February 9, 2018

Freedom House reports: Democracy is in crisis

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Freedom House has released its annual report on freedom around the globe, noting that 45 percent of the world’s countries are ranked as free, 30 percent as partly free and 25 percent as not free. Following are excerpts from the main essay by the president of Freedom House that introduces Freedom in the World 2018. 

Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.

Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies – particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under assault and in retreat globally.

A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century.

Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened. For the 12th consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories – Turkey and Hungary, for example – are sliding into authoritarian rule. The military in Myanmar, which began a limited democratic opening in 2010, executed a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2017 and rebuffed international criticism of its actions. Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful democracies are mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, terrorist attacks, and an influx of refugees that has strained alliances and increased fears of the “other.” …

Perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished among many, contributing to a dangerous apathy.

The retreat of democracies is troubling enough. Yet at the same time, the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized the opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy. …

The spread of antidemocratic practices around the world is not merely a setback for fundamental freedoms. It poses economic and security risks. When more countries are free, all countries – including the United States – are safer and more prosperous. When more countries are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances crumble, nations and entire regions become unstable, and violent extremists have greater room to operate. …

Ukraine remains partly free

Freedom in the World 2018 assessed Ukraine as partly free, giving it scores of 3 (out of 7, with seven being not free) on both political rights and civil liberties. Following is an excerpt from the report on Ukraine.

Ukraine continues to recover from the disorder that surrounded the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency in 2014, as well as the related crisis sparked by Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military support for separatists in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. The authorities’ failure to prosecute extensive high-level corruption has undermined the popularity of the government and affected some reform efforts. In the sphere of civil liberties, political pressure and attacks on journalists have threatened freedom of the press.

Key developments in 2017:

• The government made progress in crafting and implementing a number of reforms during the year, including changes to the health care and education systems, as well as measures designed to empower local and regional administrations.

• Efforts to fight widespread corruption stalled, as the independent National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) faced political interference, and the chair of a key parliamentary anti-corruption committee was dismissed. New disclosure requirements were imposed on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that focused on combating corruption. A much-anticipated anti-corruption court had yet to be established at year’s end.

• In May, new sanctions restricted Ukrainians’ access to popular Russian social media platforms and news outlets.

• Intermittent fighting continued in the Donbas. The United Nations reported in May that more than 10,000 people had been killed in the conflict since it erupted in mid-2014, more than a quarter of them civilians.

Executive summary

The Cabinet of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who was voted into office in a 2016 government shake-up, presided over a number of reforms in 2017. These included initiatives to increase the autonomy of regional and local administrations, overhaul the pension system, and improve the performance of hospitals and reduce corruption within them. Officials also made efforts to advance a stalled drive to streamline the operations of government ministries.

In September, President Petro Poroshenko signed a law aimed at aligning the country’s education system with those found in the European Union (EU), but it drew criticism for provisions that by 2020 would mandate Ukrainian as the primary language of instruction in most publicly funded secondary schools. The weak majority coalition was unable to advance a number of other reform initiatives, which remained blocked in the Parliament due in part to opposition from powerful business groups and other special interests. …

While Ukraine’s media environment has improved since the 2014 change in government, journalists face political interference as well as violence and harassment. Authorities continued to censor some Russian news sources and ban individual Russian journalists from entering the country in 2017. …

At year’s end, ceasefire deals had failed to bring about lasting peace in Donbas, where intermittent combat between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian military continued. Several apparently conflict-related assassinations and assassination attempts occurred during the year. In a May report, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found that at least 10,090 people, including over 2,700 civilians, had been killed, and nearly 24,000 injured, since the conflict’s outbreak in April 2014. The fighting has also displaced over a million people, many of whom struggle to access public services elsewhere in Ukraine.

EXPLANATORY NOTE: The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Crimea, which is examined in a separate report. …Disputed territories are sometimes assessed separately if they meet certain criteria, including boundaries that are sufficiently stable to allow year-on-year comparisons.

The full text of the Freedom in the World 2018, which includes assessments of regional trends and country reports, may be found at https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.

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