After two weeks of airstrikes, French and Malian soldiers have pushed Islamic rebels out of the city of Gao. Gao is the largest city in Northern Mali by population, and the loss of its stronghold will be a massive blow to the rebels. Very soon they will be pushed out of all major settlements and will most likely return to guerrilla warfare – more manageable for the Malian government. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic; the problem won’t disappear overnight, and it’ll take Mali a long time to recover from this disastrous episode. But French intervention certainly seems to have sped up the process of pushing the Islamists out of the region and hopefully, in time, restoring stability to the country.
Yesterday, pro-democracy group FreedomHouse published their annual report, ‘Freedom in the World 2013’, which reports on the state of political and social freedom on a country-by-country basis during 2012. I was very eager to see the results, as their reports have become something of an authority in how I view freedom in the world. One of many sources, obviously, but by far my favourite.
As you can see from the map, when comparing it to one I wrote about a month ago, not a huge amount has changed. Europe and the Americas are still almost completely free, Southeast Asia and central Africa not so much, etc. However the small changes which have occurred are extremely significant. I made some mental predictions before reading the report, which I can boast were mostly along the right lines although were at times too optimistic or pessimistic. I’m pleased to see that Ukraine and Venezuela are still perceived to be somewhat free countries, even if only on the fringes, for instance. Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, particularly in central Asia, have continued their descent into autocracy. Here are the rest of the countries which made significant changes:
For the first time, Egypt is considered a ‘Partly Free’ country, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Amid fears that the revolution would be hijacked, first by the ruling military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is comforting to know that Egypt has at least made marginal progress, even if its political freedom rating is precarious at best.
More reassuringly, Libya has made significant gains. Although also only ‘Partly Free’, considering it was only recently scoring the worst possible scores a country can achieve during Colonel Gadaffi’s totalitarian rule, his ouster in the 2011 Libyan Civil War has paved the way for extraordinary political and social progress.
Tunisia’s rating has not changed from the ‘Partly Free’ it achieved in the 2012 Report. While it’s comforting to see the gains made after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution have been maintained, I had hoped to see freedom extend further. But I think I was naive to expect such fast progress.
Mali always was going to score badly after the 2012 coup and conflict though I never appreciated just how badly. Falling down all the way from ‘Free’ to ‘Not Free’, one of Africa’s most stable democracies has, in the space of a year, completely collapsed. Not good.
Burma has now, for the first time, been reported to be a freer state than neighbouring China. While still marked as ‘Not Free’, it is now at the top of that range rather than at the very bottom, due to political and social reforms being passed by the ruling military. A slow, tentative improvement, but very encouraging.
With the Second Ivorian Civil War over with and democracy cautiously restored, the country has leapt up to ‘Partly Free’, albeit at the lower end of the category.
Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes are: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Mongolia and Bhutan.
Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes are: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, the Maldives, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Turkey.
Worst of the Worst
Countries titled ‘Worst of the Worst’, meaning they have achieved the worst possible score in both the political and social categories, are: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
For the 7th year in a row, FreedomHouse has reported an overall decline in democratic standards across the world. There is not reason to despair however, as for every decline in one country is, roughly, a gain in another. The situation is not rapidly deteriorating – many of the declines are in fact a response in authoritarian countries to the rise of pro-democracy movements elsewhere. Their fear is not without cause.
In response to reports of the deaths of 11 civilians in Mali in French airstrikes, I sought out an email address to contact French President Francois Hollande. I doubt he’ll ever read it, and because it’s written in English it may even be discarded (I wondered whether to contact the French embassy instead), but here’s the email I sent to his official address:
“Dear Mr. President,
I welcome the news that France has intervened in the Malian Conflict. Severe human rights abuses are being conducted on a daily basis in the north of the country, and it is clear that the insurgents cannot be allowed to control the entirety of Mali for both the country’s sake and for the sake of the rest of the world.
However, it is being reported that French air strikes upon rebel bases have caused civilian casualties. Both Al-Jazeera and The Guardian are reporting the deaths of at least eleven civilians, three of whom are believed to be children. I urge you to ensure that the French Air Force does everything within its power to avoid civilian deaths, and that when in the tragic circumstances civilians are killed, their deaths are investigated thoroughly.
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.