May 11, 2012
Almost a year ago, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt declared before the UN Human Rights Council that the “same rights that people have offline … must also be protected online.” This was the underlying theme of a groundbreaking May 2011 report by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue. The report, which was endorsed by 41 governments, detailed how established human rights principles apply to the internet and made recommendations for putting these principles into practice. After a year of inaction, the time has come for a concerted, collective effort by democratic countries to carry out the recommendations of the La Rue report.
Technorati Tags: Ethiopia, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe/Eurasia, China, Freedom House, Freedom of Expression, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Russia, South Korea, Sub-Saharan Africa, Thailand
April 13, 2012
by Jeffrey Smith
Program Officer, Africa
Côte d’Ivoire was once a promising model of economic prosperity and stability for West Africa, but in the last decade alone it has fallen prey to two civil wars, untold human misery, and large-scale impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations. The complex problems currently besetting the country are linked to the failure of its leaders to both commit to and successfully foster genuine democratic principles and practices.
March 29, 2012
by Karl Beck
Southern Africa Projects Director
After a smooth start in the early post-apartheid period, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is increasingly afflicted by contradictions between its idealistic principles and the baser behaviors of many of its officeholders. These behaviors currently include threats to institute tighter controls over the judiciary and the ANC’s civil society critics, especially the independent media. A discernable trend toward intolerance of judicial brakes on executive power, and also toward a general aversion to any criticism of executive policies and actions, raises troubling questions about the future of democratic governance in South Africa.
February 13, 2012
by Brendan Harrison
As Senegal prepares for a pivotal presidential election on February 26, some citizens and outside observers are weighing the possibility of a popular uprising akin to last year’s Arab Spring revolts, with large numbers of Senegalese taking to the streets in defense of their political rights. Another, even more troubling scenario would entail a violent postelection standoff between the entrenched incumbent and forces loyal to his would-be successor, as occurred a year ago in Côte d’Ivoire. The fact that such outcomes are even being discussed illustrates how far Senegal has fallen under the stewardship of President Abdoulaye Wade, who is seeking a third term in office."
February 03, 2012
by Vukasin Petrovic
Director for Africa Programs
Photo Credit: Nicolas Pinault/VOA News
The progress that sub-Saharan Africa has achieved in building democracy over the past generation is coming undone. After two decades of significant gains, the continent has experienced a steady decline in democracy over the last several years.
Technorati Tags: Civil Society, Democratic Governance, Elections, Freedom House, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, Human Rights, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Religious Freedom, Rule of Law, Sub-Saharan Africa
January 20, 2012
by David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington*
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal. At a minimum, we can say that developments in the Middle East touched off the most serious challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. While the challenges today are far more complex than in 1989, the basic theme of captive peoples seeking freedom after decades of oppression is very much the same.
Posted at 05:38 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Civil Society, Democratic Governance, Elections, Freedom House, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, Human Rights, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Religious Freedom, Rule of Law, Women's Rights
January 06, 2012
by Vukasin Petrovic
Director for Africa Programs
During her 2009 visit to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the arrest and punishment of militiamen responsible for the widespread sexual violence and broader human rights violations that have devastated the eastern Congo for more than a decade. She described the situation as “one of mankind’s greatest atrocities.” But since flawed November 2011 elections led to renewed violence in other parts of the country, she has failed to defend human rights—and political rights—in the DRC with the same conviction.
Technorati Tags: atrocities, civil society, democracy, democratic advancement, democratic process, Democratic Republic of Congo, dispute, election results, elections, ethic divisions, Etienne Tshisekedi, Freedom House, Joseph Kabila, Kinshasha, Mobutu Sese Seko, Patrice Lumumba, religious divisions, religious freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vukasin Petrovic
December 15, 2011
by Thomas R. Lansner*
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir
At the end of November, a Kenyan High Court judge ruled that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir should be arrested “should he ever set foot in Kenya.” The decision is a welcome sign that Kenya’s judiciary is emerging from its long subservience to the country’s powerful and often unaccountable executive branch, and that international law might soon be catching up with more alleged war criminals.
Technorati Tags: Chief Justice Mutunga, civil society, Columbia University, Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution, elections, ethnic conflict, ethnic violence, ethno-political divisions, Freedom House, International Criminal Court, Kenya, Kenyan constitution, Kenyan judiciary, Omar al-Bashir, reform, rule of law, Sudan, Thomas Lansner
December 09, 2011
by Mary McGuire and Sarah Trister*
The year 2011 will be remembered as one of immense political and social change around the world, particularly the Middle East. On this International Human Rights Day, Freedom House looks back at a few of the best and worst developments of the year with respect to their long-term implications for the global state of human rights.
Posted at 02:32 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Modern Authoritarianism, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Corruption, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Isolationism, Middle East and North Africa , Minority Rights, Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Western Europe , Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
December 06, 2011
by Kellen McClure
Special Assistant to the President of Freedom House
In October, President Obama announced that he would be involving U.S. forces in yet another conflict on African soil. Just a month and a half after the fall of Tripoli, the president stated that 100 combat-equipped military advisers would be deployed to Central Africa to provide “information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces.” The ultimate goal of the mission is the “removal from the battlefield” of Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony and other senior leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Technorati Tags: African Union, civil war, Darfur, Democratic Republic of Congo, Freedom House, genocide, Joseph Kony, Kellen McClure, Lord's Resistance Army, LRA, LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, President Barack Obama, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda
November 23, 2011
by Melanie Dominski
Sr. Program Associate, Freedom of Expression Campaign
Two years ago today, in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, 100 armed guards overtook a civilian convoy and executed the passengers in what has become known as the Maguindanao massacre. Of the 57 victims, 32 were journalists, making the incident the deadliest single attack against journalists on record and earning the Philippines the second-place slot on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries for members of the media. In the course of this brutal attack, at least four female journalists were allegedly raped prior to being executed; virtually all of the female victims reportedly suffered genital mutilation, and many of the victims were beheaded.
Posted at 10:21 AM in Civil Society, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, United States, Western Europe | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Andal Amaptuan Jr. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Anna Politkovskaya, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, freedom of expression, human rights, human rights abuses, IFEX, impunity, International Day to End Impunity, International Freedom of Expression Exchange, journalist, Maguindanao massacre, Melanie Dominski, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, press freedom, Russia, Saleem Shahzad, Valentin Valdes Espinosa
November 21, 2011
It is a core belief of Freedom House that American foreign policy should be grounded on support for democratic values and the global expansion of freedom. Practically every aspirant to the American presidency would agree that the United States should remain the world’s beacon of democracy. But especially in an era of rival claims for global leadership and calls for fiscal austerity, the development of a U.S. strategy to propel freedom forward poses a serious challenge. Thus far, the presidential candidates have failed to grapple with the complexities of this challenge, and the discussion has been far from illuminating, to put it mildly.
Posted at 09:38 AM in Civil Society, Elections, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Middle East and North Africa , Russia, United States | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
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November 15, 2011
After a democratic power transfer, Zambia must tackle Chinese investment issues and human rights reforms
by Thomas R. Lansner*
The victory of opposition Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata in Zambia’s September presidential election was a welcome example of an almost entirely peaceful rotation of power in a maturing African electoral democracy. President Sata can now carry Zambia further into a position of continental leadership by quickly making good on three campaign promises: revising Zambia’s draft constitution to better protect basic freedoms, fighting corruption, and properly protecting the rights of all Zambian workers, especially those employed in the growing number of Chinese-owned mines and related industries.
The election stands as a credit to the vast majority of Zambians who desired and worked for a fair campaign and a free vote. Civil society groups fielded domestic election observers and deployed new technological platforms for reporting potential irregularities. The Electoral Commission of Zambia conducted a massive voter registration campaign and supervised a largely transparent and efficient electoral process, one that was endorsed by international observers despite shortcomings such as the use of state resources and state media to support incumbent president Rupiah Banda and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). Yet Banda conceded Sata’s convincing victory in a timely and graceful manner after initial delays in reporting results sparked scattered rioting in Patriotic Front strongholds in northern Zambia.
Technorati Tags: China, Chinese investment, Chinese-owned mines, civil society, elections, Electoral Commission of Zambia, Freedom House, human rights, media, President Michael Sata, press freedom, Thomas Lansner, Zambia, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation
November 07, 2011
by Karin Deutsch Karlekar
Project Director, Freedom of the Press
Threats to media freedom in South Africa—which has had one of the most open press environments on the continent since the end of apartheid more than 15 years ago—have increased in recent years, raising fears of backsliding in a country seen as a model in the region. These threats have occurred in the context of multiple challenges to democratic consolidation, including recent encroachments on judicial independence and other institutions that provide checks and balances on executive power. In addition, an upsurge of inflammatory rhetoric directed at the white minority, particularly by the faction headed by Julius Malema, president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, has led to the overt injection of race into various debates on political and socioeconomic issues and resulted in increased self-censorship by non-blacks on a range of issues.
Technorati Tags: Africa, African National Congress, Civil Society, Freedom House, Freedom of Expression, Julius Malema, Karin Deutsch Karlekar, media freedom, press freedom, Protection of Information Bill, Right2Know Campaign, South Africa
May 05, 2011
Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press survey was released this week in honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The results reveal a continued and troubling decline in freedom of expression across the world. While inspiring in many ways, the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” have demonstrated both longstanding and emerging threats to freedom of expression and access to information in emerging democracies—the unprecedented and complete closure of the internet in Egypt, crackdowns on social media across the Arab world, and bizarre state media responses to popular protests. As a global survey, Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence offers a broad look at the wide range of threats to freedom of expression across the world. As the summer release of Countries at the Crossroads 2011 grows nearer, Freedom of the Press findings illustrate some troubling trends in the countries featured in the 2011 publication. While Countries at the Crossroads 2011 will cover wide range of democratic governance issues in a set of countries that ranges in governance quality from Greece to Libya, the press results highlighted in Freedom of the Press are telling. Unfortunately, a regional overview shows striking uniformity in the direction of press freedom across the globe.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that freedom of expression came under fire in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. With the extent of popular discontent becoming obvious, it is clear that governments sought to suppress dissent in all forms, in part by constricting the space within which media outlets could operate. Libya and Syria, both of which have a long history of media repression, experienced score declines, in part because of crackdowns on independent media and arrests of bloggers. Egypt’s now-vanished Mubarak regime, however, was the source of the most dramatic regional change. Mubarak and the National Democratic Party’s decisive crackdown on virtually all forms of media prior to the November 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a downgrade of the country’s status from Partly Free to Not Free. As explored in this blog post, and elsewhere, the Mubarak regime shut down talk shows and newspaper columns, physically and legally harassed journalists and bloggers, and even suspended live television broadcasts prior to the elections to try to ensure that the widespread fraud and other violations that took place during the electoral season were not discussed publically. Of course, as subsequent events demonstrated, such increased pressure served only to tighten the lid on a pressure cooker that was primed to explode.
Freedom of the press was similarly restricted in Asia. Thailand’s government used the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to discourage critical discussion online, for example by demanding the removal of comments critical of the government, and continued to use its lèse-majesté laws to silence opposition voices by declaring any criticism an insult to the king. This resulted in a downgrade of the country’s press freedom status from Partly Free to Not Free. China, in addition to its regular practice of limiting coverage of a wide range of issues of public interest, clamped down yet further on its media after imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both countries, along with a set of states such as Pakistan and the Philippines, where tension exists between a vibrant press and a sometimes lawless environment, will be featured in the upcoming edition of Crossroads.
The only region with modest improvements was Sub-Saharan Africa, where at least three Countries at the Crossroads countries improved their scores over the course of the year. Senegal’s score improved after a decrease in advertising boycotts designed to silence opposition sources, and Mauritania’s score got better following a law enabling private investment in broadcasting. These gains, however, are marred by deteriorating press freedoms elsewhere in the region. Madagascar’s ongoing political instability provided an environment for the government to constrict independent media by harassing and expelling journalists and pursuing spurious criminal defamation charges. Eritrea, a perennial opponent of freedom of expression continued to jail independent journalists imprisoned without reason after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
The Latin American countries that experienced the most dramatic changes in press freedom – particularly Mexico and Honduras, which moved from Partly Free to Not Free – were featured in Countries at the Crossroads 2010. Of the countries in the upcoming edition, Bolivia and Ecuador continued a trend of decline in recent years. In Ecuador in particular, President Rafael Correa’s acute sensitivity and eagerness to vilify the press exacerbated an already polarized environment. On the other hand, Colombia and Peru, each of which had declined in 2009, managed to halt their slide (Peru) or experience a mild increase (Colombia). Venezuela, which will complete the set of Andean countries included in the 2011 edition of Crossroads, remained, after Cuba, the most restrictive country in the hemisphere with respect to press freedom.
This view of the state of freedom of expression in a set of countries that will be explored in greater breadth in Countries at the Crossroads 2011 suggests that press freedom continues to be under threat in emerging and consolidating democracies. Press freedom has occasionally been dubbed the “canary in the coal mine” as it relates to the democracy’s trajectory. Nonetheless, the broader context of threats against the media is critical, and it is precisely this context that will be explored in Countries at the Crossroads 2011. For example, the limitations in the rule of law and judicial systems that allow such attacks on journalists to go unanswered, as well as the political pathologies – personalized rule, corruption, etc – that create incentives to silence the press will be assessed. Conversely, for countries undergoing where the governance evolution has been positive, it will also demonstrate the centrality of a vibrant press to the democratic process. But as the results of Freedom of the Press 2011 make clear, far too many states remain subject to the unfortunate irony that those countries most unable or unwilling to ensure an open media environment are often the ones that most desperately need vibrant and diverse media coverage.
November 23, 2010
From a theoretical perspective, Amartya Sen is perhaps the best-known thinker to weigh in on the role of CP rights in economic development, most famously in his book Development as Freedom, where he stresses that the value of political freedoms does not have to be strictly tied to their effect on economic growth—CP rights contribute to economic development, he says, but that value is over and above their direct (“constitutive,” in Sen’s parlance) role. Indeed, Sen centers his definition of development on CP rights, arguing that development requires the removal of major sources of “unfreedom,” including tyranny, systematic social deprivation, and intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. In his view, development is not just about changes in economic status, but about the expansion of human capabilities. Most basically, then, the goal of development is to enrich people’s ability to choose how they want to live.
Sen’s holistic view of development demonstrates that it is not just economic growth that governments should pay attention to, but the ways in which development can enrich human lives more generally. By enabling people to have a say in the way that economic development happens, including the extent to which economic policy establishes safeguards for ESC rights, CP rights are an integral part of this enrichment. Political rights enable the expression of people’s preferences and priorities, which are important informational inputs to the policy process. The integration of more people into a political system channels more viewpoints into that process and increases ownership in political decisions, which can be important in ameliorating public discontent in lean times. CP rights do not guarantee, of course, that policy changes will be effective or easy, but they can be an important pressure valve to mediate grievances.
Similarly, in an early evaluation of the case for the prioritization of ESC rights at the expense of CP rights, Rhoda Howard argued that the costs of not allowing CP rights far exceed the costs of allowing them. Closed political systems prevent full input to the development process and, because there is little input from the majority of the country, it is likely that new policies will promote elite interests. (Note that the overlap between economic development and ESC rights is less-than-complete. Authoritarian governments tend to conflate specific metrics—particularly GDP growth—with expanding ESC rights. While it is true that economic growth is often the means through which broad improvements in living standards are obtained, the uneven and often inequitable nature of economic development means that GDP growth is not a synonym for increased ESC rights.) Distribution issues aside, popular input is also essential to the dignity of the people that economic reforms are intended to benefit. Howard quotes an anonymous participant in a 1966 human rights seminar in Dakar, in a statement that remains compelling almost 50 years later: “To sacrifice the liberties inherent in the human personality in the name of economic development…[is] to reduce the individual to the role of producer and consumer of goods, which…[is] far too high a price to pay for improving the material conditions of existence.” (490)
Moreover, more recent empirical research suggests that there is nothing mutually exclusive between the promotion of CP rights and attaining improvements in ESC rights. For one thing, there is no clear indication that authoritarian power and the political restrictions it entails make it easier to create economic growth. As economist William Easterly points out, for every case of impressive growth under authoritarian leadership (e.g., Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew), there are numerous equally distressing cases of stagnation and poverty (e.g., Cameroon, where—despite high revenues in oil wealth and foreign development assistance—the average citizen is poorer today than when President Paul Biya took power in 1982).
In a recent book, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way, economist Steve Radelet offers additional demonstration that economic development can go hand-in-hand with democratic political development. Radelet looks at a set of 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have achieved dramatic gains in economic growth, poverty reduction, and political accountability since the mid-1990s, including Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, and Cape Verde. To be sure, economic progress has not always been rapid or predictable, and the protection of CP rights in these states is not always ideal, but this group of countries, home to more than 300 million people, shows that one need not restrict or curtail CP rights in the name of economic growth.
CP rights can actually be an important part of the economic development process. Economist Dani Rodrik compares economic growth in democratic and authoritarian countries:
“[Democracies] provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.
Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.”
Adding to the empirical evidence, the recent book The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace takes aim what the authors call the "authoritarian advantage doctrine," deconstructing the myth that authoritarian states are better able to establish conditions for economic growth. The authors found that the typical authoritarian government's economic performance is terrible--in fact, they say, 95 percent of the worst economic performances over the last 40 years occurred in non-democracies. The Democracy Advantage identifies a set of 70 low-income countries that have clearly advanced toward democracy over the past two decades and finds that these poor, nascent democracies performed better than authoritarian governments in a range of indicators directly related to ESC rights, including literacy, access to clean water, life expectancy, infant mortality, and agricultural productivity. Echoing the analyses mentioned above, the authors argue that democracies’ traits of shared power, openness, and adaptability better position them to formulate nuanced policies. Though democracies and democratizing countries do not always achieve the dramatic gains that some authoritarian governments do, they tend to be more resilient in weathering the economic crises that often cause ESC rights to regress. The authors quote democracy scholar Adam Przeworski to sum up their findings: "There was never any solid evidence that democracies were somehow inferior in generating growth-certainly not enough to justify supporting or even condoning dictatorships."
Thus, given that authoritarian restrictions on civil and political rights are not necessary to build economic growth or to promote ESC rights, the touting of material gains by authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments should be viewed skeptically. In a world of scarce resources there are, of course, trade-offs in any government policy. And the debate over the relative importance of ESC and CP rights is a valuable one, as is the argument over the developed world’s responsibility in helping achieve improve ESC rights around the globe. But participants in that debate are well served by bearing in mind its real world manifestations – in particular, the abuse of the ESC-first argument by undemocratic states that impose unjustifiable limitations on core human freedoms. Even as these cynical leaders amplify the debate, they also cheapen it. In a context in which the advance of core CP rights has been on extremely shaky ground in recent years, it is critical that the engagement of analysts, activists, and policymakers around the world are appropriately grounded in both facts and principles about the basic rights that every human should enjoy.
November 11, 2010
More than sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the importance of human rights is well established in the international community. Despite this general acceptance, however, debate persists on the ways in which human rights should be protected and prioritized in different communities and cultures, particularly in the context of political and economic development. The division between civil and political rights, on the one side, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other, was first outlined in 1966 and continues to shape the way human rights activists, governments, and citizens approach these questions. This post is the second in a series about the interaction between these two categories of rights and the ways in which that delineation influences the global debate regarding political and economic development.
Continuing with the discussion from the previous post, while there is widespread agreement that ESC and CP rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated (see Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration from the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, disagreement continues over the interaction and prioritization of the two groups of rights. The debate over sequencing, responsibility for implementation, and urgency is both interesting and necessary, and given the diversity of cultures and polities, there is no definitive answer. However, there is one group of governments for whom the decision to vocally advocate for ESC prioritization is an easy one: authoritarian regimes.
The fundamental idea behind emphasizing ESC rights is that given the tradeoffs imposed by scarce resources, governments in underdeveloped countries must prioritize certain aspects of development; given the need to relieve poverty, ESC rights are defined as the most pressing. This claim essentially stems from the adage that “you can’t eat democracy,” i.e., that economic growth is urgent to combat deprivation of basic needs, and that CP rights are largely irrelevant in the context of dire poverty.
This perspective has been popular for decades and was prevalent in postcolonial governments struggling to build institutions and promote economic development. Tanzania’s first president, democratically-elected Julius Nyerere, eloquently captured the idea: “What freedom has our subsistence farmer? He scratches a bare living from the soil provided the rains do not fail; his children work at his side without schooling, medical care, or even good feeding. Certainly he has freedom to vote and to speak as he wishes. But these freedoms are much less real to him than his freedom to be exploited. Only as his poverty is reduced will his existing political freedom become properly meaningful and his right to human dignity become a fact of human dignity.” Ghana’s Ignatius Acheampong, a military leader who came to power in a coup d’état in 1972, was more direct: “‘One man, one vote’ is meaningless unless accompanied by the principle of ‘one man, one bread.’” (Both quoted in The Concept of Human Rights in Africa by Issa G. Shivji, p. 26.)
While Nyerere’s statement offers legitimate philosophical fodder, the potential for authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments to exploit the idea is evident, and indeed this is what many have done. Undemocratic regimes regularly divert attention away from serious repression of CP rights by disingenuously appealing to the internationally accepted discourse of ESC rights. This is not to say that governments in underdeveloped countries and elsewhere do not face difficult decisions in the implementation of human rights – though, as a subsequent post will show, economic research strongly suggests that there is no need to sacrifice one group of rights for another in the pursuit of economic growth – but it is important in evaluating the ESC-first argument to note that many of its most prominent proponents are authoritarian or hybrid regimes that are happy to talk about economic gains but less keen on discussing the CP rights they curtail.
China, for example, has aggressively emphasized ESC rights even as the ruling party’s repressive apparatus remains as robust as ever. This is clear in the recently-released, government-produced report, “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2009,” which highlights what it considers to be notable advances in domestic human rights conditions. The report emphasizes economic indicators: increasing numbers of phone users and car owners, gains in tourism, booming construction, etc. It does mention some fundamental ESC indicators, including improvements in access to clean water and healthcare and decreases in poverty, but the overall emphasis is heavy on consumption-related metrics and the ways in which the country has evaded the most negative effects of the global financial crisis. In fact, the study links shortcomings in China’s human rights record directly to the country’s still-low level of economic development, as opposed to any political policies: “China is a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion. Due to its inadequate and unbalanced development, there is still much room for improvement in its human rights conditions.”
What China’s report conspicuously lacks, among other things, is any discussion of the CP rights the government notoriously curtails. (For examples, see Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010, and the government’s extensive censorship binge and police crackdown following the announcement of political dissident Liu Xiaobo as winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Similarly, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez eagerly touts economic development under his administration, but responds to allegations that his administration has circumscribed political freedoms dismissively or with vitriolic denunciations of preceding administrations. In a rare interview with the English-language press, Chavez pointed to a range of economic indicators related to ESC rights, including halved unemployment and decreases in extreme poverty. Chavez angrily refused, however, to discuss charges that Venezuela has regressed on political rights, and resorted to personal attacks on the journalist who brought up the charges. Similarly, when the Organization of American States (OAS) released a report citing Venezuela’s attacks on freedom of expression and its harassment of opposition parties, Chavez condemned the organization as a “mafia” and threatened to withdraw. Ironically, the report praised the Venezuelan government for its progress in reducing poverty and illiteracy and increasing healthcare access.
Rwanda offers another example. President Paul Kagame has very publicly highlighted Rwanda’s post-genocide economic performance, and he based his recent reelection campaign in large part on Rwanda’s economic growth since 1994. Indeed, the Rwandan economy has made huge gains, more than doubling per capita income, increasing life expectancy by seven years, and improving access to education. In contrast, the outlook for CP rights is dramatically less rosy: the recent election period included the killings of an opposition leader and the deputy editor of an opposition newspaper, the arrest of one of Kagame’s electoral opponents, and suppression of opposition parties, among many other issues. Though the government denies having any role in the violent incidents, most observers of Rwanda – and even many of Kagame’s defenders – agree that CP rights in Rwanda are only present insofar as the president perceives them as not threatening his administration’s stranglehold on power.
Like Kagame, other leaders often described as “donor darlings” frequently embrace these ideas. During the 1990s, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni resisted international pressure for a multiparty political system by arguing that Uganda and much of Africa was not ready for full democracy because, without a thriving economy and a stable middle class, political mobilization would inevitably occur around ethnicity and other divisive issues, as opposed to political ideals. More than a decade later, Uganda still shows few signs of greater pluralism, even as the Ugandan political class is viewed as insular and corrupt. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has been happy to discuss the country’s impressive economic progress, but is stubbornly unwilling to complement the gains with genuine democratic reform. Indeed, whether the subject is economic vulnerability or corruption, the government prefers aggressive denunciation and indignant dismissal to engagement or reflection.
Each of these leaders has their excuses. Rwanda’s Kagame, echoing Nyerere and others, resists discussion of political repression by arguing that Rwandans are not interested in political freedoms until they reach a sufficient level of economic prosperity. As he said in one interview, "Democracy and human rights are niceties and are all important, but tell me, if somebody is wondering if they have anything to eat, they are not listening. It's a fact that when somebody has food, when you bring another message, then they listen." Left undefined is precisely when basic political freedoms become a priority; it is hard to believe, given the repeated attempts to form an effective opposition in Rwanda despite the government’s abuses, that these are issues that Rwandan citizens do not care about.
China’s economic success and its increasing visibility through investment in Africa and elsewhere have inspired ideas of alternative paths to development, many of them based on the premise that single-party rule and a strong state can avoid the instability associated with democratization while accelerating economic growth. And it is true that China’s economic development has produced clear benefits for many of its citizens and has increased access to some core ESC rights, as has growth in Rwanda, Venezuela (where economic conditions look increasingly shaky), and elsewhere. However, the inordinate emphasis on economic progress and the refusal to discuss political repression invites skepticism. For a leader who wishes to prolong his (seemingly never “her”) rule and establish his indispensability, it is certainly convenient for a country to need to reach some eternally-vague level of development and stability before CP rights can expand. Even assuming that many such leaders sincerely care about development (as opposed to true kleptocrats and sociopaths), the self-serving nature of these arguments is clear. The unwillingness to debate CP rights is also telling: if these leaders are truly so rights-oriented, what do they have to hide? A subsequent post will look at the interrelationship between CP and ESC rights, including evidence that the two are actually mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.
September 02, 2010
Photo credit: Flickr user max_thinks_sees
The difficult struggle for gay rights is ongoing all over the world, but a few cases in Africa raise the troubling possibility that the effort may actually be backsliding. While some Countries at the Crossroads states, like Argentina, have made encouraging advances in civil rights for gay couples, a number of African states are falling behind. Growing antipathy for gay rights was exemplified this week at the African Anglican Church conference in Uganda, where over 400 bishops renewed their condemnation of homosexuality. Speaking in reference to international pressure to promote gay rights, Archbishop of the Church of Uganda Henry Luke Orombi said, “Homosexuality is evil, abnormal, and unnatural as per the Bible. It is a culturally unacceptable practice. Although there is a lot of pressure, we cannot turn our hands to support it.”
Uganda attracted international attention in the fall of 2009 when a member of parliament, David Bahati, proposed a bill that would impose the death penalty for certain homosexual acts and would even criminalize (with the possibility of up to seven years in prison) the failure to report known homosexuals. As in most of Africa, homosexuality is already illegal in Uganda, but Bahati and his many supporters argued that stricter laws and enforcement were necessary to protect Ugandan children and stop the spread of homosexuality, a behavior he considers both “learnt” and “foreign.”
The bill garnered significant public support (and opposition) in highly religious Uganda, but it sparked so much international outrage (including threats to cut international development aid) that President Yoweri Museveni formed a committee to review the bill. The committee recommended that the bill be withdrawn and it has been tabled for now, but the public response throughout the episode revealed rampant homophobia in the country. Supporters of the bill called homosexual behavior “deviant” and “sick” and Bahati himself said that he wanted “to kill every last gay person.” Even some opposition to the bill was laced with antigay stereotypes. One opposition op-ed, for instance, complained, “I really resent the word Gay bring annexed and monopolized by homosexuals and lesbians,” cautioned against adoption rights for same-sex couples (so that the children in question do not adopt their parents’ sexual preferences), recommended that homosexuals display “decorousness” to avoid offense, and cautioned against same-sex marketing to children. Though the bill is currently tabled, there is a possibility that Museveni or any other politician will reinvigorate the issue to build quick public support. Gay rights are thus subject to the precarious whims of political life.
Unfortunately, virulent homophobia is not exclusive to Uganda. A recent Pew poll estimated that 97 percent of Nigerians disapprove of homosexuality. In Ghana, which like Nigeria criminalizes homosexuality, the rumor of a gay rights conference in Accra incited so much opposition that the government issued a public statement declaring its staunch opposition to homosexuality. By the time it was revealed that the conference was not in fact real, the government had already made clear that gay community and its supporters had no freedom to associate in Ghana. In Malawi, a gay couple wassentenced to 14 years in jail in 2010 for committing unnatural acts; only following pressure from outside donors did the president pardon the couple. Kenya has likewise experienced antigay protests in 2010, especially following allegations of a planned gay wedding in February.
All of the above cases are made more complex by the fact that it is not only the legal environment that is relevant—members of the gay community must also contend social opposition to homosexuality, including violence inflicted at home and in religious institutions. Reports of sexual assault by police and “corrective rape” to “cure” homosexuality are common. Even South Africa, which in many ways is a striking and hopeful exception to the antigay trend, social opposition to homosexuality persists. Same sex couples in South Africa have the right to marry and adopt, but social norms have prevented the full realization of gay rights. Antigay violence is not uncommon, and there are no hate crime laws to protect gay communities from such attacks.
The question of international influence is complex with respect to Africa’s struggle over gay rights. Antigay activists often boast close relationships with Western evangelical leaders, and members of the American evangelical community, including the popular Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California, have expressed support for campaigns to criminalize homosexuality in Africa. On the other hand, international advocacy groups have spent considerable time and money attempting to combat such attitudes. For their part, Bahati and others claim that homosexuality is a foreign behavior nonexistent in African culture. Foreigners try to infiltrate African culture, they say, by plying the young and poor with material benefits in exchange for exposure to the “gay lifestyle.” Gay rights advocates argue in response that undue foreign influence is demonstrated instead in the legal language that criminalizes homosexuality, as many of the phrases used to criminalize homosexual behavior in African law are in fact a remnant of colonial legal systems. It is unclear then how the international community can most effectively oppose the spread of antigay legislation when opposition to laws like Bahati’s is routinely chalked up to neocolonial meddling—an allegation that donor threats to cut development aid, however well intentioned, play into. Moreover, many Western nations, including the United States, have failed to adopt norms to place the rights of gays on equal footing with other citizens. Despite these complexities and the sensitivities inherent in addressing issues that touch on supposed cultural taboos, a universal approach to human rights demands that rights advocates continue to monitor and speak out against anti-homosexual discrimination and criminalization.
August 25, 2010
Photo credit: Flickr user kool_skatkat
As noted in a recent Freedom House press release and in increasing coverage in South Africa and abroad, South Africa’s parliament, dominated by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, is under fire for two contentious proposals to regulate the media. The Protection of Information Bill currently before parliament dramatically decreases the threshold for the classification of information and establishes heavy penalties, including jail, for the leak or publication of official or classified material. The bill, an earlier draft of which was rejected because of concerns that it would create excessive official secrecy, also establishes broad barriers to accessing classified information. Among these barriers is the stipulation that appeals of the classification process must be directed to the very bodies that originally classified the information in question. Up for party review in September is a second measure that would create a Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT), a statutory body accountable to the parliament that would adjudicate complaints against media outlets, including the application of punitive powers. The ANC has defended the measures as necessary steps to encourage media responsibility, but critics in South Africa and the international community have denounced the proposals as fundamental threats to press freedom and have questioned their constitutionality.
As Freedom House’s press release states, South Africa moved from Free to Partly Free in the Freedom of the Press 2010 survey. This decline was due to an increase in hostile rhetoric toward the media on the part of government officials and government encroachment on the independence of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The 2010 Countries at the Crossroads South Africa report further documents the ANC’s increasing sensitivity to media criticism, including a 2008 defamation lawsuit launched by ANC president Jacob Zuma over a political cartoon that depicted Zuma unbuckling his belt in front of a woman who is being constrained by ANC colleagues. A banner across the woman’s body suggests she is a symbol of the judicial system, the implication being that Zuma and other ANC leaders were “raping” that system. Zuma, now president of South Africa, charged not only the cartoonist, but also the paper that printed the piece and the paper’s holding company, in the US$700,000 lawsuit. More recently, journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was arrested without a warrant shortly after he coauthored an article on an illegal lease agreement in which the police national commissioner was involved.
The proposed measures raise a number of problems. Primarily, they represent a serious threat to the media’s traditional role as a watchdog of government and business. The provisions of the information bill and the MAT would prevent journalists from freely reporting on allegations of parliamentary corruption or exposing government incompetence. Predicting that the proposals will create a “society of secrets,” the African Democracy Institute argued that the threat of prosecution would encourage regular citizens to engage in self-censorship to avoid prosecution, an effect that would dramatically threaten freedom of speech. Apartheid-era laws and the 2009 Film and Publications act already discourage critical coverage of the government; the recent proposals might very well banish it.
The proposals also constrict access to commercial information. Speaking in favor of economic freedom, Business Leadership South Africa chairman Bobby Godsell declared that “the economic freedom on which business depends flourishes best when citizens are able to rely on an unfettered flow of information that is free from excessive government control and regulation.” He also expressed concern that growing international concern over the matter tarnished South Africa’s image in important international markets. The fact that the organization, which represents companies that pay 80 percent of corporate taxes in South Africa, has expressed concern that the ANC’s proposals raise “the prospect of a media answerable to political bosses” suggests that the ANC will face entrenched opposition beyond its traditional adversaries in the media if it continues to pursue these measures.
The outcry against the proposals has come from both foreign and domestic sources. South African journalists have come out strongly against the proposals. In an August 8 declaration, 36 print editors expressed deep concern over the proposed legislation and tribunal and appealed to the ANC to “abide by the founding principles of our democracy” by abandoning the proposals. The Federation of African Journalists, the African Regional Organization of the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the International Press Institute have all condemned the proposals. Most recently, a group of South African writers, many of whom were silenced by apartheid censorship, declared publicly that the proposals threatened a return to the strict media controls of that era.
The ANC has launched a vehement defense of the proposals, claiming that they are necessary steps to increase accountability in the media. Under the current regulatory system, a press ombudsman fields media-related disputes. The ANC argues that this system is biased toward journalists, given that the current ombudsman is himself a former journalist, and that its lack of punitive powers renders its rulings inconsequential. The ombudsman has in fact issued strong rulings against the media, including ordering the publication of several prominent apologies, but the highly controversial ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema says that this is not enough. Claiming that the current system allows journalists to act as if they are above the law, he declared, “These people are dangerous. They write gossip and present it as facts.”
Zuma himself defended the proposals on the party’s website, where he characterized the media as inadequately reflective of the South African population, particularly its poor communities, and argued that it is dominated by biased commercial interests that incentivize salacious reporting. It is unclear, however, how the tribunal or the information bill would rectify any of the shortcomings he outlines. Critics have called on the ANC to prove that parliamentary appointments to the tribunal would be fair, to demonstrate that the current system is failing, and to provide statistics on the number of citizen complaints about the current media appeals system. Zuma’s case fails to answer any of these questions.
The question of monopolistic media ownership and its effect on representative media in fact figures prominently in media battles everywhere. A parallel to South Africa’s current debate can be found in a recent entry on Latin America that documents ways in which media wars can reflect political power struggles and the long-term challenges of updating legal frameworks for media in post-authoritarian countries. Cases in both Ecuador and Argentina show how ruling parties can use valid critiques of media ownership and bias to advance policies that considerably expand government control over the media. If the sizeable backlash against such policies in those cases is any guide, the ANC is likely to find its proposals mired in controversy for quite some time. If the ANC wishes to avoid the pitfalls that these and other regimes have suffered, it should identify ways to encourage media responsibility that do not involve extensive government (and party) control. A responsible and vibrant press is vital to democratic development. Occasionally offending the delicate sensibilities of politicians is a feature, not a bug.