Freedom House

June 29, 2018

Freedom House and Problematic Assessments of Freedom

It is undeniable that the Western world is suffering from shrill political discourse that is more a contest of power and rhetoric than actual engagement of ideas and practical problems. This is due to the loss of a common understanding of national ideals since the social revolution of the 1960s.

As was pointed out by Aaron Rhodes, advocate for classical freedoms, in a summary article by this writer, progressive ideals of economic and social well-being are increasingly incorporated into the concept of “human rights,” based on what people want, not the classic freedoms of life, liberty, and property.

This appears to be the problem with the 2018 assessment of the United States by Freedom House in its 2018 report on the state of freedom in the world. Freedom House states that in the 2016/2017 period, its standards of evaluation underwent revision by a wide panel of experts. As a result, a closer assessment of the political and social reality in a given country was incorporated into its evaluation of how free the country is.

The report follows in its methodology the Universal Declaration of Human Rights view of human rights as including social and economic rights, rather than an exclusively classical liberal Bill of Rights viewpoint focusing on freedom of religion, speech, press, and other rights enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. Quality of life seems to be a component of freedom. Freedom House’s statement of methodology describes how it ensures against political bias in its assessments by vetting analysts and reviewing their work, but the value of this is limited if the criteria used in the assessment itself incorporate liberal/left ideas. While the methodology does claim that it is assessing “real-world rights and freedoms rather than government performance per se,” political performance and policy choices cannot help but be part of the assessment of freedom if a progressive vision of society is incorporated into the concept of “rights and freedoms.” For many non-Western countries which now or in the past have been beset by insurgency it may be true that mere legal guarantees of rights do not realistically guarantee freedom. But to incorporate what are essentially policy goals aiming at what is thought to be a better quality of life into an assessment of freedom is essentially to incorporate partisan politics into the ideal of freedom.

Freedom House considers a broad range of freedoms in assessing how free a country is. These include the classical freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly, as well as free and fair elections and an independent judiciary. However, as noted, it has a tendency to mistake liberal/left positions as being part of freedom, and includes the goals of identity politics in its ideal of a free society. In this regard, Freedom House states that “the review also led to the important step of including gender-related guidance questions under all relevant indicators.” The exception to this liberal/left orientation is the apparent recognition that hate speech laws and regulations can infringe free speech.

The adoption of the values of the cultural left is seen in Freedom House’s methodology in several places. The “Political Pluralism and Participation” category includes question B4, which asks if “various segments of the population (including … gender and LGBT groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?” This does not merely mean that people in these ill-defined categories should not be denied everyone else’s rights. A positive assessment requires “national political parties” to “address issues of specific concern” to these groups (although it is not required that all parties do so), and a positive response to the question “are the interests of women represented in political parties.” Clearly, these are specific political objectives thought desirable for a society, not assessments of universal freedoms.

Other incorporations of social liberalism into the standards is found under the category “Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights.” Question G3 will result in a negative evaluation if there are found to be “restrictions on same-sex relationships or extramarital sex.” This directly attacks the traditional and common sexual morality of mankind from antiquity, incorporating the sexual revolution into standards of freedom. “Choice of family size” almost certainly includes abortion and/or contraception. Prohibition of contraception should be at least a policy choice for a society, and in the case of abortion, prohibition is required by the natural right to life of unborn children. Indeed, abortion of all things best illustrates the supremacy of “quality of life” over universal rights. In general, category G3 embodies a contemporary, secular, Western understanding of freedom, and in particular it adds the mandates of the sexual revolution to the ideal of freedom.

Freedom House’s standards of evaluation do not include any explicit claim that the state should require conscience violation in the interests of social affirmation of sexual and personal autonomy, which is the truly contentious issue at the present time. Yet conscience violation is the way the new mandate of sexual rights is commonly understood by the courts. Unless the methodology specifically denies it, it can only be assumed that violation of the consciences of traditional religious believers is understood to be part of sexual rights.

Important assumptions of the cultural left, now incorporated into Freedom House’s standards, are reflected in individual assessments of countries for 2018. Western European countries, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are given rates at or near 100 (the highest score), while the United States fell to a rating of 86, with a narrative report of the Trump Administration that essentially presents the current administration as a threat to freedom.

Canada received a score of 99, in spite of the country’s hate speech law, and praising the country’s laws and policies effectively prohibiting discrimination against homosexual behavior, and adding transgenderism to this anti-discrimination regime. It does criticize the country for not adequately recognizing the “interests” of native Americans in the 2015 electoral campaign – but this confuses politics and political interests with freedom

Denmark is given the highest score (4/4 ) on freedom of expression, despite the country’s hate speech law and the prosecution of Lars Hedegaard on hate speech charges for factually discussing the condition of women in the Muslim world, with a Danish court noting that truth was no defense against the charge of offending a protected group.

The 2018 report for Finland gives the country a 100/100 score, and cites its assessment that women and LGBT groups have their “specific interests … reasonably well represented in politics,” which is not a right in classical liberalism. Rather, the political arena and free speech should be open to all groups and individuals, with group “interests” only a question of policy in a democratic political system.

The report for France criticizes hostility to immigrants and “Islamophobia.” But attitudes and posturing are not, in themselves, a denial of freedom. Also, strict separation of church and state is mentioned in a seemingly positive manner, with no mention of restrictions on religion (such as state ownership of churches or requirement of civil marriage before ecclesiastical). Important and grave denials of freedom of expression are not mentioned, such as the prohibition against pro-life websites or the legal prohibition of dialogue with women seeking abortions which advocates the right of unborn children to life, even though Freedom House’s standards specifically refer to the freedom of private conversation. Nevertheless, the evaluation for criterion D4 says that “private discussion remains generally open and vibrant.” There is also no mention of the hate speech charges for “Islamophobia” brought several times, beginning in 1997, against actress Brigitte Bardot.

For Germany, there is a somewhat more negative analysis, with hate speech law pertaining to the Internet mentioned under question D4 (free expression of personal opinion) as being “hastily drafted,” noting it requires removal of material identified as hate speech from the Internet within 24 hours, while “content” (apparently hateful ideas) must be removed within 7 days. The score for freedom of expression declined, as it should, from 4 to 3.

The report covering 2016 for the Netherlands gives the country a 16/16 score on freedom of expression, despite convicting anti-immigrant leader Geert Wilders in December of that year of “insulting and inciting racial discrimination against people of Moroccan origin in a 2014 speech.”. The report characterized Wilders as a “xenophobic right-wing” leader.

The 2018 report for Norway gives the country a 100/100 score, and commends the country for “robust anti-discrimination laws and various protections for same-sex couples.” These laws, of course, effectively deny liberty of conscience against homosexual behavior.

For Russia, the report approvingly noted the European Court of Human Rights ruling (not effective in Russia) that a 2013 law banning pro-homosexual propaganda was a violation of free speech (which it is) and discriminatory (the wrong category for speech, suggesting that opposition to homosexuality should be illegal discrimination).

It is against these denials of speech and conscience that we must view Freedom House’s lower evaluation of the United States under Donald Trump. This will be reviewed in a subsequent article.

One Response to Freedom House and Problematic Assessments of Freedom

  1. Dan W says:

    “a Danish court noting that truth was no defense against the charge of offending a protected group.” And yet Jesus told us “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32 NIV

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