- The Washington Times - Friday, December 27, 2002

Has the war on terrorism triggered major setbacks for human freedom around the world? In recent months, it has almost become conventional wisdom that liberty and democracy have suffered because American actions have encouraged autocrats to believe that they can repress the political opposition, smother dissent and hold down religious and ethnic minorities with impunity if they justify their acts on the grounds of fighting terrorists.
In fact, a close examination of global developments over the past year reveals that fears that the war on terror would result in dramatic setbacks for democracy and human rights have not been borne out. The year 2002 has seen important gains for freedom gains that encompass every part of the world and even reach into the Middle East, a region that has been stubbornly resistant to freedom.
The data that point to liberty's durability are contained in a major new study just published by Freedom House. While the study, "Freedom in the World," takes note of the world's trouble spots Nigeria, Pakistan, Central Asia and Zimbabwe it reveals that gains for freedom this year far outweigh the declines. According to the study, gains for freedom were recorded in 29 counries, nearly three times as many as the number of countries where freedom suffered setbacks.
The gains encompassed countries in every region, from Brazil to Yugoslavia to Senegal. Perhaps the most heartening news in the study's data is the modest but nonetheless significant progress in several Islamic countries. Although the large and geopolitically crucial countries of the Arab core Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan showed few signs of political liberalization, important gains were noted in Turkey, the Gulf kingdoms and majority-Muslim countries of Africa.
Why has freedom gained at a time of rising global terror and economic uncertainty? These are, after all, the kinds of trends that in the past would have provoked civil war, coups or martial law, with thousands murdered and thousands more sent to prison or into exile.
One reason is the increased willingness of international organizations and regional groupings to act aggressively in cases of gross abuse. The intervention by NATO in Bosnia and the subsequent prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic and other war criminals at The Hague have sent an important message to those who might contemplate policies of ethnic cleansing and mass murder. On a somewhat different level, the strong commitment of the British Commonwealth to democratic principles and, in particular, its isolation of Zimbabwe, have served to discourage others who might be tempted to emulate Robert Mugabe's example.
A second factor, ironically, is global economic turmoil. Economic troubles invariably spur discontent, which in turn often leads to enhanced democratic participation and the replacement of the party in power. In the past, economic downturns usually meant the violent overthrow of the government, often by the military, or violence directed against the opposition. Fortunately, this pattern has not prevailed; instead, Latin America's largest country, Brazil, elected as its new president a leftist who has nonetheless given every sign of fulfilling his democratic obligations and playing by the rules of the international economic system. And Turkey's voters opted for a moderate, reformist Islamic party pledged to the separation of mosque and state.
Moreover, the U.S. government has not abandoned policies to promote democracy. Indeed, the United States has embraced the need to expand democracy as part of the war on terrorism. This represents something of a shift for the Bush administration, which came into office disparaging the nation-building policies of its Democratic predecessors. But since the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the administration has come to believe that the war on terrorism cannot be won through military means alone. Indeed, key foreign-policy officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, embrace the proposition that dictatorship and political repression provide fertile soil for the spread of terror. While security and strategic concerns remain paramount in U.S. policy, democracy promotion has been incorporated as a priority in American foreign-assistance initiatives through the new Millenium Challenge Account, which will provide within a year additional foreign aid for countries that meet certain democracy and good-governance standards.
To be sure, not all the news is good. Some governments have exploited fears of terrorism to justify repression or provide a rationale for brutal policies during a civil conflict. The deplorable tactics used by Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Zimbabwe all of which have cited "terrorism" as an excuse for repression need to be universally condemned. And the Bush administration needs to worry about the signals it sends to authoritarian allies, such as Malaysian autocrat Mahathir Mohamed.
There is, of course, always the danger that further escalation of terrorist violence could produce a response that weakens civil liberties and basic freedoms. This is particularly worrisome in countries where democracy is new and fragile. Thus far, however, the real story of the post-September 11 period is liberty's resilience, rather than its retreat.

Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide