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World: Analysis From Washington--A Barometer Of Freedom

Washington, 24 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - The 39th commemoration of Captive Nations Week in the United States is a useful occasion for measuring the progress of freedom around the world.

It is a time for celebrating the remarkable progress that many peoples have made in gaining or regaining their freedom and independence.

It is a time for remembering all those that have not yet escaped from the tyranny of imperial states, communist or otherwise, and renewing the commitment of the U.S. to help them.

And it is a time for recognizing that in the struggle for freedom, there are no final or irreversible victories, that just as freedom can be won, it can also be lost.

Captive Nations Week was established by an act of the American Congress on July 17, 1959. In that year and every year since, the president of the United States has issued a proclamation reaffirming American support for captive nations everywhere.

Because so many of the peoples and countries enumerated in the original Congressional law were part of the Soviet bloc and because so many of them have recovered their rightful place in recent years, many people today see it as a relic of the Cold War.

But as President Bill Clinton made clear in his proclamation this year, Captive Nations Week reflects the core values of the American people.

Not only did the United States have its origin in the struggle against an empire, but its people have regularly taken the lead in the struggle against every other form of tyrany over the 200 years of our history.

In addition, President Clinton pointed noted that the remarkable victories of the past decade in Central and Eastern Europe in no way end that struggle. Not only are some peoples still oppressed by others, but many who recovered freedom still have a long way to go.

Among those listed in the 1959 act who have not achieved their freedom are the peoples of the North Caucasus and of the Middle Volga inside the Russian Federation and the peoples of Tibet, Eastern Turkestan, and Inner Mongolia inside the Peoples' Republic of China.

But the Captive Nations Week commemorations each year also direct the attention of the world to the many other peoples who have lost their freedom since that time, including such countries as Cuba and Laos.

The law establishing Captive Nations Week anticipated this. At the end of the long list of peoples enslaved by the Soviet empire and other imperial states, it added the phrase "and others."

These words were clearly intended to serve as a reminder that imperialism and oppression, two temptations almost as old as man, were likely to remain a threat even if communism eventually passed from the scene.

And they were also designed to serve as a warning that not only could freedom be won but it could also be lost, especially if those who are its chief defenders come to believe that they have achieved the final victory.

Many of the peoples enumerated in the 1959 act now are independent states. They have their own flags, their own governments, their own embassies. For all too many of them and for all too many others, that seems victory enough.

But a large number of them are continue to be threatened from without and within. From without by countries that continue to believe that they have the right to dominate others without their consent.

And from within by those who believe that they have the right to oppress their own citizens by restricting their freedoms or by blocking the efforts of minority groups to achieve the rights they seek.

Because both these threats are likely to remain all too real for the forseeable future, the need for a barometer of freedom like Captive Nations Week unfortunately is not going to disappear anytime soon.