Half slave, half free

FREEDOM is indivisible. The notion that a people can live half slave and half free is inherently unstable; it provokes resistance - criticism, demonstrations, even civil war. Lasting economic progress is impossible without full civil and political liberty. Communist and other countries that might hope to emulate Western material prosperity and cultural energy without advancing individual and citizen rights will be disappointed.

So it is good to consider each year how much progress, or lack of it, the peoples of the world have made in their collective quest for freedom in the past year.

Ironically enough, the world is suspended right at the half-free, half-slave point as 1987 ends, according to Freedom House, a nonpartisan organization in New York that tracks the status of political and civil liberties in the 167 sovereign states in the world and their 55 related territories. Numerical quotients are not an entirely satisfactory way to depict so elusive a quality as ``freedom.'' But the Freedom House assessment is useful - and, overall, encouraging.

The world population passed the 5 billion mark in 1987. Of this total, both the number and the percentage of people living in freedom increased. The percentage of ``free'' people, 38.29 percent, is higher than in any of the 16 previous years surveyed. The percentage of those living in countries that are ``not free,'' 37.72 percent, is the lowest.

It does not escape notice, then, that the numbers of free and not free are nearly equal. This shows the size of the task of political and civil liberties reform ahead.

Gains in civil liberties in the USSR, while limited, marked the most signifi cant advance for the communist world in 1987: Political prisoners were released, political issues came under discussion, albeit under strong central control. In Poland and Hungary, freedom of discussion and organization continued to gain. In the third world, Nicaragua allowed the major opposition paper to publish. Nigeria is returning to a more ``consensual society.'' Mauritania held local elections, and election procedures improved in the Central African Republic, Zaire, Gambia.

In Asia, as noted below, the Philippines continued to function as a democracy despite pressure from right and left. Taiwan (Nationalist China) advanced political rights. Turkey's Kurdish minority still lacks self-determination, but otherwise Turks regained substantial political freedom. Suriname's citizens rejected military rule and accepted a new Constitution.

On the downside, Fiji's democracy self-destructed. Kenya's recent slow erosion of democracy took a deeper turn for the worse. Zimbabwe largely banned opposition parties. Freedom in Panama slipped. Haiti failed to recover from the twin grip of poverty and despotism.

Many world leaders, even in nominal democracies, can show extremely thin skins. The tendency in Singapore and Indonesia to clamp down on free expression, and in Israel to blame press reports rather than to accept responsibility for what has led to demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank, illustrate how ready are many in power to find excuses for repression. The very term ``freedom fighter'' is open to corruption.

It takes a lot of tolerance for a free society to function. But freedom is the only meaningful environment in which the world's peoples can progress.

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