Still hopeful globe

Deteriorating human rights. Increasing tensions. Overall "damaging effects" across the hemispheres.

That is the effect of the US-led War on Terror, according to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations' high commissioner on human rights. In Helsinki this week, Mr de Mello argued that in the past year or so, governments in both industrialised and developing countries have been using the cover of the US war to expand their own abuses. Then he went on to make a second point: that a new level of understanding between Muslims and the non-Muslim world is crucial; if no such understanding is reached, the globe will "end up in disaster".

A different perspective, though, emerges in a report issued by an influential human rights group in the same days as Mr de Mello's Helsinki blast. In its annual "Freedom in the World" survey, the New York-based Freedom House reviewed the status of political and economic freedom in nations across the globe. * It found that overall these past 12 months, global freedom has increased. The War on Terror has not hurt this process and may have even helped it in a handful of countries.

The findings of "Freedom in the World" also tend to rebut Mr deMello's second point, that the emphasis of diplomacy ought to be bridging cultural gaps.

"More understanding does not hurt", says Adrian Karatnycky, president of Freedom House. "Still it is important to bear in mind that the majority of Muslims already live under democratic government today - India, Bangladesh, Turkey. And in countries where they are denied their freedoms they are taking to the streets in protest. There is no civilisational divide on the issue of democracy". To be sure, countries where Islam dominates are not usually democratic. Still, looking at the world's Islamic population in its entirety, we can surmise that much of the world's tension these days is not about mutual appreciation of differences but rather the mutual desire for democracy.

But to the study results. Twenty-nine of 192 countries made progress in moving towards freedom, a significant increase from the year before. Among those countries four - Brazil, Lesotho, Senegal and Yugoslavia - achieved the designation "free country". Two states, Kenya and Bahrain, became "partly free". Eleven countries by contrast are deteriorating, including Zimbabwe and, especially, Cote d'Ivoire, which fell back to the bottom third rank of "not free". While bad things continue to happen in the improving countrie - the recent bombings of Israeli tourists in Kenya, for example - these countries stand a much better chance of achieving solid democracy than they might have had at other points.

It is especially important to note that the overall improved rating came in the face of bad economic news, normally the downfall of democracies (think Weimar Republic). Whatever one's opinion of the populist Ignácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, for example, the fact of his election via a peaceful process demonstrates the elasticity of democratic systems peacefully to accommodate discontent with the status quo. In Turkey hard times shaped an election and the land emerged the stronger, proving to sceptics that an Islamic party can win without destroying the fabric of freedom.

And what about the War on Terror? To be sure, many hard line governments and regional leaders have referred to that war during their crackdowns and campaigns. China and Russia are the obvious examples. Russia in particular has been using the cover of the War on Terror in its brutal suppression of Chechens. (For a longer list, see the Opportunism Watch link on the website of Freedom House's competitor, Human Rights Watch, hrw.org.) Still, Freedom House argues, these countries would be doing whatever they are doing anyhow.

The positive side of the balance, one can argue, is much more significant. The possibility of regime change in Iraq is galvanising Iranian dissidents; there is movement in Tehran that would not have seemed possible a few years ago.

In other countries, the mood of change may be beginning to have an effect as well. Exiled democracy activists from Uzbekistan such as Abdurahim Polat have suggested in public speeches that increased US engagement in Uzbekistan is creating some potential space for domestic human rights groups and the eventual return of democratic political exiles.

Then there is, of course, Afghanistan. Whatever one makes of the extent of the US effort, the nation does now have a functioning government and a legislature - the loya jirga. However much the warlords limit it, there is also an effort to establish civilian control outside of Kabul. Women have benefited.

To be sure, there are big new shadows: striking Venezuela clocks into Freedom House's chart as "partly free", a rating that does not convey the dangers of Latin America's shift away from economic liberalism.

Still, it is important to view all this in the context of the enormous improvements made over longer spans of time. This is the 30th year that Freedom House has issued its report. The number of countries rated free has doubled in that period. Since 1972, there has been a decline in the share of people living in "not free" systems, to 35 per cent of the globe's population, from 47 per cent. (More than half of such people today live in China.) And while armed-and-repressive dictatorships may sometimes seem like giants, economically they are pygmies. The value of the economies of free countries stands at $26,800bn, while the gross domestic product of countries rated "not free" is $1,700bn. All this is a reminder that while terror and weapons of mass destruction jeopardise the world, they are the projects of a minority. And a very happy holiday season to you, too.

* www.freedomhouse.org

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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