Global freedom suffered a “disturbing” decline over the past year, according to a leading democracy watchdog. An upsurge in terrorist violence and increasingly aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes had led to “a growing disdain for democratic standards” across nearly all regions, says the annual report of U.S.-based Freedom House.
“In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world,” writes Arch Puddington, the group’s Vice President for Research.
For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years, he notes:
Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.
This pattern held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. Syria, a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism, received the lowest Freedom in the World country score in over a decade.
The one notable exception to the lack of democratic gains was Tunisia, which became the first Arab country to achieve the status of Free since Lebanon 40 years ago, Puddington adds:
By contrast, a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward: Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. Hungary, a European Union member state, also saw a sharp slide in its democratic standards as part of a process that began in 2010.
While some of the world’s worst dictatorships regularly made headlines, others continued to fly below the radar, the report continues:
Despite year after year of declines in political rights and civil liberties, Azerbaijan has avoided the democratic world’s opprobrium due to its energy wealth and cooperation on security matters. Vietnam is also an attractive destination for foreign investment, and the United States and its allies gave the country special attention in 2014 as the underdog facing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. But like China, Vietnam remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations. Ethiopia is held up as a model for development in Africa, and is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign assistance. But in 2014 its security forces opened fire on protesters, carried out large-scale arrests of bloggers and other journalists as well as members of the political opposition, and evicted communities from their land to make way for opaque development projects.
Finally, while several countries in the Middle East—most notably oil-rich Saudi Arabia—receive special treatment from the United States and others, the United Arab Emirates stands out for how little international attention is paid to its systematic denial of rights for foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the population; its enforcement of one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world; and its dynastic political system, which leaves no space for opposition.