This week, U.S. officials will once again welcome one of the world’s most kleptocratic living autocrats: president of Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. What possible reason, you might ask, does the administration have for meeting with a man who has amassed an enormous personal fortune by siphoning the lion’s share of his country’s wealth for himself and his cronies while his citizens are literally starving? We are wondering the same thing.
In a speech to America’s diplomats at the State Department on May 19, 2011, President Obama declared the United States’ commitment to pursue policies that promote and protect human rights around the world. These rights, he argued, include “free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.”
A year has passed since that much-lauded speech gave voice to a commitment that human rights advocates had long been pushing for. In that time, the president and his foreign affairs team have struggled with the difficult task of channeling the rhetoric, which rightfully places human rights and democratic governance at the top of America’s priority list, into meaningful policies.
The current state of media freedom in Latin America was driven home in early May, when three journalists were murdered in Mexico within a week of World Press Freedom Day. This dramatic example underscores a larger trend identified by Freedom House in the recently released Freedom of the Press 2012 report, which noted that a range of negative developments over the past decade have left media freedom on the defensive in much of Central and South America.
Charles Taylor, one of West Africa’s most infamous political figures, was arrested and handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2006 to be tried for crimes committed during that country’s brutal civil war. Last month, after a trial that lasted almost five years, featured 115 witness testimonies, and cost approximately $250 million, the court found Taylor guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, and the conscription of child soldiers. The prosecution requested an 80-year prison sentence. Today, the former Liberian president was sentenced to 50 years, to be served in a British correctional facility. Taylor’s legal team is likely to appeal.
Until recently, it could at least be said that countries with objectionable political systems played host to major global sports competitions only occasionally. Forty-four years elapsed between the Berlin and Moscow Olympics, and it was another 28 years before the games were held in Beijing. Second-tier events in dictatorial states tended to be limited to low-profile sports like weightlifting and wrestling. But all that is changing fast. Some of the most prestigious international athletic competitions have recently been held, or are now set to be held, in countries that regularly make world headlines with their rigged elections, state-dominated media, repression of minorities, or full-bore retreat from democracy to authoritarianism.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been mired in severe instability and violent conflict since 1994, with rival militias, foreign governments’ proxy forces, and ordinary civilians clashing against a backdrop of underdeveloped social services, lucrative natural resources, and pervasive lack of government accountability. A small step forward came in 2009, when a peace agreement provided for the absorption of a major rebel group into the Congolese national army. Last month, however, the rebels’ former leader, Bosco Ntaganda, defected from the army along with hundreds of soldiers, launching a fresh rebellion and plunging the eastern DRC back into conflict. Violence between the newly baptized M23 rebel group and government forces has displaced at least 45,000 people since April 27, and there are reports that Ntaganda has returned to his past practice of forcibly recruiting child soldiers.
After months of debate, a group of 20 politicians, scholars, journalists, and civic leaders gathered in Sarajevo last month to present its thoughts on where Bosnia and Herzegovina will be in 2025. The group, backed by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, offered five scenarios to pique policymakers—not, it emphasized, to predict the future.
Earlier this month, Chinese authorities were forced to temporarily suspend trading of shares in the online unit of the People’s Daily newspaper, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. The price had soared so rapidly since the website’s April debut on the Shanghai Stock Exchange—giving it a greater market value than the New York Times—that it triggered regulatory rules aimed at halting speculative manipulation. This development is just the sort of absurd extreme that comes shortly before an economic bubble bursts.
At a rally commemorating the ninth anniversary of the electoral victory of her late husband, former president Néstor Kirchner, President Fernández sang the praises of Argentina’s vibrant democracy and political progress. Under the slogan “United and Organized,” her fiery 45-minute speech was enthusiastically received by the estimated 100,000 supporters in attendance. However, most in the Argentine media would beg to differ with their president’s depiction of the current level of democracy in the country. Indeed, contrary to Fernández’s idealistic portrayal, freedom of speech in Argentina is in a dismal state, and is poised to worsen before it improves.