Freedom under threat as despots tighten their grip

Putin 2

Vladimir Putin: Russia’s annexation of Crimea a threat to freedom


When Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he is reported to have said he thought it would be a good idea. Almost seventy years on from his death at the hands of an assassin we are nowhere close to achieving that ideal.

We live in a world where the rich are accumulating more and more wealth, and where the poor are getting poorer. This can be seen not just in the divergence between old world and developing countries, but in our own country too.

The Thatcher theory of economics was that everyone would benefit by rewarding the better off. But more than 30 years on, trickle-down economics has failed. The only real growth has been in food banks, welfare payments for the working poor, and in the number of jobs paying less than the living wage.

You might also remember talk of a “new world order”, the doctrine of the ineffectual George Bush who believed the end of the cold war would transform the world for the better. Yet his failure in the first Iraq war sowed the seeds for further destabilisation in the Middle East, the growth of Islamic extremism and the pernicious and illegal second Iraq war.

Closer to home, Nato’s overtures to former Soviet satellite states created a climate of uncertainty in Russia that propelled Vladimir Putin to power, and has kept him there. Repression is his trade.

Britain’s legacy in the Middle East has been continuing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians; and in the Indian sub-continent Britain has left India and Pakistan at one-another’s throats.

Nuclear proliferation is no longer just about America and Russia; it colours the relationship between Israel and Iran; India and Pakistan; and North Korea and countries within reach of its warheads.

But at least we have our freedom.

Or do we? In the 18th century the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Times have changed surely.

But the latest report from Freedom House, a not for profit organisation monitoring freedom around the globe, suggests that we are singularly failing to promote and protect this most basic of human rights.

In its 2015 report, the organisation could not be clearer: “In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighbouring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world.”

The report warns that acceptance of democracy as the world’s main system of government “is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years”. The United Kingdom and Ireland are identified as “free”, but the reality is that our freedom is in peril here too.

Confirmed in her post, Home Secretary Theresa May no longer has to worry about the Liberal Democrats blocking legislation that will increase levels of surveillance and limit civil liberties. The courts are now happy to convict people for ‘thought crimes’, the years ahead will see more and more convictions of this nature if May has her way.

In Northern Ireland, legislators remain determined to restrict the freedoms of people on the basis of their sexual orientation. An unholy alliance between the Catholic Church and the DUP over the so-called ‘conscience clause’ threatens to stem the tide of social change.

One of the most worrying things highlighted in the Freedom House report is the creeping totalitarianism in “large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries”. Among them are Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, Azerbaijan and Hungary.

It should not be forgotten that Hungary is a member of the European Union, yet its rating for political freedom was reduced because of the way the government there is interfering in the electoral process. Again echoes of Northern Ireland.

People in Northern Ireland will not be surprised to read that repressive regimes use the ‘terrorist threat’ to clamp down on civil and religious liberties. Britain has form here – and not just in the Irish context. Other countries look and learn. As sure as night follows day, any move to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights will be a green light for authoritarian regimes around the world to ignore their responsibilities to their citizens.

Freedom is hard won and easily lost. We should not take it for granted.

You can read the full report at www.freedomhouse.org. This article appeared in The Irish News on May 22 2015