Liberty's Ebb and Flow

A world forum is needed to spur democratic change

Freedom made important strides around the world in 1996 as the number of free countries grew from 76 to 79, the largest number since Freedom House launched its annual survey in 1972. These 79 countries provide their citizens with a high degree of political and economic freedom and safeguard basic civil liberties.

Today there are 118 electoral democracies, the highest total in history, and a net gain of one new democracy in 1996. The number has risen in a decade from 2 in 5 to 3 in 5; 54.8 percent of the world's people now live in electoral democracies. This year three countries - Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Taiwan - were added to the list of democratic states while two electoral democracies, Niger and Zambia, were toppled.

One of several factors in the advance of freedom is international aid for strengthening the rule of law, democratic processes, independent news media, and civil society. However, many countries continue to direct foreign assistance to dictatorships rather than emerging democracies. Last year the third and fourth largest recipients of world foreign aid for developing countries were China and Indonesia, which repress their citizens. Together they received nearly $4 billion from established democracies.

Democracy is becoming the global rule, rather than the exception. A majority of people expect to be able to vote for leaders in free and fair elections. Perhaps more significant, this expectation has taken root in countries where basic democratic rights are thwarted or denied, as evidenced in prodemocracy protests and movements in Armenia, Serbia, Burma, and Indonesia.

In the trend toward democracy, there is a striking gap; no regular international forum exists that is dedicated to discussing key issues of global democracy. The UN cannot serve this purpose. It includes many countries hostile to democratic change. The same is true of large regional cooperation bodies that include both democratic governments and repressive regimes. And while there are security alliances of democratic states and economic forums of free-market economies, there is no international organization composed of democratic states to focus on the promotion of peaceful democratic change.

Creating such a body would ensure that the steps we have witnessed are neither strolls nor short-lived sprints, but steady strides in the global march toward freedom.

Alongside the free countries, 59 are designated "partly free." Citizens enjoy limited political rights and civil liberties, often in a context of corruption, a flawed justice system, ethnic strife, or war. "Not free" describes 53 countries in which basic rights are suppressed and civil liberties are systematically denied or abused.

THERE are five new entrants into the ranks of free countries. The Philippines witnessed a significant decline in rebel insurgencies and in the influence of the traditional ruling families. Taiwan and Romania successfully completed their democratic transition to a competitive multiparty system. In Bolivia a six-month state of siege came to an end. In Venezuela social and political upheaval receded, as did the threat of the militarization of Caracas. Bosnia's limited revival of civic life accounts for its advance from not free to partly free. Sierra Leone also entered the partly free category by holding a successful national election amid a lasting cease-fire that stopped a bloody civil war.

But genocide continued in Burundi, warfare erupted in eastern Zaire, the radical Taliban expanded its repressive control in Afghanistan, and a civil war in Tajikistan continued to claim lives.

Seventeen states received Freedom House's lowest rating. Four of these - China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam - were among the few remaining one-party Marxist-Leninist dictatorships. Today, more than 1.5 billion people live in these 17 most repressive countries, 80 percent of them represented by China's 1.2 billion population.

Four countries experienced serious setbacks for freedom. Slovakia slipped from free to partly free owing to political terror against opponents of the ruling party and to the increasingly authoritarian actions of the prime minister. A deteriorating human rights climate under a tyrannical president placed Belarus among the not free. Niger joined the not free when a military coup toppled its electoral democracy. And Ecuador, where an authoritarian president, now forced from office, had caused tumult, went from free to partly free.

Despite the ebb and flow of liberty, 135 million more people are living in freedom than in 1995.

How Freedom House Conducts Its Survey

Freedom House's annual survey, "Freedom in the World," rates the political rights and civil liberties of each country and related territory on a scale of 1 to 7, from best to worst. Researchers use a series of questions to explore whether people are able to participate freely in the political process as evidenced, for example, by the right to vote and compete for public office.

A second set of questions looks at whether people are able to develop views, institutions, and personal autonomy from the state, as evidenced by, among other things, freedom of speech, press, and religion.

Freedom House distinguishes between constitutionally guaranteed rights and actual practice, looking closely at both institutions and events. Information is gathered from local and foreign news media, international and domestic organizations, and information received through an array of fact-finding missions and reports from contacts around the world.

Last Year's Landmarks

Freedom House has selected five events as the most significant advances in the global tide of freedom in 1996:

* The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two human rights advocates from East Timor, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo and human rights advocate Jos Ramos-Horta. The Nobel Committee gave voice to hundreds of thousands of Timorese seeking self-determination after more than two decades of Indonesian occupation. The award also refocused attention on the overall situation of human rights and political freedoms in Indonesia.

* The US-led effort to bring peace to Bosnia. Deployment of an international military contingent anchored by NATO helped end bloodshed and established the basis for the reemergence of electoral democracy, while offering hope that the problems arising from the deep divisions between Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats could be solved.

* The presidential election in Taiwan. The election of President Lee Teng-hui was a milestone because of its implications for the people of Taiwan and because it was an important signal to the mainland Chinese that there is nothing in Chinese tradition incompatible with democratic values.

* The triumph of electoral politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Free and fair elections were held for president in Russia, Moldova, Bulgaria, and Romania, and for parliament in Romania and Lithuania. In most cases, voters rejected ex-Communist and neo-Communist parties. Ultranationalist parties and neo-fascist groups receded as a political force in much of the region.

* Nicaragua's rejection of the Sandinistas. The election of President Arnoldo Alemn in a vigorously contested process and the rejection of Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega Saavedra was an important step toward the stabilization of democracy in a country with a long history of dictatorship.

* Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House, a New York-based international organization dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions. Jessica Cashdan is a researcher there.

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