Freedom's Ring Not Reaching New Ears ; after Four Decades of Countries Embracing Civil Liberties, a New Report Says the Trend Has Stalled

Article excerpt

After progress in the early 1990s, the march of global freedom that President Bush advocates has stalled - from countries of the former Soviet Union to parts of Africa and East Asia.

To understand one reason why, take the case of Burma (Myanmar).

The US has spotlighted the southeast Asian country's despotic regime for years. But when it sought to raise the international pressure on Burma last week - in the form of a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on the country's military rulers to release political prisoners and open up to democratic reform - the move was vetoed by China and Russia.

The US and other Western democracies may favor an expansion of what they see as universal human and political rights, but powers like China and Russia are pushing back - especially when they believe a state's national sovereignty is being threatened.

The emergence of such antidemocratic "push back" is just one factor in what is being called global "freedom stagnation" by Freedom House, a Washington-based organization supporting expansion of political rights and civil liberties.

In its "Freedom of the World 2007" report to be released Wednesday, the organization finds that not only has the global state of freedom changed little over the past year, but it has remained largely unchanged for nearly a decade, with slightly under half of the world's countries and population judged to be free.

"If you look at the world in five-year intervals beginning in the late 1970's, there is no question that freedom was advancing - more countries were becoming democracies, elections resulted in more orderly changes in administrations, and more citizens were enjoying a greater array of civil liberties," says Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House. "But beginning in 1998 that trajectory stagnated, with some notable ups and downs since then but a halt to overall improvement."

One key factor in the stagnation is the "push back" from countries that practice subtler ways of curtailing freedoms than the mass imprisonments and physical abuse practiced by defunct dictatorships. These countries are also finding support from neighboring powers that themselves are squelching freedoms: from Russia and China to Iran and Venezuela, Mr. Puddington says.

"Russia has ... gone out of its way to support the region's autocrats and to oppose efforts by the UN and other bodies to condemn or impose sanctions on dictatorships with records of blatant human rights abuse," he says.

Another case of regional antidemocratic influence getting a lot of attention: Venezuela. …