30 January, 2015
This week, the rights group Freedom House reported a general decline in political and civil rights around the world last year. The group said its measure of international freedom has dropped in each of the past nine years. It added that democratic ideals are now under the greatest threat in 25 years.
A Freedom House report described 2014 as an "exceptionally grim" year. It noted an explosion of terrorist violence and aggressive methods worldwide. Nowhere was the loss of freedom more apparent, it said, than in the Middle East. The Islamic State militant group killed large numbers of people as it captured parts of Iraq and Syria. Freedom House says ineffective and oppressive leadership in those countries helped "open the door" to the militants.
Syria received Freedom House's lowest country rating in over 10 years. Syria has been caught in civil war and terrorist violence. The new report said Tunisia was the one exception to all the unrest. It recognized Tunisia as the first Arab country to become "free" in the past 40 years.
Arch Puddington is vice president for research at Freedom House. He wrote the new report. He says the most severe losses in freedom were a result of terrorism.
"One of the most discouraging developments is this upsurge in terrorism. We have never seen in the past, ever, seen the impact of terrorism on democracy to be as significant as it was in 2014."
Arch Puddington says terrorist attacks have led to thousands of people being displaced. He adds that women were kidnapped or seized as prizes of war. He also noted the killing of religious minorities in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Freedom House says a lack of democratic freedoms created the environment for terrorism to grow. The group says about 2.6 billion people live under what it calls "not free" conditions. That represents about a third of the world's population.
The report notes Russia's involvement in the violence in eastern Ukraine and its takeover of the Crimean peninsula. It criticizes Russian attacks on media as examples of the government's disrespect for democratic standards.
The report notes the Egyptian government's push-back on democratic gains and its suppression of the media, human rights groups, and political dissidents.
Freedom House says the government in Turkey launched an aggressive campaign against its opponents, as did the government in China.
Thomas Hughes is executive director of Article 19, a British human rights group. He says changes in the United States and its Western allies hurt democratic ideals.
"The other really worrying trend has been that in countries in Europe and North America where we've seen the traditional strong defenders of human rights internationally, because of their encroachment around issues such as mass surveillance, encroachment around human rights-related issues, this sets a very negative precedent."
But he and Freedom House say civilians in Ukraine, Hong Kong and Brazil are pushing back. Thomas Hughes says recent United Nations work will help countries on issues such as human rights and freedom of expression.
"Without those standards, and without support to grass roots civil society, you cannot hold governments, lawmakers and other power brokers to account."
Freedom House says the biggest mistake democracies can make is to accept the idea that they are helpless when facing strongmen who use force or threaten others. It notes that everyday citizens have shown their willingness to challenge such rulers.
I'm Christopher Cruise.
VOA Correspondents Sharon Behn and William Gallo reported this story from Washington. George Grow wrote the story in VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
Words in the News
decline – n. weakness; a continuous loss of strength or quality
democratic – adj. based on a system of government in which citizens vote to choose leaders or to make other important decisions
violence – n. the use of force to cause injury, death or damage
rating – n. a measure of how good (fast or quick) something is
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