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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

The Trudeau government tends to see the world through the prism of its own "sunny ways." Alas, many parts of the world are not terribly sunny these days. Freedom and democracy, values that we associate with peace and security, are in retreat.

Yes, there have been encouraging examples of democratic elections challenging or turfing authoritarian and/or inept leaders, as in Nigeria, Venezuela, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Argentina, in a completely fair election, changed governments, turning away from the Peronistas who had led the country for too long. Even Bolivian President Evo Morales lost a referendum on a constitutional change that would have allowed him to seek yet another term.

So there have been advances for democracy and freedom, but these have been outnumbered by backsliding elsewhere, perhaps illustrating the Western hubris that the world needs and wants more democracy, everywhere and at all times.

Freedom House, the U.S. think tank that tracks the international state of democracy and freedom, recently reported that 2016 marked the 10th consecutive year for a decline in global freedom by its way of measuring.

In some countries, elected governments have been restricting the liberties of citizens and muzzling the press. Examples include Russia and Turkey, where increasingly authoritarian, democratically elected rulers are incarcerating political enemies and using a compliant press for their own purposes.

Other countries with democratically elected governments are marred by massive corruption; Brazil is arguably the most obvious example. Still others are democratic in a manner of speaking, but corruption plus violence combine to restrict civil liberties, as in some Central American countries and Bangladesh. The military still rules Thailand. Laos and Vietnam are one-party states. Cambodia is governed by an elected strongman who has been in office for 18 years.

The Islamic world (Indonesia being a notable exception) is a disaster zone for freedom and democracy, ranging from Afghanistan, a country with an elected government but still convulsed by violence, to authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Algeria, to quasi-democracies such as Iran, to Kuwait, where dissent is being repressed, and to failed states such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan. Tunisia has a democratically elected government, but it is a frail one. Ditto for Lebanon.

The Persian Gulf kingdoms are anti-democratic. Saudi Arabia, much in the news in Canada owing to the purchase of armoured vehicles made in London, Ont., ranks 10th from the bottom in the Freedom House list of countries for political rights and civil liberties.

Freedom House, with offices in Washington and New York, also criticizes the United States for its increasingly flawed democracy: "While the American system remains dynamic and open to the participation of minorities and immigrants, its elections and legislative process have suffered from an increasingly intricate system of gerrymandering and undue interference by wealthy individuals and special interests." How sadly true.

China has become increasing repressive at home, which is really saying something, and is increasingly aggressive abroad in pressing expansive maritime boundary claims while building installations on disputed islands in defiance of the claims of other countries. China has already said it will not heed any international legal ruling about its absurdly large claims in the South China Sea.

Internally, the government of Xi Jinping, himself now the subject of cult-like media coverage, has enhanced censorship, heightened propaganda, thrown more than 200 people involved in legal activism into jail and just last week announced sweeping, repressive new measures designed to muffle Western and Chinese non-governmental organizations.

And then there is the long list of dictatorships and thugocracies that rim Russia, from Belarus to the "stans" of Central Asia, the one-man governments throughout Africa and in North Korea. Cuba received U.S. President Barack Obama in what cemented a diplomatic opening, but promptly announced it would maintain all its restrictions on the press and political liberties.

Even in Europe, roiled by slow growth and the migrant/refugee crisis, countries in the east of the continent have elected nationalist, anti-immigrant governments that do not want arrivals and treat the few they have rather badly. They, too, are putting pressure on media outlets that do not suit their taste.

It was thought not long ago that the end of history meant the triumph of democracy. Reality suggests a correction.

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