Freedom in the World 2014

freedom

Green = free
Yellow = partly free
Blue = Not Free

The pro-democracy and human rights group Freedom House annually publishes what is probably now my most highly-awaited report, ‘Freedom in the World’.  Today they published their 2014 edition, containing reports compiled over 2013.  It’s been unveiled under the gloomy headline, “An Eighth Year of Decline in Political Rights and Civil Liberties,” which certainly is quite depressing.  Having had a quick nose through the report, however, I don’t believe there’s reason for complete despair just yet.  It’s a similar trend to which we saw last year, of progress and regression pushing against each other with little progress either way.  There’s a lot of good news in here too.

Countries which have made significant changes are:

Bhutan
Bhutan has for a while been hovering at the lower end of the ‘partly free’ spectrum as its recent experiment with democracy has continued.  These reforms have been entrenched by the country’s first democratic rotation of power in history, which has in turn improved the state of civil liberties.

Central African Republic
This poor, landlocked African country has more or less collapsed over the last year.  A coalition of rebels overthrew President Bozizé in March which has led to the rapid disintegration of law and order, characterised by horrific sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims.  France has sent 1,600 troops to help restore order and prevent a decline into civil war, with further pledges of support from other European and African states.

Egypt
Egypt is a very depressing case right now.  I had so many hopes that it was on a path to democracy, albeit Islamist-tinted, but in July, following mass protests, President Morsi was deposed by the army.  There’s subsequently been heavy repression by the state against political opponents, with the Muslim Brotherhood named once again a terrorist organisation.  A constitutional referendum has recently passed which demands fresh elections to be held later this year but I’m not particularly optimistic about these.

Mali
After Mali’s dramatic decline last year, jumping straight from ‘free’ to ‘not free’ as a result of the northern rebellion and military coup, it’s refreshing to see some positive developments once again.  Following a French and African Union-backed campaign to rid the north of Islamist rebels, elections deemed mostly free and fair have been able to occur.  The country has a long way to go to recover it’s previous position but it seems to be on the right track.

Nicaragua
I confess to know very little about Nicaragua, but it’s seen improvements both to political rights and civil liberties ratings.  As far as I’m aware this is due to general attempts to create constitutional reforms and reduce corruption.

South Sudan
South Sudan has also been in the news recently due to increased political and ethnic violence.  It’s thought that as many as 500,000 people have been displaced, while several cities and territories have fallen under rebel control.  The government appears to be reasserting itself but there are real fears of a descent into civil war.  This has unsurprisingly caused a decline in the country’s civil liberty ratings (it’s political rating would probably have fallen too had it not already been pretty poor).

Tunisia
Tunisia’s performance is my favourite aspect of this report.  There were fears that hard-fought gains might be lost in a climate of political assassinations and disputes, but political parties and movements seem to have managed to work together to continue the country’s transition to democracy, helping cause an increase to the country’s civil liberties rating.  Tunisia may end up being the Arab Spring’s only success story.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes and trends are Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Iraq,* Italy, Japan, Madagascar, the Maldives, Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo, Tonga and Zimbabwe.**

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes and trends are Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, the Gambia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tanzania, Uganda, Ukraine, Venezuela, Zambia and the Gaza Strip.

Worst of the Worst
All nine of last year’s worst-performing countries maintain the lowest possible score on political rights and civil liberties – Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan.  The Central African Republic has this year been added to the group, while the unrecognised states of Tibet and Western Sahara also remain on it.

Conclusion
This may seem very bleak but there are a significant number of success stories which can serve as further inspiration for the continuingly oppressed peoples around the world.  Each year Freedom House additionally numbers the amount of ‘electoral democracies’ in the world – I’m not entirely sure what their criteria for this is – which actually saw an increase of 5 in this report, bringing the total amount of electoral democracies to 63.1%, the highest since 2007.  Here’s hoping these foundations can bring about an overall increase next year.

For the full report, see here.

*I’m quite surprised by this too, although Iraq is still firmly in the ‘not free’ category.
**I’m also rather surprised by this, but I imagine this is simply because less people died during last year’s elections than in 2008.

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France Intervenes In Malian Conflict

This is a highly significant development in a story which most people probably won’t know much about – a true fringe story, so to speak, although it shouldn’t be.

In April last year Tuareg rebels, equipped with weapons and experience from mercenaries returning from the 2011 Libyan Civil War, managed to take control of the north of Mali after a military coup left the country unstable.  It is generally accepted that the Tuareg people, native nomadic inhabitants of the central Sahara region, do have legitimate grievances, although the international community has condemned the insurgency.  On the 6th April the Independent State of Azawad was declared, and has to date not been recognised by a single country.

As 2012 progressed the insurgency took, from a Western perspective, a sinister turn as Islamist groups, the largest of which is called Ansar Dine, became more influential.  In June the Islamist-Tuareg alliance collapsed and conflict broke out between parties and militias of the two alignments.  This conflict resulted in a victory for the Islamists, pushing the Tuareg forces out of their own self-declared homeland.  As can be imagined, these events have made many a Western leader uneasy.  Talks have been made of sending an international, United Nations mandated force to retake the north of the country, headed by the The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS).  France, the previous colonial power of Mali until 1960, had said it would not be directly involved in such military operations.

Life in Islamist, extreme Sharia-following Mali, or ‘Azawad’, has not been pleasant.  Unverified but brutal reports have been filtering out of the region in the last year including stories of public executions, the destruction of historical mausoleums in Timbuktu and even the banning of music.  Human rights groups have decried gross violations of international law, but the negotiations and inaction goes on.

Then the Islamists began to march southward.  On the 10th January 2013 Islamist forces captured the strategic town of Konna in central Mali, threatening the entire country.  This appears to have been a ‘red line’ for France.  While one would like to think France is concerned about the human rights of the millions of Malians who could be subject to a Sharia-based totalitarian rule, their main motivations are probably more to do with an economic interest in Mali and fear of creating a hive for terrorism within Africa.  The official reason is to protect the 6,000 French citizens residing in the country.
Whatever the motivations, President Hollande of France yesterday ordered the French military to intervene.

In remarkably fast-moving events, the French military appears to have helped the Malian army push back the Islamist advances.  These skirmishes alone may have caused more than 100 casualties.    In another move, the French military launched an operation to rescue Denis Allex, held by similar Islamist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia, due to fears of reprisals for the intervention.  Tragically the operation was a failure and is thought to have led to the death of Allex and two French soldiers.  France has also made moves to increase security at home over fears of potential terrorist attacks on French soil in retaliation for the intervention.

The future of this crisis could now go many ways.  The French air-force has begun launching airstrikes against militants in the north which I fear will only lead to more innocent deaths, though may be necessary to ensure a swift victory.  It is not clear whether there is yet either the will or the capability to retake the north, though this will certainly be soon a priority.  Content that the situation has stabilised, France may wait for the United Nations to respond.

Relevant links:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17481114
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20991719
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20991723
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20996963
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2013/01/2013112133154249167.html

A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.