The Common Good

Just How Free?

Just how free are we?

"Freedom." Photo illustration via Wylio http://bit.ly/xAJy0A
"Freedom." Photo illustration via Wylio http://bit.ly/xAJy0A

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Freedom is a word often used by politicians, economists and others in positions of power/authority as a byword for happiness. The more freedom we have, the happier we are. Whether this is actually the case, freedom is something that oftentimes may not be particularly tangible.

Freedom House attempts to help us understand what freedom actually looks like in its annual publication, Freedom In The World, with the 2012 edition published today. And their focus? The Arab Uprisings and the impact they have had, and continue to have, on the world.

From the top-line data that Freedom House has collected, the news isn’t good. Despite seeing “the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism” during the past year, only 12 countries actually recorded an overall improvement in their freedoms, in comparison to 26 countries that saw their freedoms lessened.

What is interesting to note is that the countries at the forefront of the Arab uprisings — Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — experienced significant gains in the freedoms they enjoy, but it was the countries that sought to instigate change in the second wave of uprisings that saw their freedom decline — for example Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

The survey “examines the ability of individuals to exercise their political and civil rights in 195 countries and 14 territories around the world.” Countries are rated on a scale and given a status of Free, Partly Free or Not Free based on their score. As you may (or may not, depending on your worldview) expect, countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada receive the highest ratings in political and civil rights. Much of the Middle East, North Africa, Russia and China find themselves at the other end of the scale, scoring low in these categories. There are other encouraging signs as well. Six African countries, including Namibia and Ghana, are classified as free, with a significant proportion of the continent now falling under the categories of ‘free’ or ‘partly free’.

The most significant change of the year, and “indeed one of the largest single-year improvements in the history of Freedom in the World," was in Tunisia, where the ousting of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and the subsequent free elections saw the state move into the Partly Free category.

This report is a good place from which to survey the world. We are still not yet at a point where half of the world’s countries are classed as free, and one fourth of the world is still considered not free.  2011 was a momentous year with much upheaval and progressive steps in areas of the world once considered beyond saving when it comes to democratic freedom and civil and political rights.

But there is always more work to be done. While the ‘freedom’ that our politicians and economists talk about may be more about a ‘freedom from’ (negative liberty for all of you philosophers out there), what is more important in these areas of the world that remain ‘Not Free’, is the freedom to – the freedom to vote, to go about one’s daily life without the fear of violence, persecution or repression based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation (i.e. the freedom of expression). These are things that we take for granted, and yet are not even yet a reality for well over a quarter of the world’s population.

And even within those areas of the world that were scored at the top of the scale, there is work to be done. The report notes that in Western Europe and North America, there is still unwillingness to “ensure assimilation and fair treatment of immigrants” and in parts of Europe, “far-right parties with an anti-immigrant and anti–European Union perspective continued to gather strength.” It is important when reading a report such as this one to not become complacent, for there are always ways in which we can ‘increase the lot of others’.

Take the time to look at the report. Keep those countries still without basic freedoms in your heart and in your prayers. And may the 2013 Freedom House report bring more good news and more freedom for people to live lives that can be enjoyed to the fullest.

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.

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