The people of the Arab Middle East experienced a modest but potentially significant increase in political rights and civil liberties in 2005, the US-based Freedom House announced in a major survey of global freedom released Tuesday.
The global survey, "Freedom in the World," shows that although the Middle East continues to lag behind other regions, a measurable improvement can be seen in freedom in several key Arab countries, as well as the Palestinian Authority. In another key finding, the number of countries rated by Freedom House as Not Free declined from 49 in 2004 to 45 for the year 2005, the lowest number of Not Free societies identified by the survey in over a decade. In noteworthy country developments, Ukraine and Indonesia saw their status improve from Partly Free to Free; Afghanistan moved from Not Free to Partly Free; and the Philippines saw its status decline from Free to Partly Free.
According to Thomas O. Melia, acting executive director of Freedom House, "The modest but heartening advances in the Arab Middle East result from activism by citizen groups and reforms by governments in about equal measures. This emerging trend reminds us that men and women in this region share the universal desire to live in free societies."
"As we welcome the stirrings of change in the Middle East," said Mr. Melia, "it is equally important that we focus on the follow-through in other regions and appreciate the importance of the continuing consolidation of democracy in Indonesia, Ukraine, and other nations."
Complete survey results, including a package of charts and graphs, and an explanatory essay are available online. The Ratings reflect global events from December 1, 2004 through November 30, 2005. Country narratives will be released in book form in summer 2006.
On the whole, the state of freedom showed substantial improvement worldwide, with 27 countries and one territory registering gains and only 9 countries showing setbacks. The global picture thus suggests that the past year was one of the most successful for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972.
"These global findings are encouraging," said Arch Puddington, director of research. "Among other things, the past year has been notable for terrorist violence, ethnic cleansing, civil conflict, catastrophic natural disasters, and geopolitical polarization. That freedom could thrive in this environment is impressive."
Although the countries of the Middle East lag behind other regions in areas such as adherence to democratic standards, independent media, the rights of women, and the rule of law, the past year witnessed modest positive trends. Lebanon experienced the most significant improvement; its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free due to major improvements in both political rights and civil liberties that followed the withdrawal of Syrian occupation forces. Elections exhibiting increased competition in Iraq, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories; the introduction of women's suffrage in Kuwait; and improvements in Saudi Arabia's media environment are among other encouraging signs in the region.
According to the survey, 89 countries are Free, the same as the previous year. These countriesí nearly 3 billion inhabitants (46 percent of the world's population) enjoy open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life, and independent media. Another 58 countries representing 1.2 billion people (18 percent) are considered Partly Free. Political rights and civil liberties are more limited in these countries, in which the norm may be corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic and religious strife, and a setting in which a single political party enjoys dominance. The survey finds that 45 counies are Not Free. The 2.3 billion inhabitants (35 percent) of these countries are widelytr and systematically denied basic civil liberties and basic political rights are absent.
Aside from the Middle East, countries in the former Soviet Union were most notable for improvements in freedom during 2005. In addition to Ukraine, improvements were noted in Kyrgyzstan, whose rating improved from Not Free to Partly Free, and Georgia. Positive change was also noted in Latvia and Lithuania, two states where democratic freedoms had already been consolidated.
Further gains in the region will likely depend on the development of the kind of mature and credible opposition that emerged in Ukraine and Georgia prior to their nonviolent revolutions. At the same time, authoritarian leaderships in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, and, most importantly, Russia have adopted policies that will make it more difficult for the development of a genuine civil society and will impede the development of a democratic political opposition.
In Uzbekistan, state violence against demonstrators, the repression of civil society, and an overall decline in human rights conditions during the past year was sufficiently pronounced to warrant a decline in the country's Freedom in the World score to the lowest possible rating. Only eight countries worldwide earned a similar status as the worst of the worst, and two, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are in Central Asia. In Russia-whose freedom status Freedom House lowered from Partly Free to Not Free one year ago-the Putin leadership's anti-democratic tendencies appeared, if anything, more pronounced in 2005.
Among the study's other findings:
The number of electoral democracies increased by three, from 119 to 122. This represents 64 percent of the world's countries-the highest number in the survey's 33-year history.
Of the four countries that registered an outright decline in status, the most significant was the Philippines. The decision to downgrade this country from Free to Partly Free was based on credible allegations of massive electoral fraud, corruption, and the government's intimidation of elements in the political opposition. The period since September 11, 2001, has witnessed steady progress in majority Muslim countries in regions beyond the Middle East.
The steady record of progress observed represents a powerful argument against the proposition that Islam is incompatible with democracy or is an impediment to the spread of freedom. Indeed, there has been a striking improvement in the level of freedom in majority Muslim countries over the past ten years. In 1995, 1 majority Muslim country was Free, 13 were Partly Free, and 32, or 70 percent, were Not Free. For 2005, the figures are 3 Free countries, 20 Partly Free, and 23 Not Free.
Democracy and freedom are the dominant trends in Western and East-Central Europe, in the Americas, and increasingly in the Asia-Pacific region. In the former Soviet Union, the picture remains mixed, while in Africa, Free societies and electoral democracies remain a minority despite recent progress. As noted above, the Middle East has experienced gains for freedom, though the region as a whole overwhelmingly consists of countries in the Partly Free and Not Free categories.
Of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 11 are Free (23 percent), 23 are Partly Free (48 percent), and 14 are Not Free (29 percent). Of the African countries, 23 (48 percent) are electoral democracies.
In Asia, 16 of the region's 39 countries are Free (41 percent), 12 are Partly Free (31 percent), and 11 are Not Free (28 percent). A solid majority of the region's countries, 23, are in the ranks of electoral democracies.
In East-Central Europe and the former USSR, there is now evidence of a deepening chasm. In Central Europe and parts of Eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, democracy and freedom prevail; in the countries of the former Soviet Union, however, progress has been decidedly mixed. Overall, 17 of the 27 post-communist countries of East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Union are electoral democracies. In addition, 13 of the region's states are Free (48 percent), 7 are Partly Free (26 percent), and 7 are Not Free (26 percent). Meanwhile, of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, 1 country is free (8 percent), 4 are Partly Free (33 percent), and 7 are Not Free (58 percent).
Western Europe consists largely of Free countries and democracies, with 24 states Free, 1 country (Turkey) Partly Free, and all 25 ranking as electoral democracies.
Among the 35 countries in the Americas, 33 are electoral democracies. In all, 24 states are rated as Free (69 percent), 9 are Partly Free (26 percent), and 2-Cuba and Haiti-are Not Free (6 percent).
In the 18 Middle Eastern countries, only one, Israel, ranks as Free (Israel is also the only electoral democracy in the region). There are 6 Partly Free states (33 percent), and 11 countries that are Not Free (61 percent).
Worst of the Worst
There are 45 states that are rated as Not Free, in which a broad range of freedoms are systematically denied. Among the Not Free countries, 8 states have been given the survey's lowest rating of 7 for political rights and 7 for civil liberties. The eight worst-rated countries represent a narrow range of systems and cultures. Cuba and North Korea are one-party Marxist-Leninist regimes. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are Central Asian countries ruled by dictators with roots in the Soviet period. Libya and Syria are Arab countries under the sway of secular dictatorships, while Sudan is under a leadership that has elements both of radical Islamism and of the traditional military junta. The remaining worst rated state is Burma, a tightly controlled military dictatorship.
There are two worst-rated territories: Tibet (under Chinese jurisdiction) and Chechnya, where an indigenous Islamic population is engaged in a brutal guerrilla war for independence from Russia.