Saturday, January 17, 2009

Freedom falters

Tracking freedom

It never stays long
Jan 15th 2009
From The Economist print edition

One survey shows liberty shrivelling; another names the “spoilers”

WHETHER your purpose is to promote freedom, to curb it, or to quibble about its definition, the reports of Freedom House, an American lobby group, make good reading. The new 2009 edition paints a sombre picture of how the world fared during George Bush’s time in office. An initial five years of improvement were followed by a three-year decline—less in 2008 than previously, but still disappointing. Russia’s rigged elections and cowed media attract particular criticism in the gloomy ex-Soviet section. Though Iraq posts a slightly better score, Afghanistan shifts from “partly free” to “not free” in Freedom House’s broad three-category system. The Middle East and north Africa region—the centrepiece of Mr Bush’s efforts to promote freedom—showed little measurable improvement over the previous year.

More widely, the number of “electoral democracies” (those with tolerably free and fair elections) dropped by two, to 119 (thanks to four demotions and two promotions). The general trend was down too, with declines in freedom of expression and association, and a weaker rule of law.

As with most international rankings, headline comparisons and trends are often less interesting than the details and the underlying thinking. Freedom House sticks to measuring the rise and fall of political freedom: it eschews the idea, promoted by outfits like Amnesty International, that economic and social rights matter equally.

Raw country-by-country figures can be misleading: the population-weighted results published by Freedom House are more informative. From that point of view, the failure of the Beijing Olympics to bring any of the promised (or more accurately, hoped-for) changes in China’s policy towards dissent was probably the biggest disappointment of 2008.

A similarly heavyweight annual report from another American outfit, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), takes direct aim at what its director, Kenneth Roth, terms “spoilers”. He writes: “Those conducting the most energetic diplomacy on human rights are likely to reside in such places as Algiers, Cairo or Islamabad, with backing from Beijing and Moscow. The problem is that they are pushing in the wrong direction.” Such countries, he says, “hide behind the principles of sovereignty, non-interference and Southern solidarity, but their real aim is to curb criticism.” He pointedly criticises the stance taken by India and South Africa, which uphold human rights at home but undermine international efforts against regimes such as Burma, Sudan or Zimbabwe.

At least in the eyes of the world, Freedom House and HRW come from slightly different places. The latter is adamant that it accepts no government funding, while the former does get money from the American taxpayer (and is committed to the view that American leadership is a good thing for liberty), though it has a decent track record of criticising the United States and its friends where appropriate.

In any case, the prospect of Barack Obama’s presidency clearly delights HRW, which lambasts the “disastrous Bush years” for torture, secret prisons and “hyper-sovereignty” and hopes that America will now sign up for all kinds of international good causes, from landmine bans to the International Criminal Court. Freedom House is more cautious, praising Mr Bush for his championing of dissidents. It worries that the new administration will prefer improving relations with authoritarian countries to challenging them. Sadly, measuring government beastliness looks like a future-proofed business.

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