A study by a government-funded NGO in the United States has sounded the alarm on deteriorating levels of liberty in democratic and authoritarian countries alike, including extensive criticism of India, China and the US itself.
The Freedom in the World 2020 report assessed 195 countries, rating 83 of them as “free”, 63 as “partly free”, and 49 as “not free”. The Freedom House, which boasts Eleanor Roosevelt as a co-founder, has compiled the index each year since 1973. The share of countries rated free has declined by 3% in the last decade. The index incorporates factors such as the functioning of government, transparency, the rule of law, pluralism, and freedom of expression and belief.
This year’s report finds a strong global decline in governments’ commitment to pluralism, a defining feature of liberal democracy. Ethnic, religious and other minority groups have borne the brunt of recent state abuses in both democracies and authoritarian countries.
India and the US in firing line
“India and the United States are the largest and perhaps the most influential democracies in the world, and their drift from liberal democratic ideals is sending exactly the wrong message,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “If major democratic powers fail to set strong examples and provide constructive leadership, it will be impossible to reverse the global trends that threaten freedom for all societies.”
Among the world’s 25 most populous democracies in this year’s report, India’s democratic score dropped the furthest. The report paid particular attention to the revocation of the special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The index assesses Kashmir separately to India in a nod to the discrepancies in status for people living there. It experienced one of the five largest single-year declines of the past decade anywhere in the world, and its status dropped from “partly free” to “not free” this year. The report also highlighted the NCR issued in one state and the controversial citizenship law adopted at the national level, plus the aggressive tactics employed by the state to suppress the protests that ensued.
When it came to the US, Freedom House criticized 2019 rule changes that weakened the rights of asylum seekers, new evidence of electoral interference, and escalating clashes between the executive branch and Congress over their respective powers. It said that defiance of congressional authority lay at the heart of the impeachment process against President Donald Trump, who ordered current and former officials to defy Congress’ subpoenas for documents and testimony about his attempt to extract a political favor from the president of Ukraine.
Protests, but to little avail
In China’s case, the report called out the government’s detainment of millions of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim groups in internment camps.
In free, partly free, and not free countries and territories alike, people took to the streets to express discontent with existing political systems and demand changes that would lead to better, more democratic outcomes. Significant protest movements took place in Hong Kong, Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan, among other places. However, these movements frequently ran up against deeply entrenched interests, and failed to bring about a major improvement in global freedom, according to the report’s authors.
In total, countries suffering from setbacks in 2019 outnumbered those making gains by nearly two to one. During this period, 25 of the world’s 41 established democracies experienced net losses in their perceived levels of liberty.