Democracy Makes Gains, but Too Many Countries Still Not Free

It is a pleasure to see the civilized and orderly way in which one of our great democracies has just conducted a dramatic revolution.

The British people have cried "enough, enough" of John Major and his Conservative Party and have installed Tony Blair, leader of the Labour Party, as prime minister. Mr. Major has been deposed but has not, as happens in some less democratic countries, lost his head. It has all taken place with great politesse. Major drove to Buckingham Palace to officially inform the queen of his party's rout. He turned over his car and the prime ministerial residence at 10 Downing Street to Mr. Blair, and walked off into the sunset - actually, probably a light drizzle.

It reminds us how grateful we should be that most of the world's people can now change their governments, should they wish, at the ballot box without the rumble of coupist tanks and the crackle of revolutionary gunfire.

Democracy is on a roll. There are now 118 electoral democracies around the world - the highest number in history. The proportion of democracies has expanded from 40 percent a decade ago to 62 percent today. Some 3.16 billion people - almost 55 percent of the world's population - now live in electoral democracies. This is cause for celebration. But let's not forget the 45 percent who do not yet live in democracy as we understand it.

Some of the countries in which they live are fairly benign non-democracies, but 17 countries are the most notorious violators of human rights. In these societies, state control over daily lives is pervasive, political opposition is banned or suppressed, and fear of retribution and violence is rooted in reality. They are Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.

For this assessment we are indebted to New York-based Freedom House, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that monitors and promotes the growth of democratic institutions around the world.

For the 1.5 billion people who live in these 17 worst-offending countries, life is not orderly and free. What can we do to help them? Often not much except publicize their plight, as Freedom House did recently before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

For example, in Afghanistan the Taliban militia's successful offensive has put two-thirds of the country under its rigid interpretation of Islamic lore, subjecting women to Draconian restrictions. They are barred from working, can't leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative, and must wear a burqa, a one-piece garment covering the body, with only a mesh opening for the eyes. Taliban soldiers beat women for minor violations. The restrictions have forced the suspension of medical care and relief services provided by women and dried up the income of some 25,000 war widows who now cannot work.

In Burma, one of the most withdrawn and isolated countries in Asia, the rule of law is nonexistent. Freedoms of speech, press, and association are restricted. Trade unions and strikes are illegal. There are at least 1,000 political prisoners. The Army executes civilians who refuse to provide food or money to military units.

With the possible exceptions of South Africa, Indonesia, and China, Cuba under Fidel Castro has had more political prisoners per capita for longer periods than any other country, according to Freedom House. At present there are some 600 political prisoners, about half held on vague charges such as "disseminating enemy propaganda" or "dangerousness."

In Iraq the death penalty is frequently used for any expression of dissent, such as insulting President Saddam Hussein or his Baath party. Theft, corruption, and currency speculation are punished by amputation, branding, and execution.

In North Korea, where the economy is disintegrating, defection is punishable by execution, as are such "counterrevolutionary crimes" as listening to the BBC or the Voice of America. Prison conditions are brutal. Authorities conduct monthly checks of residences; electronic surveillance is common; children are encouraged at school to report on their parents' activities.

And so the tale of travail and torture goes on. It is a somber reminder that while democracy is making impressive gains throughout the world, millions have yet to be free.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and currently editor of The Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

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