An annual survey by the U.S. Freedom House nongovernmental group says individual liberties increased worldwide this year despite setbacks and persistent human rights violations in many countries. The report, released today in New York, ascribes this progress partly to international efforts to combat terrorism.
Prague, 18 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. nongovernmental organization Freedom House believes the world is moving toward greater freedom and democracy, continuing a trend it says started last year.
In its global annual survey, the group says 25 states demonstrated progress toward enhancing civil liberties between January and November this year. Conversely, it notes that 13 countries registered setbacks in political rights.
The survey rates more than 200 countries and territories, ranking each of them as "free," "partly free," or "not free."
Among those the U.S. watchdog says suffered significant erosion of their freedom standards this year, five -- Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, and Mauritania -- dropped in category status. Another eight declined in their numerical scores while remaining in the same category status.
Previously ranked as "partly free," Azerbaijan entered the category of "not-free" states -- a drop justified by the harassment of opposition political parties and the muzzling of independent media that accompanied President Ilham Aliyev's rise to power in what is generally being described as a "monarchic transition."
The son of the late veteran leader Heidar Aliyev, 41-year-old Ilham was elected president on 15 October in a vote many international observers say was marred by fraud. Aliyev's election was followed by a rare crackdown on political dissent that, despite concerns expressed by rights campaigners, caused comparatively few protests in the West.
Adrian Karatnycky is a senior Freedom House analyst and one of the contributors to this year's annual report. He tells RFE/RL that political repression under Azerbaijan's new leader is likely to continue in the near future.
"When you have a new leadership team that doesn't have [the] power to rise legitimately, I think they feel nervous and tend to clamp down and be more repressive. So, in this sense, I don't think [Heydar Aliyev's] son is a signal for liberalization. I think he feels his position has not yet consolidated, and the way he is apparently trying to consolidate it is by cracking down on opposition groups, asserting his dominance and showing that he is a person who is willing to use force so that those in the security forces and the oligarchic elites, the leading families in Azerbaijan, will continue to support him," Karatnycky said.
Freedom House argues that the largest freedom gap exists in countries with a predominantly Muslim population, especially in the Arab world. Still, it insists there is "no inexorable link" between Islam and political repression.
While arguing that only two states with Muslim majorities, Mali and Senegal, can be rated as "free" -- against 28 "not-free" nations where Islam is predominant -- the U.S. rights monitor notes that half of the world's 1,500 million Muslims live under democratically elected governments.
It says explanations for the continued lack of democracy in mainly Muslim countries are "many and complex" and -- as it did in its previous annual report -- emphasizes that Islam is not incompatible with democracy.
The group also seems to establish a correlation between the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and progress toward democracy.
"In the two years since the beginning of the global war on terrorism, freedom, and democracy have made demonstrable gains, with 51 countries showing overall progress versus 27 that have registered setbacks," according to a press release accompanying the report.
The Freedom House's conclusions seem to contradict findings made by other rights campaigners, who say the war on terrorism has had generally negative consequences for civil liberties.
In its annual report released last January, the New York-based Human Rights Watch group blamed the U.S. for undermining human rights principles by "ignoring abuses" committed by some of its anti-terrorism allies -- namely Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.
If Freedom House ranks Pakistan, China, and Saudi Arabia as among "not-free" countries, it argues that Indonesia may be considered "partly free."
HRW yesterday blamed Indonesia's military for a campaign of extra-judicial killings, kidnapping, arbitrary arrests, and torture in Aceh. After decreeing martial law in the separatist province last May, the Indonesian government launched its biggest military operation in years against an estimated 5,000 rebels.
Karatnycky says Freedom House is aware of abuses committed under the cover of fighting terrorism. But he argues that concerns over human rights in some particular areas are outweighed by the globally positive implications he says the fight against terrorism has had on individual liberties.
"The point that we are saying is that despite the war on terror, there has been globally no deterioration in terms of human rights. That is to say that the war on terror has had some constraints on civil liberties, but there has been more, I would say, positive developments since the war on terror was launched. We don't suggest that for Central Asia. We suggest that this is a global development. There are small signs in Uzbekistan of the possibility that two formerly outlawed parties [Erk and Birlik] may be re-legalized. But at the same time, there is increased surveillance on NGO activists. There are efforts to disrupt nongovernmental conferences and meetings. So there are very, very -- I would say -- mixed signals," Karatnycky said.
Freedom House this year granted Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan combined average ratings of 6.5 and 7.0, respectively. That's based on a scale in which 7 represents the most repressive and 1 the most liberal practices. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- the other three former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- were also listed among "not-free" nations with ratings of 5.5, which placed them just ahead of Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Iraq.
Georgia and Ukraine are listed among "partly free" countries. Yet, Karatnycky believes recent events in Georgia -- where President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned amid accusations of election fraud made by the opposition -- may positively impact the situation in Ukraine, as both countries gear up for new polls next year.
"I think there is a possibility of having a clean, free and fair, open contest election [in Georgia] right now. We'll see whether the Georgian events are the first signal of a return of some democratic trends and improvements or whether this is an isolated case. And I think Ukraine will be the next test case among the 12 former Soviet republics [that make up the CIS]," Karatnycky said.
Another finding that may spark controversy is the surprisingly high rating given to Romania by Freedom House. The group -- which on 9 December slammed Bucharest for an erosion of press freedoms ahead of next year's legislative and presidential elections -- ranked it among "free" countries, with an average rating of 2.0.
Romania was ranked "partly free" in the 2003 edition of the Freedom House's global survey.
Last year, NATO invited Romania to join, and last week European Union leaders confirmed Bucharest would be invited to enter the bloc in January 2007, provided it meets all membership requirements.
While noting progress accomplished by successive governments following the regime of the late dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, Freedom House's "Nation in Transit 2003" report says "much work remains to be done to consolidate these hard-won gains." Authors Sandra Pralong and Mirela Apostol, in particular, deplore the lack of "a meaningful and constructive political opposition" and denounce the control exerted over the country by the ruling Social Democrat Party.
But Karatnycky says there is no contradiction between those various assessments.
"The rating of freedom is not a rating of government behavior purely. It is really a rating of the complex interplay between the ability of civil society, political movements, the media to resist pressures, to put forward their own opinions, even in the face of difficult environments. So, from that point of view, it is not contradictory to be worried about attacks on media freedom. Those are also the signs that there still are substantial free media that are subject to pressure because they still are publishing openly and trying to raise important issues of corruption, malfeasance and inadequacies in government performance," Karatnycky said.
Freedom House this year ranked Bulgaria, another EU hopeful, among the most liberal former communist countries, along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro were granted average ratings of 2.0 and 2.5, respectively.
Countries rated "partly free" included Albania, Macedonia, Moldova, Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Russia.
As they did last year, Chechnya and Tibet -- where, respectively, the Russian and Chinese militaries have been striving to crush separatism -- shared the unhappy privilege of being among the world's 10 most repressive areas.
More information on the Freedom House report is available at www.freedomhouse.org/research/survey2004.htm