South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

ISLAMABAD: Political rights and civil liberties declined in Pakistan, India and Britain along with sixty-five other countries of the world in 2018, according to the annual report of the Freedom House, a US-based watchdog.

Political rights and civil liberties dipped in a total of sixty-eight countries including Pakistan and India while only fifty countries made gains. But there was no improvement in these spheres in countries like the United States.

Freedom House is a US government-funded NGO that describes itself as a “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world” although critics have stated that the organisation is biased towards US interests. It was 66% funded by grants from the US government in 2006, a number which increased to 86% in 2016. The reliance on US funding has been acknowledged as “a problem” within Freedom House, but accepted as a “necessary evil”, according to Wikipedia.

Other countries where political rights and civil liberties declined included Singapore, Philippines, Israel, Austria, Bangladesh, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Brazil, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, Myanmar etc.

The findings categorised “free”, “partly free” and “not free” countries and Pakistan was placed among the partly free states along with Bangladesh and others.

The report “democracy in retreat” said that in 2018, freedom in the world recorded the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous. Democracy is in retreat, it said.

The report said democracies face threats at home and abroad. A crisis of confidence in open societies is sapping faith in democracy as a system. Domestic attacks on key institutions – the judiciary, the media, and electoral mechanisms – are undermining the foundations of democracy.

It said that at the same time, a global assault on the norms of democracy, led by an increasingly assertive China, challenges their spread around the world. Only by strengthening democracy at home, and standing together in its defence around the world, can democracies protect their values and preserve their ability to expand freedom globally, it proposed.

The report also made certain recommendations intended to provide a framework for democratic countries as they pursue these twin goals. These included: strengthening and protecting core values in established democracies; investment in civic education; strengthening of laws that guard against foreign influence over government officials; investment in election infrastructure to guard against foreign interference in balloting; and requiring social media companies to report foreign efforts to spread online disinformation and propaganda.

The findings called for defending and expanding democracy around the world; investment in alliances with other democracies, and in multilateral institutions; encouragement and protection of journalists and freedom of the press; preparations to promptly challenge pre-election rights abuses; confronting abuses of international institutions; imposing targeted sanctions on individuals and entities involved in human rights abuses and acts of corruption; emphasizing democracy-strengthening programmes in foreign assistance; and focusing on countries at critical junctures.

According to the report, the internet and other digital technologies have become ubiquitous as a means of accessing information, communicating, and participating in public debates. Consequently, technology and social media companies play an increasingly important role in sustaining – or weakening – democracy. They have a special responsibility to be mindful of the impact their business activities may have on democracy and human rights.

The report said private companies should adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This includes avoiding commercial relationships with authoritarian governments that force them to violate fundamental rights. Instead, companies should commit to respecting the human rights of their customers and workers. As part of this effort, they should conduct periodic assessments to help them fully understand the effects of their products and activities. Upon completion of these assessments, companies should develop actionable plans to remedy any evident or potential harm. Given its unique position in authoritarian settings, the technology sector in particular should refuse business arrangements that require either active complicity in or passive acceptance of political censorship and information controls.

These companies, the report said, should use internal expertise to help counter Chinese state censorship and protect the public. The technology sector should assist users in China by developing accessible tools that keep pace with innovations by the Chinese government and complicit Chinese firms. For example, leading international companies could develop mobile phone applications that enhance digital security, enable the sharing of images in a way that evades artificial intelligence–driven censorship, and incorporate circumvention capabilities into apps focused on other services.

The report said that while Pakistan’s elections were more competitive, . . . influence over the media and the . . . was widely thought to have tilted the contest in favour of Imran Khan, who took office as prime minister.


Updated On: February 6, 2019