After several decades of consistent progress, the state of global freedom has entered a period of stagnation and possibly even decline. The reasons for recent setbacks to liberty are numerous and complex. However, to a significant degree, the reversal in freedom of association can be attributed to the emergence of a few large and assertive authoritarian states--countries that are geostrategically important, major participants in the world economy, militarily robust, and, in a number of cases, rich in energy and other natural resources. Increasingly active on the global stage, these countries--Russia, China, Iran, and Venezuela rank at the top of the list--also function as models for less powerful regimes with anti-democratic tendencies. At times, smaller countries have even emulated the techniques employed by these larger states to smother democratic currents; in a few cases, governments have even shared "lessons learned" in the methods of repression with likeminded regimes.
Among the principal targets of the new authoritarianism is civil society. Democratic political parties, human rights organizations, women's advocates, independent trade unions, groups that investigate corruption or monitor security service abuse, organizations that seek legal reform, groups that champion minority rights or religious freedom are all organizations that seek to provide ordinary people with a voice or influence on public policy, and all have come under growing pressure from regimes that are determined to marginalize or eliminate all perceived sources of opposition power and dissent.
The result has been a notable reversal for freedom of association throughout much of the world. A new study, Freedom of Association Under Threat: Bureaucratic Strategies of the New Authoritarians, shows that over the recent period, associational rights have declined in practically every region of the world except for Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. The study finds that associational rights are under particular duress in the Middle East, North Africa, and the former Soviet Union. The study also shows that in the past several years, the most pronounced declines have occurred in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. In some instances, the study suggests, the declines are modest and may not pose a threat to a country's long-term democratic prospects. In a disturbing number of cases, however, the study points to setbacks that stem from conscious policies of the state and therefore present serious challenges to the development of free institutions. The study also finds that the rights of trade unions, historically bulwarks defending associational rights, are faring poorly in authoritarian settings and in some democracies as well.
It cannot be sufficiently emphasized that the campaign to restrict civil society runs contrary to the dominant political and cultural trends of the 21st century. These trends include freedom of movement within and across states, expanded access to information, and greatly enhanced international trade relations. Many of the regimes that have passed laws to impede the work of nongovernmental organizations have also taken steps to muzzle the press and freedom of expression. Despite the development of the Internet and other technologies, which have hampered authoritarian states' efforts to suppress the freedom of press, the evidence thus far suggests that repressing the freedom of association may prove a less formidable challenge.
Freedom of Association: A Core Right
The fact that the setbacks to associational rights are so often due to calculated state action is the most disturbing finding of the study. Freedom of association is the foundational institution of a strong civil society and an essential component of pluralistic democracy, along with free and competitive elections, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and the rule of law. In an era in which traditional political parties have suffered a loss of credibility in many societies, freedom of association is especially important as a means of strengthening the voice of non-governmental organizations, trade unions, and other institutions that represent the interests of popular causes, constituencies, and ideas. …