2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
(Courtesy of Freedom House)

By Nelson Graves

Are you worried that Donald Trump will curtail civil liberties and undercut democratic institutions in the United States?

Well, his election could also have profound implications for democracy and human rights in the rest of the world, where nationalists, populists and authoritarians made significant gains last year even before the billionaire businessman was elected U.S. president.

Those are among the sobering conclusions of a report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.

“In 2016, populist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents,” Freedom House says in a 28-page snapshot of the state of the world.

“All of these developments point to a growing danger that the international order of the past quarter-century — rooted in the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law  — will give way to a world in which individual leaders and nations pursue their own narrow interests.”

Established democracies dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.

So as Trump raises fears of a foreign policy that will abandon America’s traditional commitments to civil liberties and human rights, trends in other countries were already disheartening last year and could accelerate with a Trump administration, according to Freedom House.

The Best and the Worst

Countries with the highest freedom ratings: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay, Denmark, Portugal

Countries with the lowest freedom ratings: Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, Saudi Arabia

For the 11th straight year, there was a decline in the watchdog’s overall freedom barometer, which evaluates 195 countries and 14 territories. A total of 67 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains.

And while in the past the declines in freedom were concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that moved from bad to worse, in 2016 established democracies — countries rated “Free” in the report’s ranking system — dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.

There were setbacks in political rights, civil liberties or both in a number of countries rated “Free” by the report, including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia and the United States.

“Partnering with autocracies leads to ruin.”

The Freedom House report details events in two countries with authoritarian rulers that dominate headlines: China and Russia. But it also focuses on trends in Western Europe, where populist forces have gained ground, and in Central Europe, where transitions from dictatorship to democracy a generation ago are now being threatened in several countries.

Not to be forgotten are the Middle East and North Africa, which had the worst ratings in the world in 2016, followed closely by Eurasia.

The report warns that citizens in some democracies may look to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping as proof that nations should ditch international commitments to protect their own interests. It notes crucial elections in 2017 in the Czech Republic, France and Germany.

But it warns that partnering with autocracies leads to ruin:

“When universal values and international law are cast aside, global affairs are governed by force. Small-state nationalists who admire foreign dictators today could find their countries subjugated by the same leaders tomorrow. Worse still, they could simply be trampled amid the lawless competition of great powers.”

Turning to the United States and Europe, the report wonders if they will back away from their traditional leadership responsibilities.

“If they do, Russia, China, Iran, and their ilk can be expected to fill the void,” it concludes.

(Graphics courtesy of Freedom House)

For a copy of the Freedom House report, click here.

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