George Goodfriend, JHU:
In the twenty-first century, Americans often take their personal liberties for granted. Over the past half-decade, the United States has made great strides in a multitude of social movements, including the legalization of same-sex marriage and the advancement of racial equality. Countries outside the western hemisphere can boast similar accomplishments. Taiwan, for example, elected its first female president this year, while the Middle East has witnessed a series of anti-authoritarian revolutions. Despite these headlines, the 2016 Freedom House report states that both US liberties and global freedom are regressing. According to the report, global freedom has declined for its tenth straight year, with its largest drop coming in 2015.
Freedom House is a nonpartisan, non-governmental organization, funded by the United States government. The organization’s main function is to research and support democracies, human rights, and political freedoms around the world. Since 1973, this highly respected group has released Freedom in the World, a yearly report that gauges the personal freedoms of each country’s citizens. Freedom House looks at two general categories, political freedoms and civil liberties. These categories contain sub-divisions, such as the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, government transparency, freedom of expression and religion, and rule of law. After substantial research is conducted, the non-governmental organization tags each country as Free, Partially Free, or Not Free. While a good part of Freedom House’s rating system is arbitrary and subjective, it is widely considered a reliable instrument in determining the level of global freedom.
This year, a record 72 countries reported a decline in global freedom, one of which was the United States. While the United States boasts top ratings for political rights and civil liberties, she is plagued with deficiencies in legislative effectiveness, a questionable electoral process, and an increasingly irrelevant rule of law. This year, we observed Speaker of the House, John Boehner, resign from his post due to the pressure of strong right conservatives. We observed President Obama issue twenty-nine executive orders, ranging from environmental issues to gun control. The Freedom House 2016 report recognized that these executive orders, while within the president’s powers, often pushed his own agenda, especially regarding issues that were extremely contentious in Congress. An additional criticism that the Freedom House report held was the corrupt campaign finance system, both in executive and legislative elections. While Freedom House recognizes that this issue is in conflict with the United States’ first amendment, the report identifies “an array of methods” that parties and candidates use “to circumvent legal restrictions on campaign spending” (Freedom House 2016, USA Report). The growing presence of private money in politics often forces elected officials to dedicate more time and resources to fundraising and less to their official duties. In addition, as private money becomes a more fundamental aspect of campaigns, the risk of corruption inevitably increases. The last issue that the Freedom House report exposed was the declining relevance of the rule of law. The criminal justice system’s conduct in dealing with racial minorities was discouraging, to say the least. People of color make up for 60% of those incarcerated in the United States, and the widely publicized police brutality cases only proved to exacerbate the issue further. Lastly, according to Freedom House, the “extensive use of plea bargaining in criminal cases”, reduces the chances of any given case going to court and therefore significantly reduces the power that the judiciary holds. The Freedom House argues that the United States was worse off in 2015 due to these three systemic governmental issues.
Other countries have seen declines that far exceed those of the United States. This year, the ratings in the Middle East and North African regions are by far the worst in the world. In the Middle East, countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia have consistently demonstrated how adamantly opposed they are to democratic ideals. Syria, which has the worst ranking, is still plagued by civil war. Almost every government institution lacks transparency and accountability, while the administrations restrict freedom of speech and assembly. In Saudi Arabia, political rights are scarce and public participation is almost non-existent. The number of executions in 2015 was the highest total over the past twenty years. Political parties do not exist, the government stifles almost all dissenting media, and women are largely unaccounted for in politics. In Northern Africa, Egypt maintained their “Not Free” status, as president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who gained power via military coup, severely restricted all civil and political rights. Corruption in Egypt, according to Freedom House, is “pervasive at all levels of government”, while the rights guaranteed in the new constitution are rarely, if ever, enforced. However, other countries in the Middle East and North Africa have committed similarly egregious atrocities this year that have flown largely under the radar. Morocco, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates tightly restricted their already limited political participation and civil liberties this year. In these countries, activist leaders were assaulted and killed, while journalists and civil society leaders were condemned to long prison sentences. The decline in freedom is not only a United States phenomenon; this frightening trend is global in scope.
Even though the 2016 Freedom House report may be subjective and uncertain, the broad trend that it displays is of the utmost importance. The world is regressing. Countries that are seen as beacons of freedom, like the United States, are slowly tightening their civil liberties and political freedoms, while countries that have been much more severe with their rights are degenerating just as much. It is hard to pinpoint a reason for this decline. Some could argue that international organizations, such as the United Nations, are simply not effective in promoting freedom. However, a more compelling argument is that bigger, more prosperous countries are failing at promoting freedom. Countries like the United States, Great Britain, France, are not immune to criticism; their involvement in the promotion of liberty is disheartening at best. In order to produce a more free world, countries need to start seeing themselves as a team, rather than 196 individual players.