Freedom in decline
LAST YEAR ended with a flurry of abuses by the world's autocratic regimes. Egypt and Belarus both staged blatantly rigged elections and then brutally repressed those who tried to protest. A Russian judge sentenced former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky to another 14 years in prison after a sham trial rivaling those of the Soviet era. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez neutralized opposition gains in recent congressional elections by obtaining the power to rule by decree from the outgoing congress. China became the first country since Nazi Germany to prevent a Nobel Peace Prize winner from traveling to Oslo for the award ceremony, and it shamelessly pressured other governments not to send representatives.
After all this it is not surprising that the annual report on global freedom by the human rights group Freedom House reports a decline for the fifth consecutive year. Since 1972, the Washington-based organization has been labeling the world's countries as "free," "partly free" or "unfree;" last year, 25 countries showed significant deterioration according to its measures. The number of countries designated as "free" fell from 89 to 87; there were 115 reported electoral democracies, compared with 123 in 2005. Among those countries downgraded were Mexico, which has been racked by drug violence, and Ukraine, where press freedom and judicial independence are declining.
According to the report, violations by U.S. allies such as Egypt or countries with which the Obama administration has sought to improve relations, such as Russia and Belarus, "were carried out with a striking degree of aggressiveness, self-assurance and disregard for outside opinion." Observed Arch Puddington, Freedom House's director of research: "The increasing truculence of the world's most powerful authoritarian regimes has coincided with a growing inability or unwillingness on the part of the world's democracies to meet the authoritarian challenge, with important consequences for the state of global freedom."
Some of the responsibility for that record must be borne by the Obama administration. Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have frequently passed up the chance to speak up about human rights abuses; U.S. reactions to the Egyptian elections and the trial of Mr. Khodorkovsky, for example, were limited to statements by spokesmen. At other times, eloquent statements have been followed by no action and no consequences for the autocrats; Burma is a prime example. The administration has not used its considerable economic leverage with nations such as Egypt and Venezuela to press for change, nor has it required Russia or China to pay any price for their persecutions of dissidents. Congressional proposals that Russian officials responsible for abuses be subject to visa bans have gone unheeded.
When the United States does not advocate strongly for freedom, other democracies tend to retreat and autocracies feel emboldened. If the disturbing trend documented by Freedom House is to be reversed, Mr. Obama will need to make freedom a higher foreign policy priority.