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LEONIDAS DONSKIS
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Freedom and Democracy in Decline

May 11, 2011

By Leonidas Donskis

Having listened to the 2011 Freedom House report on freedom and democracy across the world, presented recently in the Human Rights Subcommittee meeting at the European Parliament, the only conclusion that was possible to make was that freedom and democracy are in decline. I realize that this is at odds with the general wave of enthusiasm evoked by the chain of revolutions and uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, yet the Freedom House speakers in the EP were able to offer only such an assessment of things.

Freedom House is the oldest human rights organization in the United States. Established by Eleanor Roosevelt in October 1941, it began issuing, from 1972, its world reports monitoring the human rights situation across the globe. The Freedom House report is perceived as an important message to the world, rather than merely a social science exercise.

The political map of the world used by Freedom House marks grey all anti-democratic regimes, which have no respect for fundamental rights and civil liberties. Green is reserved for those countries where human rights are respected. A glimpse of the world at this point reveals a picture of something like a grey ocean, with some scattered and isolated green islands.
We cannot deceive ourselves anymore portraying respect for human rights as a global norm, and disrespect for them as an unpleasant aberration. The violation of human rights, as well as total disrespect for them is a global tendency, and not the other way around. The Orwellesque jackboot trampling on the human face is a welcome-to-the-twenty-first-century sign, instead of a fantasy.

I have to admit that we live in relatively safe times, to compare them with the 20th century. Yet the problem lies elsewhere. In spite of our obsessions with safety and security, even at the expense of our civil liberties, dignity, and privacy, the danger of a new world war is not as high as it was in the Cold War era.

Even if we call the regional conflicts and political turbulences a new kind of war, whose logic is beyond our reach, and which is waged by major powers on their adversaries without their direct involvement, and with a possibility to dislocate that war, that is to say, to have it fought elsewhere and with someone else’s hands, they do not pose an ultimate threat to freedom and democracy.

No matter how ugly and dangerous conflicts happen to be, it is difficult to imagine the world without them. Yet freedom is something that is possible to achieve. Without a shadow of a doubt, the fall of the Berlin Wall, accompanied by a series of Eastern European revolutions and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, or a series of ongoing revolutions in the Arab countries should be a sufficient argument against those who are still inclined to paint freedom as solely a European and Western phenomenon.

Things are different with regard to human rights, however. Those who passionately fight for independence and freedom tend to forget about their freedom-loving rhetoric, immediately when the revolution is over and when it comes to accommodating and respecting human diversity. Therefore, we shouldn’t conflate independence or freedom fights and a firm commitment to democratic values and human rights. Those things don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Their paths may diverge.

What we call the democratic world or, if you will, an exclusive club of democracies that tries to demand respect for human rights all over the world is a tiny minority of more or less democratic states and their respective civil societies vis-a-vis a voiceless and powerless majority of those individuals who are abused, persecuted, and oppressed by their anti-democratic regimes that simply do not care about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For those regimes, the Declaration is merely an empty sound.

A strong temptation exists to go so far as to overtly call into question the very existence of international community, and even that of international law. I remember how an honorable recipient of the Andrei Sakharov Award, Sergei Kovalev, echoing some of his fellow Russian dissidents, put this black on white several times, saying that an unpleasant truth is that what we call international law is practiced solely as an aspect of Realpolitik, especially when it is imposed by the winners who inflict it on those defeated as part of the logic of victory and humiliation. Instead of being a fiction, both international community and international law should act independently from the winner who takes it all. 

According to the Freedom House, press is the first target of dictators all over the world. Then the turn comes for an assault on NGOs. The assault on NGOs is a fairly new tendency, which might be explained by the fact that NGOs, in some countries, are replacing traditional (or dysfunctional) political parties. Fear of justice and retribution in anti-democratic regimes may be one reason, yet fear of failure, jealousy, and suspicion that you are dealing with a prospective rival may push some political forces, even in flawed democracies, to treat NGOs as a threat.

What’s the news for us then? A soft decline of freedom and democracy in the Baltic States, as Freedom House notes. An obvious decline in Ukraine under Viktor Yanukovich. Success in Latin America, as Chavez appears just an aberration, and Brazil turns out to be much preferable for Latin American countries than Venezuela in terms of a choice of a pattern for further development. China and Russia? All quiet on that front. Or disquiet, depending on how we view and voice it.
2011 is likely to be the year of our discontents as far as human rights are concerned.

 

Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D.. is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.

© 2011 The Baltic times. All rights reserved.



LEONIDO DONSKIO KADENCIJA EUROPOS PARLAMENTE
(2009-2014)