Major Gains for Liberty in 1998, Survey Finds

New York

Freedom made major gains in 1998 according to a global survey released today by Freedom House. Despite financial turmoil in emerging markets and persistent civil strife in a number of countries, the survey finds the highest number of Free countries on record-88 countries representing 46 percent of the world total. Fifty-three countries (28 percent) are Partly Free, with some abridgments in rights and weak enforcement of the rule of law. The survey also finds that 50 countries (26 percent of the world total) are Not Free and suffer from systematic human rights violations.

The organization's annual Freedom in the World survey showed a growth of seven in the number of countries judged Free, the second largest rise in the number of free countries in the 26-year history of the Survey.

"Our findings are particularly important because some of the most dramatic gains for freedom occurred in large and influential countries," declared Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom House president. Mr. Karatnycky pointed to India, which moved from a Partly Free to Free status, and Nigeria and Indonesia, which moved from the ranks of the Not Free to the Partly Free.

As a result of the gains in freedom in 1998-especially in India, the world's most populous democracy-2.354 billion people (40 percent of the world's population) now live in Free societies, 1.570 billion (26.5 percent) live in countries that are Partly Free, and 1.984 billion (33.5 percent) live in Not Free countries. The proportion of the world's population living in freedom is also the highest in the history of the Survey.

"This, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been a banner year for global freedom," said Freedom House Chair Bette Bao Lord. "In part, it is due to the universal striving for human rights, in part it is due to the greater concerted efforts of a widening community of democratic states."

Among the Survey's principal findings:

  • Seven countries moved from Partly Free to Free: India, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, Slovakia, Ecuador, and Thailand.
  • Over 61 percent of the world's countries, or 117 countries, are electoral democracies; these countries contain 55 percent of the world's people.
  • Economic turmoil in emerging markets has not led to widespread reversals in democracy and human rights, but has propelled political openings in such countries as Thailand, Nigeria, and Indonesia. In addition, more open and democratic systems have responded successfully to economic turmoil than authoritarian systems, as evidenced South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Brazil.
  • Democracy and freedom are the dominant trends in most parts of the world. The major exceptions are the former Soviet Union, Africa, and the Middle East. There are no democracies or free societies within the Arab world, and few in other predominantly Muslim societies.

"Worst of the Worst"

Among the 13 countries to receive Freedom House's lowest rating for political rights and civil liberties, three were under the domination of Communist parties: Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam. Other countries in the "worst of the worst" category are Afghanistan, Burma, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Turkmenistan.

Regional Trends

In Western Europe, democracy and freedom are the dominant trends. Western Europe remains the most democratic region in the world, with 24 democracies representing 100 percent of the states in the region. Democracies also predominate in the Americas, where there are 31 democratic polities among 35 countries and where only one country, Cuba, is Not Free.

In Central and East Central Europe and the former USSR, there are growing signs of regional division. In Central Europe and parts of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, democracy and freedom prevail and great progress has been seen in the construction of free market economies. But in the former Soviet Union, progress toward open societies has stalled or failed. Overall, 19 of 27 post-Communist countries of East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Union are democracies. Ten states are Free, 11 are Partly Free, and six are Not Free. Of the 12 non-Baltic post-Soviet republics, none is Free, seven countries are Partly Free, and five are Not Free.

Of the 53 countries in Africa, nine are Free (17 percent), 21 are Partly Free (40 percent), and 23 are Not Free (43 percent). Only 17 African countries, less than one-third, are democracies.

In Asia, 19 of the region's 38 countries (50 percent) are Free, nine are Partly Free (24 percent), and ten are Not Free (26 percent). Foremost among the Not Free countries is China, the world's most populous country and a looming presence in the region. Yet despite China and the rhetoric of "Asian values," 24 countries (63 percent) in the region are electoral democracies.

Of the 11 countries in the Middle East, one-Israel-is Free. Three regional countries-Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait-are Partly Free, and 11 are Not Free. Israel and Turkey are the only democracies in the region.

Top Five Gains for Freedom in 1998

  1. Nigeria: Developments have moved in a promising direction since the death of the tyrannical General Abacha, with many civil liberties restored, political parties legalized, and national elections pledged for 1999. A good omen was the holding of local elections this December which were deemed free and fair.
  2. Indonesia: President Suharto's resignation has been accompanied by promises of electoral democracy and enhanced civil liberties. Civic organizations and political parties have become more active and there has been a limited relaxation in occupied East Timor. On the negative side have been mounting violence against the Chinese minority and bloody clashes between students and the army.
  3. Corruption Alert: The governments of the United States and other leading democracies, along with the World Bank, are focusing increased attention on the role of corruption in undermining political and economic reform in transitional societies. A positive sign: demands for improvements in the rule of law are increasingly being incorporated into decisions on foreign assistance.
  4. Freedom on the Net: Several years ago China and other authoritarian regimes announced plans to control the Internet's political content. Those efforts have generally failed. In the future, the Internet will play a growing role in linking democratic forces within repressive societies and in building a global network of freedom activists.
  5. Dictators Beware: Both current and former dictators had reason for concern. Though controversial, the effort to bring Chile's General Augusto Pinochet to account sent a chilling message to tyrants around the world.

Top Five Setbacks for Freedom in 1998

  1. Russia: The assassination of democracy advocate Galina Staravoitova was the most tragic development in a bad year for Russian reformers. With President Yeltsin enfeebled, a coalition of neo-Communists and hardline nationalists gained increased influence, and succeeded in bringing down a reformist government. Russia may face a year of uncontrolled inflation and new attacks on civil liberties.
  2. Malaysia: President Mahathir Mohamad responded to his country's economic decline in all the wrong ways, repressing political critics, tightening political control, engaging in demagogic anti-Semitism, and placing restrictions on the economy. His rhetorical extremism was coupled with a clampdown on political opponents and represented a prime example of everything wrong with the ideology of authoritarian "Asian values."
  3. Congo: Events moved from bad to worse in the Democratic Republic of Congo. President Kabila showed no sign of relaxing his repressive policies. Much of the country remained contested territory, with forces supported by other African nations pillaging the countryside, terrorizing the populace, and promoting new outbursts of "ethnic cleansing" and incipient genocide.
  4. Religious Persecution: The persecution of religious groups remained a serious problem in a number of countries. Among the worst violators: Pakistan, Egypt, China, and Iran. Persecution was most serious in Sudan, where Christians and animists in the southern regions were killed, starved, and forced into exile by forces of the Moslem North.
  5. Nuclear Proliferation: The detonation of nuclear devices by India ( a country which paradoxically made forward progress in human rights) and Pakistan was a jolting reminder of the menace still posed by weapons of mass destruction. Other reasons to worry included Iraq's determination to rebuild its arsenal, North Korea's nuclear saber-rattling, and the role of Russian scientists in the development of weapons for Iran and other states.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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