World Freedom: Growing but Fragile

The World and I, May 1997 | Go to article overview

World Freedom: Growing but Fragile

As 1997 began, more people were living in democratic societies than at any time in history.

Yet in one-third of the world's democratic countries, a weak rule of law, corruption, ethnic conflict, and other internal pressures continued to erode basic civil-liberties protections. Moreover, fundamental freedoms are denied in more than one-fourth of all countries.

Most analysts believe that the United States has both humanitarian and practical interests in (1) promoting freedom in nations that are still under authoritarian rule, and (2) consolidating democratic gains in transitional countries.

The nurturing of societies that protect basic rights and liberties is important both for humanitarianism's sake and for advancing America's economic and security interests by creating better trading partners and more reliable allies.

Today nearly all governments, political leaders, and opposition movements profess respect for democratic norms. But this rhetoric often cynically manipulates and debases the concept of democracy for political ends.

Therefore, a comparative analysis that assesses the status of real-world political rights and civil liberties in every country and territory throughout the world according to a single, universal standard is required.

Freedom House puts out such an analysis in the form of its annual Freedom in the World comparative survey. By assessing every country and territory, the study, issued since 1971, also underscores the universality of human rights--the idea that all people are inherently entitled to enjoy certain basic rights regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, cultural background, or economic or social class.


The 1996-97 Freedom House survey rated 79 of the world's 191 countries as free, an increase of 3 from 1995 and the highest number ever.

Fifty-nine countries were rated partly free, typically because of significant limits on expression, religious practice, association, and other freedoms.

Fifty-three countries--comprising nearly 2.3 billion people (39.2 percent of the world's population)--live in "not free" countries, where repressive governments, severe civil conflict or insurgencies, or other extreme conditions deny their citizens most of the basic rights.

Of these "not free" countries, 17, with a combined population of 1.5 billion people, received the lowest rating for both political rights and civil liberties. Among them are Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, North Korea, and Sudan.

By the end of 1996, there were 118 formal democracies--an increase from 91 five years ago--with a combined population of nearly 3.2 billion people. In these countries, at a minimum citizens choose their authoritative leaders reasonably freely from among competing groups and individuals who were not chosen by the government. In 1996 Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Taiwan held generally free and fair elections and became the newest democracies.

But democracy in its most genuine form also includes a firm rule of law and a respect for basic rights. Thirty-nine democracies are among the "partly free" states, indicating that corruption, ethnic and civil conflict, restrictions on the independent media and opposition parties, drug trafficking, and violence and other abuses against women, children, and ethnic minorities are undermining civil-liberties protections and democratic institutions.

In 1996 Niger, where a military coup in January toppled an elected government, and Zambia, which experienced presidential balloting in November that was marred by irregularities, both dropped from the ranks of democratic states.

What accounts for the increase in the number of democracies and free societies? In countries in transition from authoritarian or communist regimes to democratic rule, or in long-standing democracies such as India where the rule of law is still weak, the strongest pressure for reform comes from indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs). …

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