Essay: Freedom in Retreat | Freedom House

Essay: Freedom in Retreat

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by Arch Puddington

The year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom. The decline, which was reflected in reversals in one-fifth of the world’s countries, was most pronounced in South Asia, but also reached significant levels in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa. It affected a substantial number of large and politically important countries—including Russia, Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Nigeria, and Venezuela—whose declines have wider regional and global implications. Other countries experienced reversals after a period of progress toward democracy, including pivotal states in the Arab Middle East.

While many more countries suffered declines than registered improvements, the degree of change reflected in some countries was modest while in others the decline was more substantial. The profile of world freedom as measured by the number of countries designated in Freedom in the World as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free changed little during the past year. There were, nonetheless, many and overwhelmingly negative changes within these broad categories. Furthermore, results for 2007 marked the second consecutive year in which the survey registered a decline in freedom, representing the first two-year setback in the past 15 years. In all, nearly four times as many countries showed significant declines during the year as registered improvements. Many countries that moved backward were already designated Not Free by the survey; there were, in other words, numerous examples of a worsening of already negative trends. In other cases, countries with recent records of improved democratic institutions were unable to sustain progress and gave clear signals of backsliding.

As the year drew to a close, a series of events served as stark reminders of the perilous condition of freedom in certain parts of the world:

  • In Russia, parliamentary elections were held under patently unfair conditions.
  • Democracy in Georgia, a key “color revolution” country, was sullied by the imposition of a state of emergency and a violent police crackdown on demonstrators.
  • In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in the context of a recent state of emergency, intense pressure on civil society and the judiciary, and rising terrorism by Islamic extremists.
  • In Kenya, hundreds were killed in rioting and mayhem in the wake of highly credible reports of vote rigging by the government in the country’s presidential election. 

Civil conflict was an important contributing factor to this year’s negative trajectory in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The year also saw the intensification of an effort by authoritarian regimes to consolidate their power through the suppression of democratic opposition, civil society, and independent media—a process also known as the pushback against democracy. Freedom of association suffered a setback on a global scale, as governments in various regions initiated policies to weaken or neutralize nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), human rights monitoring groups, and trade unions. Especially important in carrying out this assault on civil society were a group of market-oriented autocracies and energy-rich dictatorships that combine elements of a capitalist economy with sophisticated techniques of political repression.

These were among the principal findings of Freedom in the World 2008, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties worldwide.

The population of the world as estimated in mid-2007 was 6,604.9 million persons, who reside in 193 sovereign states. The level of political rights and civil liberties as shown comparatively by the Freedom House survey is:

Free: 3,028.2 million (46 percent of the world’s population) live in 90 of the states.

Partly Free: 1,185.3 million (18 percent of the world’s population) live in 60 of the states.

Not Free: 2,391.4 million (36 percent of the world’s population) live in 43 of the states.

A Record of the Survey

(population in millions)

Year under Review Free Partly Free Not Free World Population
Mid-1992 1,352.2 (24.83%) 2,403.3 (44.11%) 1,690.4 (31.06%) 5,446.0
Mid-1993 1,046.2 (19.00%) 2,224.4 (40.41%) 2,234.6 (40.59%) 5,505.2
Mid-1994 1,119.7 (19.97%) 2,243.4 (40.01%) 2,243.9 (40.02%) 5,607.0
Mid-1995 1,114.5 (19.55%) 2,365.8 (41.49%) 2,221.2 (38.96%) 5,701.5
Mid-1996 1,250.3 (21.67%) 2,260.1 (39.16%) 2,260.6 (39.17%) 5,771.0
Mid-1997 1,266.0 (21.71%) 2,281.9 (39.12%) 2,284.6 (39.17%) 5,832.5
Mid-1998 2,354.0 (39.84%) * 1,570.6 (26.59%) 1,984.1 (33.58%) 5,908.7
Mid-1999 2,324.9 (38.90%) 1,529.0 (25.58%) 2,122.4 (35.51%) 5,976.3
Mid-2000 2,465.2 (40.69%) 1,435.8 (23.70%) 2,157.5 (35.61%) 6,058.5
Mid-2001 2,500.7 (40.79%) 1,462.9 (23.86%) 2,167.1 (35.35%) 6,130.7
Mid-2002 2,717.6 (43.85%) 1,293.1 (20.87%) 2,186.3 (35.28%) 6,197.0
Mid-2003 2,780.1 (44.03%) 1,324.0 (20.97%) 2,209.9 (35.00%) 6,314.0
Mid-2004 2,819.1 (44.08%) 1,189.0 (18.59%) 2,387.3 (37.33%) 6,395.4
Mid-2005 2,968.8 (45.97%) 1,157.7 (17.93%) 2,331.2 (36.10%) 6,457.7
Mid-2006 3,005.0 (45.97%) 1,083.2 (16.57%) 2,448.6 (37.46%) 6,536.8
Mid-2007 3,028.2 (45.85%) 1,185.3 (17.94%) 2,391.4 (36.21%) 6,604.9

* The large shift in the population figure between 1997 and 1998 is due to India’s change in status from Partly Free to Free

A particularly worrying phenomenon that emerges from the findings is the negative impact of powerful autocracies on smaller, less powerful neighboring countries. Russia provides diplomatic and political support to a number of brutal dictatorships and autocratic regimes on its borders, including Belarus and states in Central Asia, and puts pressure on nearby governments, such as Estonia and Georgia, whose policies or leaders it disapproves of. Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria have supported antidemocratic forces in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has attempted to export his authoritarian brand of “21st Century Socialism” to other countries in South America, albeit with little success thus far. For its part, China has emerged as an impediment to the spread of democracy in East Asia and other regions, especially Africa. China has played a particularly negative role in Burma, where it sustains a brutal military dictatorship through economic and diplomatic support, and in North Korea, through its policy of forcibly returning those who flee the Pyongyang regime. In Africa, China provides various kinds of aid, including security assistance, to authoritarian countries and undermines the efforts of the United States, the European Union, and multilateral institutions to promote honest and transparent governance. 

The Global Trend
Year Under Review Free Partly Free Not Free
 1977  43 48 64
 1987  58 58 51
 1997  81 57 53
 2007  90 60 43

New and unstable democracies continue to be plagued by a host of problems stemming from a sharp and sometimes shocking increase in violent crime, often involving the narcotics trade, human trafficking, and organized criminal networks and exacerbated by corrupt or ineffectual police, a poorly functioning judiciary, and vigilantism. While the impact of crime on the public’s faith in democracy is a special problem in Latin America, it is also a growing phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asian countries like the Philippines.


The number of countries judged by Freedom in the World as Free in 2007 stood at 90, representing 47 percent of the world’s 193 polities and 3,028,190,000 people—46 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries did not change from the previous year’s survey.

The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 60, or 31 percent of all countries assessed by the survey, and they comprised 1,185,300,000 people, or 18 percent of the world’s total. The number of Partly Free countries increased by two from the previous year.

Forty-three countries were judged Not Free, representing 22 percent of the total polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 2,391,400,000, or 36 percent of the world population, although it is important to note that about half of this number lives in just one country: China. The number of Not Free countries declined by two from 2006.  


Tracking Electoral Democracy
Year Under Review Number of Electoral Democracies
1997  117
2002  121
2007  121

The number of electoral democracies dropped by two, and stands at 121. One polity, Mauritania, a Muslim-majority country in Africa, qualified to join the world’s electoral democracies in 2007. Developments in three countries—Philippines, Bangladesh, and Kenya—disqualified them from the electoral democracy list. The decline of these countries is significant given their size and the fact that two, Philippines and Kenya, were previously regarded as important additions to the democratic world and models for Asia and Africa.

Two countries—Thailand and Togo—experienced positive status changes, with both moving from Not Free to Partly Free. One territory, the Palestinian Authority, declined from Partly Free to Not Free. No country improved from Partly Free or Not Free to a designation of Free, or declined from Free to a designation of Partly Free or Not Free.

At the same time, the number of countries that experienced negative changes in freedom without meriting a status change far outweighed those that underwent positive changes: 38 countries showed evidence of declines in freedom, while only 10 showed positive shifts.

The year was notable for the failure of any of the more important repressive states to show signs of enhanced freedom. Likewise, not one of the countries that register the lowest possible scores in the Freedom House index—the “worst of the worst”—exhibited signs of improvement. This in itself represents a break from a trend, observable even in years when world freedom stagnated or declined, in which progress was registered in some of the world’s most tightly controlled dictatorships.

Important Trends

1. A resurgence of pragmatic, market-oriented, or energy-rich dictatorships. Most visibly in Russia and China, but also in other parts of the world, governments are trying to harness the power of the marketplace while maintaining closed political systems. Strengthened by petroleum-based riches or capital amassed through long-term trade surpluses, these autocracies are unapologetic and increasingly assertive, at home and abroad, in declaring that the paradigm of rights-based governance as the international community has long understood it is not relevant for the 21st century. Diplomatic and political efforts to undermine norm-setting bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are advancing as a consequence, with implications for the fate of freedom in a growing number of countries.

2. Decline in freedom of association. As repressive regimes move to strengthen their authority and eliminate sources of political opposition, they increasingly target human rights organizations, advocates of government transparency, women’s rights groups, representatives of minority groups, and trade unions. While the countries of the Middle East have the worst record on adherence to established standards for freedom of association, Africa and the non-Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union also have poor scores for associational rights.

3. Weak governance. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries rank as electoral democracies, but many score poorly on government effectiveness and accountability. Corruption, lack of transparency, and concentration of power in the hands of the executive or nonelected forces represent major obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

4. Islamic extremism. While the world has been spared terrorist attacks of the magnitude of 9/11, the violent actions of Islamic radicals remain an important challenge to freedom, both in Muslim countries and in the wealthy democracies. Terrorist violence remains a serious problem in Iraq, is a growing threat to freedom in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and continues to plague Algeria, Lebanon, and other countries of the Arab Middle East. In Europe, during the past year alone, arrests for terrorist plots or actual attacks were made in Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Denmark. The threat of terrorism often provides an unjustified rationale for repressive emergency laws, torture, and the suppression of opposition political parties.

Asia-Pacific: Military Rule, Ethnic Conflict, and Religious Strife  

A number of Asia’s most important countries suffered freedom setbacks during 2007, many of which were concentrated on the Indian subcontinent. Bangladesh experienced a reversal due to the introduction of military rule in January, the suspension of scheduled elections, and the curtailment of civil liberties and press freedom. In Pakistan, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was the climax of a chaotic year marked by martial law, restrictions on freedom of assembly, curbs on the media, suspension of the constitution, and the wholesale replacement of Supreme Court justices and many lower court judges who were deemed unfriendly to the country’s president, Pervez Musharraf. Sri Lanka suffered from sustained pressure on human rights activists and other critics of government policy amid a worsening military conflict with the Tamil Tiger rebels, in which the combatants have committed numerous human rights abuses. In Afghanistan, the escalating insurgency by the Taliban and other antigovernment forces contributed to an environment of fear and insecurity in certain regions and impeded the ability of civil society and humanitarian groups to operate freely throughout the country.

For the second consecutive year, the survey noted a decline in freedom for the Philippines, due to serious, high-level corruption allegations; the pardon of former president Joseph Estrada; and a spike in political killings in the run-up to legislative elections. Burma, which has long ranked among the world’s most repressive regimes, showed further decline amid the violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrations and massive economic exploitation. Malaysia also registered a decline thanks to a Supreme Court decision that eliminates Muslims’ right to convert, an accelerating judicial crisis, a crackdown on online media, and the suppression of opposition-led protests.

China remained the world’s most populous Not Free country. While there had been expectations that the political leadership would grant concessions on human rights or initiate modest democratic reforms in advance of the 2008 summer Olympics, the regime in fact continued to crack down on political activists, internet journalists, and human rights lawyers. In some ways, preparations for the Olympics contributed to the country’s antidemocratic environment, as the leadership forcibly moved millions of people to make way for Olympic facilities and placed new restrictions on ethnic and religious minorities. China intensified its pressure on Tibet, which suffered a further loss of freedom due in part to the acceleration of a government program aimed at forcibly resettling nomadic herders.

The major positive development in the region was the improvement of Thailand from Not Free to Partly Free, due largely to the loosening of military rule and the holding of parliamentary elections that, despite efforts by the military to skew the results, were widely judged to be free and competitive. But the elections’ outcome—a triumph for a party aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister until his ouster by a 2006 military coup—suggests possible future problems for Thailand’s democracy. The country’s Freedom in the World rating had deteriorated during Thaksin’s term as prime minister, and his leadership style included disturbing elements of populism and authoritarianism. Furthermore, the country’s high level of political polarization remains a serious obstacle to democratic consolidation.

There are, of course, a number of democratic success stories in Asia. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India, and more recently Indonesia have all moved into the ranks of Free countries. But the region’s current trajectory is distinctly disturbing. A combination of authoritarianism, ethnic and communal hatred, military involvement in political affairs, and radical Islam has substantially blocked democratic development. The recent decline in freedom in the region seems even more unsettling when Australia, New Zealand, and the small island nations of the Pacific are set aside and analysis is limited to Asia’s core countries. For the year 2007, the breakdown for the core Asia countries is 6 Free, 9 Partly Free, and 9 Not Free.

The Russian Neighborhood: From Bad to Worse 

No event more vividly illustrates the problems faced by the non-Baltic countries of the former Soviet Union than Russia’s parliamentary elections. In certain superficial ways, the Russian vote resembled elections in established democracies. Several parties put forward candidates for parliamentary seats, held rallies, and made promises to the electorate, and the press eagerly covered the pageantry surrounding the campaign. But as numerous independent monitoring organizations testified, the elections were an illusory spectacle, as parties and candidates who challenged the policies of President Vladimir Putin were eliminated through bureaucratic manipulation. The press—largely controlled by the state or supporters of the president—devoted overwhelming coverage to Putin and his allies, and measures were implemented to keep the opposition impotent, fragmented, or tame.

Russia exerts influence in the former Soviet Union by using its abundant oil and gas resources to reward politically friendly, autocratic countries and pressure states that are not willing to bow to the Kremlin. In Central Asia, the Russian regime has provided political, moral, and material support to the authoritarians who dominate the region. For example, Russia has enhanced its relationship with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose security forces are believed to have massacred some 500 protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in May 2005. Russia has been seeking a de facto monopoly on gas exports from Uzbekistan with the understanding that Moscow would help the Karimov regime in rebuffing domestic protests and criticism from the West. In Kyrgyzstan, Russia has used its influence to obstruct political reforms in the wake of the country’s 2005 political opening, which was unique in Central Asia.

Three of the region’s countries—Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan—have consistently ranked among the world’s most repressive societies. In Uzbekistan, Karimov was reelected for a third term in 2007 with well over 90 percent of the vote, in blatant violation of a constitutional two-term limit.

Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan—all countries with entrenched authoritarian leaderships and growing energy wealth—registered declines in 2007. Perhaps more disturbing was the substantial reversal suffered by Georgia, a country that had made important strides toward democracy since its 2003 Rose Revolution. Georgia saw both its political rights and its civil liberties ratings decline due to the imposition of a state of emergency following antigovernment demonstrations in November, restrictions on press freedom, and a systematic campaign to marginalize the political opposition. Kyrgyzstan registered a decline in political rights after independent monitoring organizations pointed to serious flaws in the 2007 parliamentary elections, which resulted in a near clean sweep for the ruling coalition.

In contrast to the generally poor state of freedom in the former Soviet Union, the countries of the Baltic region, Central Europe, and, with a few exceptions, the Balkans, continued to move ahead with the process of democratic consolidation. For 2007, Latvia registered a slight decline due to a series of corruption scandals that implicated high-ranking officials. Poland showed a modest gain because of improvements in press freedom and freedom of association. Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced a decline in political rights due to a greater degree of intervention by the High Representative appointed by the international commission that guides the peace process.

Even as the countries of the former Soviet Union were negatively influenced by the Russian model, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe benefited from proximity to Western Europe and, for most, membership in the European Union. EU membership has been instrumental in persuading them to stem corruption, ensure a level political playing field, limit discrimination against minorities, and adopt responsible economic policies. While countries like Hungary, Poland, and Romania have experienced periods of political upheaval and discontent over living standards, corruption, and other matters, their political systems have displayed a resilience that is notably missing in formerly communist countries that lack such close ties to the established democracies of Western Europe.

Middle East: After Gains, Disappointment 

The period of modest gains that had marked the region’s political landscape in the post-9/11 period came to an end in 2007, with freedom experiencing a decline in a number of important countries and territories. Major declines were noted in both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli-Occupied Territories. The Palestinian Authority experienced a change in status, from Partly Free to Not Free, due to the collapse of a unified government precipitated by the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the inability of elected representatives to govern in either Gaza or the West Bank, and the suppression of the political opposition in both areas. In the Israeli-Occupied Territories, a combination of Israeli military incursions, restrictions on the delivery of food aid, and violent dispersals of protests led to a decline in the rating for civil liberties.

Declines were also registered in three of the most important countries of the Arab Middle East: Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Egypt showed a decline for several reasons: repression of journalists; suppression of the political opposition, including both democratic parties and those aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood; and further restrictions on the independence of the judiciary, a development that came in response to judges’ having challenged the unchecked power of President Hosni Mubarak. Lebanon’s decline was due to a deadlock over the selection of the president and continued violence directed at officials and journalists who have opposed Syrian domination of the country’s political life. In Syria, freedom moved in a negative direction because of a renewed crackdown on members of the democratic opposition. Tunisia, long one of the region’s most repressive states, experienced a decline in political rights due to credible reports of rampant corruption involving the family of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority had all made progress on the Freedom House index in recent years—in the case of the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon, significant progress. With the exception of the Palestinian Authority, the reversals in 2007 were not enough to cause major decreases in freedom scores.

The reasons for the Middle East’s political stagnation are many and complex. Most important is the unwillingness of autocratic leaders like Egypt’s Mubarak or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to cede power to forces outside their tight circle. Another is the influence of dictatorships like Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria, on their smaller and less powerful neighbors. Both countries have worked assiduously to undermine forces committed to democracy and independence in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Authority. Likewise, radical Islam remains a factor behind the region’s poor performance. The presence of movements committed to violent jihad poses a threat to the security of ordinary people and provides an excuse for the enactment of authoritarian emergency measures by rulers bent on suppressing all sources of political opposition.

Latin America: Democratic Stability Still Elusive 

While Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dominated the headlines during 2007, the more significant story was the durability of the region’s democratic institutions in the face of multiple problems. Among the major challenges is Chavez’s drive to export his authoritarian brand of socialism to the rest of Latin America. Thus far he has largely failed in this endeavor. Although politicians who claim to admire Chavez won presidential races in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua in 2005 and 2006, none will be able to count on a similar oil-based revenue windfall to implement unsustainable economic policies, and at least in Bolivia and Nicaragua, more formidable opposition forces exist to challenge executive power. Latin America today is largely governed by parties of the center-left or center-right that have demonstrated a commitment to the electoral process, freedom of expression, and a broad range of civil liberties.

Chavez, who has centralized substantial power in the president’s office as part of an overall drive to weaken Venezuela’s democratic institutions, suffered a major setback when voters narrowly rejected a constitutional referendum that would have eliminated presidential term limits, added yet more authority to the executive branch, and enshrined various measures of economic populism in law. While the referendum results indicated the resilience of civil society, Freedom in the World judged that freedom in Venezuela remained under duress, pointing to pressures on freedom of assembly, the independent press, and academic freedom. Nicaragua also suffered a decline due to excessive concentration of authority in the executive branch and the adoption of a law that criminalized abortion under all circumstances. On the positive side, Haiti showed signs of modest progress due to enhanced political stability and an improved security environment in urban areas.

In addition to the kind of leftist populism embodied in the Chavismo phenomenon, Latin America faces serious obstacles to stability including entrenched corruption, an upsurge in criminal activity, and a dysfunctional judicial system. Even as the region boasts the freest political environment in its history, many countries suffer from the worst rates of violent crime in the world, a problem that contributes to the ambivalence toward democracy professed in public opinion surveys. Latin America also continues to face high levels of poverty, economic insecurity, and inequality. The fact that democracy is almost universally upheld in a region that was only recently dominated by juntas and strongmen is an impressive achievement, but the consolidation of these gains is unlikely without greater physical and economic security, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law.

Africa: Freedom Falters Amid Continued Instability and Intolerance 

While in the last several years the sub-Saharan region has made incremental if uneven progress, the year 2007 saw the deterioration of freedom on the continent. Fifteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa registered reversals of sufficient magnitude to be noted in the survey, while six countries registered improvements.

One country, Togo, moved from Not Free to Partly Free after holding its first genuinely free legislative elections. Mauritania, after holding presidential elections deemed by outside observers to be fair and competitive, registered enough improvement in the political rights arena to be designated an electoral democracy. Two other countries that showed major improvements were former conflict zones: Cote d’Ivoire, where the signing of peace accords led to improvements in civil liberties, and Sierra Leone, which registered gains in political rights after holding free and competitive elections and experiencing a peaceful transfer of power. Civil liberties improved in Mozambique as a result of gains in press freedom, including the prosecution of those responsible for the murder of an investigative journalist. Rwanda registered modest improvements due to enhanced political pluralism.

Unfortunately, these gains were more than offset by declines in the region. Given the diverse set of countries in question, no major unifying trend can explain all the downturns. However, political manipulation of ethnic and regional tensions and political intolerance by many of the region’s leaders were clearly important contributing factors in a number of countries. The most significant decline occurred in Kenya, due to credible reports of vote-rigging in the presidential contest and the violence triggered by the official results. Two other large countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria, also moved in the wrong direction. Political rights in the DRC declined as a result of the forced exile of the chief opposition leader and the renewal of factional fighting. Hopes that Nigeria’s first transition between elected civilian administrations would enhance the country’s nascent democracy were dashed when presidential, state, and legislative elections were marred by massive fraud, vote-rigging, and violence. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan continued to have negative spillover effects on freedom in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic; internal conflict, widespread corruption, and growing political intolerance led to ratings declines for both countries. Two Sahelian countries that had made gains in recent years, Mali and Niger, registered declines in civil liberties due to restrictions on the press and growing instability in their northern territories. In East Africa, Somalia’s already low score declined further amid widespread chaos and violence. Other countries that showed declines included Malawi, Cameroon, Comoros, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville), Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Madagascar.

United States and Western Europe: Coping With Terrorism and Immigration 

Both North America and, with a few exceptions, Western Europe received the highest possible ratings for political rights and civil liberties on the Freedom House index. But while these countries have maintained their commitment to democracy and human rights in the face of significant challenges, the flawed response to an upsurge in immigration has revealed potentially serious imperfections in their democratic systems, especially in Western Europe. Furthermore, the developed democracies continued to grapple with multiple problems posed by the continued threat of Islamic terrorism.

While the United States has adopted the most controversial counterterrorism policies, Europe has faced the most imminent danger since the 9/11 attacks. Several European countries, most notably the United Kingdom, have toughened their security policies, but Western Europe in general has not significantly weakened the core institutions of civil liberties. In the United States, by contrast, policies set down by President George W. Bush and, to a lesser extent, enacted by Congress have been sharply criticized by civil libertarians. These include denial of habeas corpus rights to detainees at the Guantanamo Bay military base, extraordinary renditions, warrantless surveillance of American citizens, and various sections of the USA PATRIOT Act. A number of the most disputed policies have been eliminated or softened by Congress and especially by the judiciary.

Europe seems to have struck a fine balance between security needs in an age of terrorism and the individual rights of citizens, but it has fared less well in dealing with an influx of immigrants, many of whom come from Muslim countries in North and sub-Saharan Africa. Political parties whose principal reason for existence is hostility to immigrants have emerged throughout Europe and have achieved substantial electoral support in a few countries. Switzerland suffered a slight decline in freedom in 2007 due to a rise in anti-immigrant hate crimes and an atmosphere of hostility driven by the increasingly popular People’s Party.

Europe’s ability to solve its immigration dilemma is hampered by the inability of many countries to decide whether they want foreigners to become citizens and assimilate into society. Meanwhile, there have been a string of controversies over such issues as Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school, the construction of large mosques in cities that historically have been overwhelmingly Christian, and journalists publishing material that Muslims deem offensive to their faith.

The United States also confronts an immigration problem, though it is different in nature from that facing Europe. By global standards, the United States has done an impressive job in assimilating wave after wave of immigrants into its political system, social structure, and economy. In recent years, however, Americans have become increasingly intolerant of undocumented workers, the bulk of whom come from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Immigration emerged as a major issue ahead of the 2008 presidential election, with candidates putting forward various schemes to prevent illegal migrants from crossing the country’s southern border. While the Bush administration has backed legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, the policies adopted so far have been almost entirely punitive: the erection of a fence to separate the United States from Mexico, raids on enterprises suspected of employing illegal aliens, and the deportation of those without proper documents, including some with long-standing ties to their U.S. communities.

Conclusion: Democrats Under Duress 

For the past few years, and especially since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, a number of the world’s most important autocracies have engaged in what has been called a pushback against democracy promotion. The pushback differs from past strategies of repressive regimes in that it relies on the use of legal restrictions, tax investigations, bureaucratic regulations, and the like to neutralize opposition political parties and civil society organizations that seek political change, rather than rougher techniques like imprisonment, exile, or murder.

The rationale for pushback policies advanced by the authorities in Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and elsewhere is that they are necessary to prevent outside forces, primarily the United States, from meddling in their sovereign affairs through the support of dissidents, human rights groups, and NGOs. In reality, the main target of this offensive is not the United States but the domestic advocates of democracy—those who are waging the on-the-ground struggle for fair elections, honest government, minority rights, women’s equality, and freedom of expression.

During 2007, autocrats in various settings repeatedly singled out democracy advocates for especially harsh treatment. In Russia, the Putin regime went out of its way to force parties and candidates with strong democratic credentials off the parliamentary ballot. It has aggressively sought to eliminate or neutralize NGOs that seek political reform, while at the same time treating Communists, xenophobes, and outright racists with tolerance. In China, the harsh treatment meted out to scholars, activists, and journalists who publicly press for democratic improvements is exceeded only by the crackdown on proponents of increased autonomy for Tibet or Xinjiang. In Egypt, the Mubarak government has been as zealous, if not more so, in silencing those who advocate for peaceful democratic reform as it has been in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran has launched an all-fronts offensive against those who speak out for change, including members of democratic parties, students, trade unions, academics, and advocates of women’s rights.

Yet even as autocrats fine-tune the mechanisms of repression and control, the past year brought impressive and inspiring examples of resistance from those who cherish freedom. Consider the following:

  • A movement launched by students dismayed at Hugo Chavez’s assault on freedom of expression grew into a broad opposition that came together to defeat the Venezuelan president’s authoritarian constitutional overhaul.
  • Even as the Iranian regime steps up its campaign of intimidation and reprisal, students, journalists, and human rights activists have launched a series of protests that have gained substantial popular support.
  • Lawyers in Pakistan, outraged by the government’s efforts to undermine judicial independence, mounted protests that eventually galvanized a broader movement of civil society opposed to military rule.

To these champions of freedom can be added a number of others: bloggers and human rights lawyers in China, monks in Burma, trade unionists in Zimbabwe, and students in Bangladesh.

The accusation that democracy campaigners are serving the interests of foreign powers is not only untrue, it completely distorts the goals and methods of today’s dissidents. Indeed, it is too often the case that democracy’s advocates are ignored by the outside world, governments, and the public alike. Today’s generation of democratic dissidents work both in anonymity and—in Iran, China, and elsewhere—under extreme duress.

The achievements of these democracy movements represent grounds for optimism in an otherwise unimpressive year. But they need the support of their natural allies in the democratic world, including, and indeed especially, advocates of democracy outside government. At a minimum, those who are taking risks for freedom require the kind of protection that only outside attention guarantees, the kind of support that sustained Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela in a previous era.

We should remember that freedom endured many dark days during the time of Mandela and Walesa, much darker than is the case today. Then, as now, many asked whether the tide had turned against freedom. Some suggested, as many do today, that a society’s history or culture could render it inhospitable terrain for democratic development. We also hear again the argument that the democratic world should ignore incidents of repression on the grounds that our involvement will only make matters worse. Fortunately, democrats rejected these arguments. They stayed the course and gave critical support to the dissidents and freedom campaigners in Poland, Chile, South Africa, and elsewhere. The fact that democratic dissidents have thwarted autocrats in the current difficult atmosphere is an important accomplishment. The solidarity of democrats from around the world is essential if the broader momentum toward freedom is to be regained.



Camille Eiss assisted with this report.