David Saks
David Saks

Global freedom in retreat?

Following the collapse of communism, Francis Fukuyama famously asserted that humankind was on the threshold of “the end of history”. By this, he meant that humanity’s sociocultural evolution was poised to resolve itself in a general acceptance of the principles of Western liberal democracy as the basis of government. This he spelled out in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, where he wrote, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

Events in South Africa following the publication of Fukuyama’s book certainly bore out his thesis. Confounding those who had predicted a progressive decline into authoritarianism culminating in a racial civil war, South Africans successfully negotiated an end to white minority rule and established a new political and social order thoroughly underpinned by Western democratic principles of equality, non-racism and individual autonomy.

Today, unfortunately, little remains of the optimism that both inspired Fukuyama’s book and resulted in its being so enthusiastically received. Far from withering away in the face of freedom’s inexorable march, it is authoritarianism that is now steadily gaining ground.

Freedom House, an influential US-based research organisation that monitors democracy, political freedom, and human rights worldwide, lays out in depressing detail how, taken in the aggregate, global freedom is now in steady retreat. In its latest report, “Freedom in the World 2015”, it found an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year, with nearly twice as many countries suffering declines as registering gains (61 to 33). This it attributes to “more aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes and an upsurge in terrorist attacks”. Among the more egregious instances of attacks on democracy, the report cites Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rollback of democratic gains in Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “intensified campaign against press freedom and civil society” and the further centralisation of authority in China. This attested to “a growing disdain for democratic standards that was found in nearly all regions of the world”.

In summary, “Freedom in the World” assesses the “real-world” rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals, with its methodology being derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Assessing the level of political rights in a particular country or territory not only means ascertaining whether there are free and fair elections, but that “candidates who are elected actually rule, political parties are competitive, the opposition plays an important role and enjoys real power, and the interests of minority groups are well-represented in politics and government”. Civil liberties include freedoms of expression, assembly, association, education, and religion, an established and generally fair legal system (including an independent judiciary), free economic activity, and a general commitment to achieving equality of opportunity, including for women and minority groups.

Assuming one does not have a particular axe to grind or inclination to regard Freedom House as a CIA plot (as Cuba has), the results make fascinating reading. Before looking at them, however, a bit more background is necessary. Based on the above criteria relating to political and civil liberties, a system has been worked out whereby each country is scored based on two numerical ratings — from one to seven — for political rights and civil liberties. One represents the most free and seven the least free. There are three broad categories: “Free”, “Partially Free” and “Not Free”. To receive a “Free” rating, a score of no more than three is needed. Anything over three but no more than five equates to “Partially Free” and over five, “Not Free”.

Of the 195 countries assessed, 89 (46%) were rated “Free”, 55 (28%) “Partly Free”, and 51 (26%) “Not Free”. To start with our own neck of the woods, Southern African — certainly when compared with the rest of the continent, does rather well. South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho all get a “Free” rating (although none score a one), while Madagascar and Mozambique are adjudged “Partly Free”. Only Zimbabwe and Swaziland are “Not Free”. Overall, 88% of Africa’s population live in countries designated either “Not Free” or “Partly Free”.

South Africa gets a score of two, a rating explained as being “slightly weaker …. than those with a rating of one because of such factors as political corruption, limits on the functioning of political parties and opposition groups, and foreign or military influence on politics”. South Africa has been losing ground in recent years because of, inter alia, government encroachment on the editorial independence of the SABC, the pressure under which judicial and prosecutorial independence has come in recent years, the fact that senior ANC leaders “generally retained impunity from punishment” and xenophobic violence by police (including torture). Problems were also identified regarding the land question, including the insecure tenure rights of many black and coloured farmworkers, illegal squatting on white-owned farms and attacks on white owners.

Not that it will make one jot of difference to those bent on believing otherwise, but Israel, with 1.5, scores even higher than South Africa, despite being in a situation of continual war with its neighbours. This record is even more striking when compared with the rest of the Middle East, which is something of a horror story. Only Lebanon (“Partly Free”, with a score of 4.5) escapes being classified as “Not Free”, while Syria and Saudi Arabia are ranked among “the worst of the worst” (the others being the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

The general failure of Islamic societies to operate in a democratic milieu is shown by the fact that overwhelmingly, Muslim-majority countries fall into the “Not Free” or, at best (and less frequently at that), “Partly Free” category. The only exception appears to be Tunisia, regarded as an “exceptional success story”, and as the only country where the so-called Arab Spring resulted in genuine freedom rather than leading to intensifying repression.

Virtually all “Not Free” countries are in Africa and Asia. In Europe, only Belarus and Russia (if one regards it as being part of Europe rather than of Asia, which is by no means clear-cut) fall into that category, whereas in the Americas — both north and south, and including the Caribbean — only Cuba continues to be regarded as “Not Free”. This certainly surprised me — it was not so long ago that countries like Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Nicaragua and Haiti were among the most authoritarian regimes on the planet. Chile, the Augusto Pinochet years evidently behind it, achieves a perfect one score, as does Uruguay. By far the freest region in the world is western and central Europe, with virtually all countries receiving a one rating.

Unquestionably, the world remains a far freer and more democratic place than was the case prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. That being said, worrisome trends are afoot that threaten to reverse many of those gains. The overall picture appears to be one of increasing polarisation, where on four of the inhabited continents, freedom is overwhelmingly the norm whereas in the remaining two (the largest, in terms of actual population), authoritarianism holds sway and is in fact intensifying. From a South African point of view, while the country still comfortably holds its place among the ranks of the free nations, there is no room for complacency. Perceptible inroads have been made, and are being made, into its fundamental democratic structures, and it would be foolhardy not to recognise and arrest these trends before they acquire any further momentum.

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