Freedom of Association Suffers Global Setback | Page 71 | Freedom House

Freedom of Association Suffers Global Setback


A Freedom House report released today warns of a four-year decline in freedom of association worldwide, as governments increasingly take calculated action to restrict nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups and independent trade unions. Freedom of Association Under Threat pegs the downward trend to the period immediately following the start of Europe's "color revolutions," after which authoritarian governments took action to suppress groups with the potential to organize similar pro-democratic protests in their own countries.

"Freedom House is deeply disturbed by a notable reversal for freedom of association in much of the world and there are reasons to believe that the current round of restrictions is not a passing phenomenon," said Arch Puddington, Freedom House director of research. "These setbacks can largely be traced to the emergence of a new breed of authoritarian leaders who employ repressive tactics that are much more sophisticated than those used in the past."

Freedom of Association Under Threat examines freedom of association worldwide between 2004-2007, showing declines in almost every region except Western Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Freedom House measured the most pronounced declines in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America, with associational rights already endangered in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East/North Africa region. In total, more than 20 percent of the world's countries saw their scores for freedom of association fall in Freedom in the World during the period analyzed.

The analysis is derived from Freedom in the World data sets and includes interpretive reports on 12 countries where associational rights are particularly threatened: Algeria, China, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

"In societies where political parties have already been cowed and the independent press silenced, civil society is the only entity that prevents an authoritarian leadership from achieving the total destruction of pluralism and the very possibility of political choice," said Puddington. "What we are seeing now is a number of regimes—often flush with natural resource wealth— that are making the stifling of dissent and independent action a major political priority."

These countries also show poor to very poor records of adherence to labor rights, with unions facing pressures ranging from assaults on union activists in Colombia to state-controlled unions in China, where thousands of workers die annually in factory and mining accidents. The study indicates that authoritarian leaders target unions out of concern that unions may promote democracy, as well as complicate the economic objectives of the state.

Authoritarian governments increasingly use legalistic or bureaucratic means instead of violence to restrict freedom of association. Such tactics include: enacting laws that prohibit trade unions from receiving funding from international sources, directing tax police and building code authorities to repeatedly investigate civil society groups and restricting NGO involvement to non-political activities.  Some of the report's other key findings include:

Negative Trends:

• The non-Baltic former Soviet Union registers one of the lowest scores, only slightly higher than the Middle East and North Africa region, which is at the bottom of the rankings. MENA countries continued to see freedom of association erode from 2004-2007 with six countries showing new declines.
• The most pronounced regional decline was in the Asia-Pacific region, with 12 countries suffering setbacks and just five showing gains.
• In the Americas, ten countries showed declines in freedom of association, with only six showing gains from 2004-2007.

Positive Trends:

• The survey gives Western Europe the highest regional score for associational rights, with Central and Eastern Europe close behind. The robust level of associational rights in the CEE region is among the most positive findings in the study, given the relatively recent emergence of democracy in these post-communist societies.
• Sub-Saharan Africa made impressive gains in associational rights during the period examined, with 18 countries showing improvement and only seven suffering declines.

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