—stability and American national interests are," he said.

"In the long run, democracy and American national interests dovetail in the Middle East because this is a part of the world that has created so much chaos and unhappiness globally."