Freedom's ring not reaching new ears

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.

President Hugo Chávez has recently announced plans to form a single socialist party out of diverse left-wing political parties to consolidate his power, and has denied a license renewal to a major television station that has voiced opposition to his initiatives.

"There is no question that Venezuela hardly deserves to be called a democracy these days," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "But under Chávez we are seeing a consolidation of more and more power, and a weakening or absorption of any institution that would check that power, to the point where the texture of democracy is being lost."

While the Chávez model is meeting a brick wall in some South American countries, Mr. Hakim says he is noticing that segments in other countries are increasingly tempted to follow Chávez's example. Just back from Chile, considered a democracy with a successful economic model for reducing poverty, Hakim says he was surprised at Chávez's "resonance" there.

"Two factors are driving that," he says: a growing conviction that the wealth and privileges of countries have been "grabbed up" by an elite few and attraction to Chávez's anti-American stance. "Anti-American sentiment is so strong out there that anyone seen standing up to the US is getting a sympathetic ear."

That latter factor is something Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is having to deal with as she travels through the Middle East. Ms. Rice is trying to drum up support for Mr. Bush's plan for Iraq and to jump-start the Israeli- Palestinian peace process, but hindering her is the reality that working with the US in the wake of the unpopular Iraq war can act as a strike against cooperative regimes.

That is one reason Rice did not emphasize democracy in a stop in Cairo this week. Even though the Egyptian regime has been cracking down on the political opposition and some press organs, the US has not chosen this moment to publicly chastise the regime, Egyptian democracy advocates note.

And lest Western democracies think they are paragons in the club of the world's free societies, the 2007 Freedom House report does have some cautionary notes for them.

For the US, the organization cites the controversy over continued detention of terrorism suspects at Gauntánamo Bay, Cuba – where some suspects have now been held for five years without formal charges. It also calls attention to criticism of immigration laws in some European countries that are having a hard time coming to grips with expanding Muslim populations.

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