The magazine Commentary once published an article titled, “Has There Ever Been Anything Like the Soviet Union?” The piece appeared during the last decades of the Cold War, and the title was meant to convey the message that in the long and sordid annals of despotism, the USSR was unique—in the completeness of its totalitarian scheme, in the staying power of its mechanisms of control, in its global reach, and in its determination to assemble a terrifying arsenal even as its domestic economy lay in ruins. Eventually, of course, the Soviet Union succumbed, but for over 70 years it survived and even thrived as a model of anti-freedom that inspired regimes ranging from East Germany to North Korea.
Burma’s parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a make or break moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.
After a smooth start in the early post-apartheid period, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is increasingly afflicted by contradictions between its idealistic principles and the baser behaviors of many of its officeholders. These behaviors currently include threats to institute tighter controls over the judiciary and the ANC’s civil society critics, especially the independent media. A discernable trend toward intolerance of judicial brakes on executive power, and also toward a general aversion to any criticism of executive policies and actions, raises troubling questions about the future of democratic governance in South Africa.
Last week, the authorities in Belarus executed two young men who had been convicted of an April 2011 subway bombing in Minsk. While the deeply flawed trial and the swift, primitive nature of the men’s deaths may have disturbed the international community, they were not unusual for Belarus, which has consistently hovered close to the worst possible ratings on issues like the rule of law in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World and Nations in Transit reports.
On February 14, 2011, large numbers of peaceful protesters turned out across Bahrain to demand fundamental changes to the island kingdom’s political system. Exasperated with the autocratic rule of the al-Khalifa family, they called for free and fair parliamentary elections, an end to the gerrymandering and other tactics that politically marginalize certain groups (particularly Shia Muslims, who form a majority of the electorate), and the immediate release of all political prisoners. However, security forces overseen by Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa—an uncle of the king who has served as prime minister since 1971—brutally crushed the protest movement, arresting, injuring, and killing many innocent citizens. As a result, more than 13 months after the protests began, the existing obstacles to Bahraini democracy remain largely intact.
On March 21, David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about human rights abuses in Russia. Our blog includes excerpts from his testimony at the hearing. The full testimony can be read here.
The release of some 3,000 e-mail messages believed to be from the personal accounts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and members of his inner circle has shined a light on the cynicism and deceit of the dictatorial regime in Damascus. Assad is revealed to mock his own countrymen as well as the reforms he promised in response to the antigovernment protests that began a year ago. In the e-mails, he refers to these reforms as “rubbish laws of parties, elections, media.” That he offered them at all, of course, would seem to fly in the face of his long-standing assertion that the uprising is an assault by foreign-backed terrorists, as opposed to a legitimate demand for political change by Syrian citizens.
On March 5, the day after Vladimir Putin won a new term in the Russian presidential election, around 20,000 members of the country’s broad-based opposition movement gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square to protest what organizers deemed an unfair and illegitimate vote that was marred by electoral fraud. The demonstration ended with nearly 250 arrests in Moscow alone, as a number of the protesters refused to leave the park in an act of civil disobedience.
Hadeel Kouki is a young Syrian activist who was detained and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s regime for demanding her basic human rights. At the most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, she spoke on behalf of Freedom House about her treatment by the regime and called on the Human Rights Council to take action to stop ongoing atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against its people.
Despite the recent focus on Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s deteriorating human rights situation has been the subject of mounting international concern for a number of years. The conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who first took power in 2005, has harmed Iranians’ interests through its divisive factional infighting, economic ineptitude, and deepening confrontation with both the democratic world and Iran’s Arab rivals. But a newly published United Nations report has highlighted the extent to which the regime’s policies have also degraded the country’s already poor human rights conditions during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.