POMED Notes: “Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance”
On Wednesday, January 16, 2013, Freedom House and the Council on Foreign Relations hosted a panel discussion on the release of Freedom House’s annual report on the state of political rights and civil liberties in the world, entitled “Freedom in the World 2013: Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance.” The panel, moderated by Foreign Affairs Correspondent for CNN Jill Dougherty, featured Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research at Freedom House; Larry Diamond, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor at Stanford University; and Tamara Wittes, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mark Lagon, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations chairing the Global Stakes in Human Rights Roundtable, and David Kramer, President of Freedom House, made the opening remarks.
For full event notes, continue reading or click here for the PDF.
Mark Lagon introduced the roundtable series, stressing the importance of evaluating the state of freedom in the world by giving grades to other countries. While foreign leaders sometimes question the objectivity of criticism, thorough evaluation is crucial to achieving human rights goals in the world. He therefore described the report as a “fair-minded and candid assessment of the way things are really going.”
David Kramer highlighted the major changes that have occurred in the last two years, including democratic gains in Libya and Burma, a significant decline in Mali, Eurasia’s replacement of the MENA as the region of greatest repression, the ongoing conflict in Syria, and potential for even greater gains in the MENA region. Progress however requires encouragement from established democracies—led by the United States—in support of the efforts of human rights advocates.
Arch Puddington detailed the principal findings of the report and the changes to the Map of Freedom since the project began in 1972, when free states were limited to Western Europe and North America. He noted the trend in Asia over the last decade was “one of the modest success stories in the world,” and the lack of deterioration in Central and Eastern Europe despite the financial crisis is a testament to the key role the E.U. has played in promoting democratic values. He found Eurasia’s steady decline particularly worrying, as the free-fall led by Russia’s Putin has set the tone for neighboring countries like Kazakhstan to follow its path. The most significant decline in Africa occurred in Mali, which moved from Free to Not Free over the course of the year. In contrast, progress in the MENA—as Tunisia maintained its improvement from 2012 and Libya and Egypt moved from Not Free to Partly Free—was the “major story of the past year.” However, declines occurred in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, where leaders work to prevent “the spirit of the Arab uprisings from infecting their societies.” He summarized the report’s conclusions by pointing to the modest decline in the state of world freedom for the seventh consecutive year as the number of losers exceed winners, but also declared the major message of the year is “one of potential and opportunity,” because of what is happening in the Middle East.
Jill Dougherty opened the formal discussion with a question on Libya, noting the report’s findings were optimistic despite the commotion that ensued following the attacks in Benghazi. Larry Diamond argued that Libya has come a long way in a short time. However, it is still too early to label Libya a democracy due to its continuing fragility and vulnerability and the fact that “state-building remains a major challenge.” Tamara Wittes noted that there is “nowhere to go but up” for Libya, where “a tremendously important breakthrough is hanging in the balance.” She emphasized the link between security and democracy; stabilization will not occur without “political stability rooted in consent.” Wittes also highlighted the fact that Islamists were not victorious in the Libyan elections despite Islamist resurgence in other countries, arguing that Islamist dominance is neither a wave nor a necessary future.
As the discussion moved to developments in the broader region, Dougherty contrasted the reasons for great hope with the “strategic adaptability” of some of the region’s governments. Diamond juxtaposed the strategies of the Saudi and Moroccan monarchies, noting patronage safeguards calm in the former whereas pre-existing competitive mechanisms and superficial reforms in the latter have thus far ensured stability. Critical of the Obama Administration’s lack of pressure on the continued imprisonment of human rights activists by its close ally, Diamond contended Morocco is still “nearly as far from democracy as it was two years ago,” although a constitutional monarchy “is what it wants and needs.” In response to the question of strategic adaptability, Puddington remarked upon the changing strategies of authoritarian leaders in the region, who have shifted their focus to repressing civil society organizations rather than political parties. Wittes noted that the “drivers of change [demographics, inequality, corruption, social media, and technology] exist everywhere in the region—not only areas where uprisings occurred,” and so do the “demands for change.”
Diamond identified the principal hindrance to democratic development as when regimes become stuck in a “competitive authoritarian” or “pseudo-democratic” state; governments want to hold onto power but also maintain a democratic appearance. The potential for repression of the opposition and civil society under the Muslim Brotherhood exists in Egypt today, due to the “cynical bargain they [seem] to have forged with the military.” Wittes also described the recent prosecutions in Turkey as “extremely troubling” after years of gain, particularly in a period of constitutional reform, given the limitations affecting the media’s ability to engage in open debate on critical issues. She contended that the U.S. needs to put pressure on Turkey to address the problem.
The lack of pressure to democratize from the U.S. and newer democracies (particularly Brazil, South Africa, etc.) was also addressed. Puddington asserted that the reluctance to encroach on state sovereignty was not a satisfactory response to the moral obligation to promote the achievement of majority rule, as pressure in the past has helped facilitate development of democracy. Diamond identified the “universally recognized and deeply valued” societal norm of democracy as the rule that should shape U.S. foreign policy, stating “we as an international democratic community and civil society have to call these governments to a higher standard.” Echoing Diamond, Wittes remarked that “norms and demands for freedom are increasingly accepted as universal.”
During the Q&A, the question of a model of effective development for the MENA region was addressed, and Diamond stated that Tunisia is the “only clear firm state that has made the break to democracy” to at least some degree; “If Tunisia can’t make it, what are the prospects of the rest of the world?” Wittes also drew attention to the “resilience, creativity, and flexibility” of MENA civil society organizations, capable of resisting the attempts of authoritarian leaders to repress them. Wittes pointed out that at the time of heightening conflict in Syria, the administration was confronting a public wary of new military entanglements, a bad economy in need of attention, and a Congress that does not value work on foreign policy and wants to cut money allocated to engagement abroad. For the U.S. to be credible requires more than “nice words—it has to have a package that is compelling,” and do more to support freedom. That cannot be done, however, without “bipartisan consensus and support of the American people.”