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Liberty's expansion in a
turbulent world




Jonathan Power

December 31, 2002

LONDON - It always feels nice to open a New Year with good news. But that indeed is the message on the democracy front this week. It began in Kenya with the defeat last Sunday of the hand-picked candidate of the long time corrupt autocrat of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. On Friday, January 3rd, the election winner, Mwai Kibaki takes over as president and there is some hope that this clever ex-finance minister will be skilled enough to start to put the country back on its feet and to release the wealth of talent and energy that it has in abundance. Despite the gloomy headlines that speak of war and dictatorship, Africa is in fact becoming more democratic. A decade and a half ago few African countries held open elections. Now most do.

On January 1st the working class hero, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, will be sworn in as president of Brazil. In an interview I made with him 25 years ago when he was a young leader he spoke of his vision of a new Brazil where terrible disparities in wealth would be reduced enough for the poor to be at least able to eat three times a day. Against most of the predictions of the last decades, he has finally won the presidency, supported by a majority that encompasses rich, poor and the middle. His mandate, in part, is to implement this long held vision, while enabling the vast Brazilian economy to grow at a steady pace. Also on Wednesday, Greece, not that long ago a brutal military dictatorship, takes over as president of the European Union and on Sunday, the 5th, Lithuania, until quite recently a submissive corner of the Soviet Union but now proudly independent, will vote on whether its president deserves a second term. Also on this day, Milan Milutinovic leaves office as president of Serbia and is likely voluntarily to surrender himself to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague where he has been charged with brutal offences committed in Kosovo.

All this is to remind us that despite the rattling of sabres over Iraq, growing fears of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the absence of true democratic rights for the Palestinians and the ever present threat of terrorists who abjure democracy, the world, in the round, is moving forward. A new report from the authoritative Freedom House speaks of "significant worldwide progress in 2002" in expanding freedom and democracy. "Real gains outnumbered setbacks by a nearly three-to-one-margin". Notable improvements were made in parts of the world where terrorism poses a direct threat, including in majority Muslim and Arab countries. Muslim Senegal entered the top category in Freedom House's league table- Free, meaning it has a full and open democracy and free expression. Bahrain moved from Not Free to Partly Free and there was significant pro-democracy ferment in Iran, Kuwait and Qatar. Muslim Afghanistan, Albania, Comoros, Tajikistan and, perhaps most important, already democratic Turkey took significant strides toward allowing more political and personal freedoms.

Contrary to much loose thinking there is no unchangeable correlation between democracy and religious persuasion. Of course it is a historical fact that democratic expansion first took place in the Protestant world. But as recently as the 1970s commentators were arguing that there could never be an equal explosion in the Catholic world. But it happened in the 1980s, as it did in the authoritarian-inclined Orthodox world in the the 1990s. Hindu India has long been democratic and the concept of "Asian Values", whereby it was argued that tradition bound societies, influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism, could never accept democracy, has shown to be so much nonsense by the remarkable steps taken by Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand.

It is true that the Islamic world remains a democracy backwater but it is difficult to argue that there is some kind of inexorable link between tyranny and Islam. The Islamic world has been dominated by two extreme ideologies &endash;secular Ba'athism (best known in Iraq) and revolutionary or jihadist Islamism. Both were shaped in the 1930s at a time when totalitarian movements dominated the European landscape. Tragically, as a high official in the Bush administration Richard Haass recently admitted in an unusual speech, the U.S. has made a grave historic mistake in supporting many of these tyrannical regimes for its own short term needs. If that could change, much else could change in the Islamic world.

According to the Freedom House survey, 89 countries are now Free, up from 43 in 1972. 56 countries are judged to be Partly Free, up from 38 in 1972. Of the 2.2 billion people in the world who live in the Not Free countries 60% live in China. The message for the world's enlightened democracies is that they must make sure that China never decides to set about undermining free Taiwan and that the freedoms inherited by Hong Kong are not wheedled away. These two outposts of freedom must be encouraged and preserved if mainland China is ever to be persuaded that openness and democracy would be better ways of governing the mainland's complex society. Change China and the world will take a great leap forward! That and real democracy and independence in Palestine are the two departures the world of 2003 badly needs.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2002 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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