The beginning of a new year also means the publication of the annual report from the US-based Freedom House, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights. Admittedly, I have never been among the greatest fans of the Freedom House evaluation of the state of freedom around the world, because I have found the approach to be too western-centric, and also relying too much on the perceptions of the people the organization picks to do the assessments. However, if you keep this in mind, the report can offer a quick and reasonable overview of the state of affairs for freedom globally.

Freedom in the World 2018 report evaluates the state of freedom in 195 countries and 14 territories during calendar year 2017. Each country and territory is assigned between 0 and 4 points on a series of 25 indicators, for an aggregate score of up to 100. These scores are used to determine two numerical ratings, for political rights and civil liberties, with a rating of 1 representing the most free conditions and 7 the least free. Based on this, a country or territory’s political rights and civil liberties ratings then determine whether it has an overall status of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. This methodology, which is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is applied to all countries and territories, irrespective of geographic location, ethnic or religious composition, or level of economic development.

So contrary to other governance or democracy reports, Freedom in the World assesses the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals, rather than governments or government performance per se. But obviously, political rights and civil liberties can be affected by both state and non-state actors, including insurgents and other armed groups. You can read more about the methodology being used on the Freedom House website:

Down-load report here: Freedom House 2018

In the brief overview report, the President of Freedom House, Michael J. Abramowitz, summarizes the state of affairs under the heading of “Democracy in Crisis” in this way:

“Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom. Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies—particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under assault and in retreat globally.”

There is presently a global debate about how threatened democracy actually is, with some concluding that the situation is serious when you look at developments over recent years, while others point to the longer-term strength despite setbacks in a number of countries. For Freedom House, the development since 1987 is described in the graph below – and the report emphasizes the increase in the number of not free countries from 2007 to 2017.

What is of particular interest in the 2018 report is the presentation of developments in the United States under President Trump. This is what the report states:

“The past year brought further, faster erosion of America’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging its international credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights. The United States has experienced a series of setbacks in the conduct of elections and criminal justice over the past decade—under leadership from both major political parties—but in 2017 its core institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity. President Trump himself has mingled the concerns of his business empire with his role as president, appointed family members to his senior staff, filled other high positions with lobbyists and representatives of special interests, and refused to abide by disclosure and transparency practices observed by his predecessors.”

Towards the end of the report, it offers a list of countries that need to be watched closely in 2018. I agree that all the countries mentioned in the list (see below) are important. However, I suggest that a few countries should be added to the list – like Myanmar because the world must be concerned about how the persecution and/or ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya community is resolved; like Zimbabwe because it is far from certain that democracy has been protected and strengthened following the removal of Robert Mugabe by the military; like Poland and Hungary because developments in these two countries seriously question if they can continue to belong to the family of European Union countries. The following are the countries to watch according to Freedom House:

Afghanistan: Opposition alliances are crystallizing ahead of long-overdue parliamentary elections, but preparations for the polls have been lacking, and it is uncertain whether they will be held as planned in 2018.

Angola: Newly elected president João Lourenço moved to weaken the control of his predecessor’s family in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether he will make a serious effort to stem endemic corruption or ease restrictions on politics, the media, and civil society.

Georgia: The ruling Georgian Dream party recently pushed through constitutional amendments that—combined with the financial backing of its reclusive billionaire patron—will make an effective challenge by the fractured opposition in future elections even more unlikely, potentially cementing the party’s control for years to come.

Iraq: Improved security has helped create space for competition among newly registered parties and candidates ahead of the 2018 elections, which will test the resilience of the country’s political system.

Macedonia: A democratically elected, ethnically inclusive government is seeking to root out corruption and other systemic abuses that grew worse under its scandal-plagued predecessor, and it could even resolve the lingering “name dispute” with Greece that has impeded the country’s path toward EU membership.

Mexico: The July 2018 general elections will serve as a referendum on an administration that has failed to curb rampant violence and corruption, and has become increasingly hostile toward independent media and civil society activists.  

Saudi Arabia: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s controversial reform program is likely to cause even more upheaval in Saudi government and society, as small gains in social freedoms and efforts to attract foreign investors go hand in hand with attempts to quash dissent and fight off perceived opponents.

South Africa: Under a new leadership elected in December, the ruling African National Congress will be under pressure to clean up its image—which has been sullied by corrupt former party leader and current national president Jacob Zuma—ahead of general elections in 2019. 

United States: The media and the judiciary—both of which have a long history of independence—face acute pressure from the Trump administration, whose smears threaten to undermine their legitimacy.

Uzbekistan: The new government has taken tentative steps toward greater openness and international engagement, but lasting change in one of the world’s most repressive political systems will require sustained international attention as well as support for independent voices in the country’s media and civil society.