Freedom House: Civil Liberties Decline Globally for 18th Year

washington — Civil liberties declined globally for the 18th consecutive year in 2023, with conflict and flawed elections the biggest factors, a new report has found.  

Political rights and civil liberties deteriorated for more than one-fifth of the population, the non-profit group Freedom House found. And only one-fifth of the 210 countries and territories the research group analyzed was found to be “free.” 

Released on Thursday, the Freedom in the World report assesses political rights and civil liberties, then ranks countries or territories as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”  

Researchers looked at issues including how effectively governments work, political pluralism, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and whether marginalized groups are given full rights.  

Much of the decline in 2023 is attributed to cases of election manipulation, according to report co-author Cathryn Grothe. The report found electoral issues in almost half of the countries designated as being in decline.  

“While the findings of the report are certainly grim, they are coming at an especially important moment in time,” said Grothe, noting 2024 will be a critical year with national elections scheduled in about 40 countries.  

Report finds manipulation, intimidation

Grothe told VOA her group’s research found widespread election manipulation and intimidation before, during and after elections.  

She noted that “billions of people around the world are going to be heading to the polls.”  

The report highlighted Cambodia, Guatemala, Poland, Turkey and Zimbabwe as places that experienced attempts to control, hinder or interfere with elections. 

And in Ecuador, Nigeria, and Taiwan, elections were disrupted by either violence or interference by foreign regimes.  

In Guatemala, however, attempts to block a peaceful transfer of power failed. Bernardo Arevalo assumed office in early 2024 after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Congress must accept his inauguration, despite its previous refusal to acknowledge elected members.  

Group watches US races

The United States — which Freedom House ranks as free — is among the countries holding significant elections.  

Grothe said that Freedom House is paying attention to issues in the U.S., including congressional dysfunction such as delayed appropriations bills and internal disputes over the speakership of the House of Representatives.  

Freedom House is also watching closely for intimidation and threats of violence as tools of political influence in the U.S, especially during the last few months before the election.  

Reports of threats against elected officials and local election administrators have “proliferated “in recent years, Grothe said. 

“When a democracy such as the U.S., those with kind of large influence on the world stage grow weaker internally, it makes it a lot more difficult to counter this kind of global authoritarianism,” said Grothe. “It makes it very imperative that we at home in the United States need to address our own domestic shortcomings.” 

The Freedom House report includes several recommendations, including calls for governments and other actors in civil society to “immediately” and “publicly” condemn manipulation efforts, coups and refusals to honor electoral outcomes.

“Democracies need to commit to free and fair elections, both at home and need to stand up for the same abroad,” said Grothe. 

The biggest decline in freedom was registered in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory which sparked conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

The region saw an overall 40-point reduction. The decline follows a mass displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians amid fighting in September 2023. 

The second-largest point reduction came in Niger, where military forces ousted the government in July 2023.  

Conflict resulted in major declines in other areas too. Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to affect basic rights for those in occupied parts of Ukraine and brings a rise in repression inside Russia. The report also notes the effect on civilians of the Israel-Hamas conflict and Myanmar military rule. 

Other countries saw improvements. Fiji gained seven points due to a “smooth” transfer of power after elections in 2022. And Nepal is recognized in the report for amendments to its Citizenship Act, which allowed 400,000 stateless people born in the country to receive citizenship.  

While the past year faced obstacles, Grothe said there are “beacons of hope” in the countries pushing back against those declines.  

“It’s important to remember that people in every sort of political environment, from the most-free countries to the most repressive, are continuing to fight to uphold their rights, their dignity and this offers some kind of level of hope even in these very kind of discouraging times.” 

She added that the report should serve as a reminder of the stakes for democracy and as a call to reverse the decline of global freedoms.  

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