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Freedom in Yemen: Hazy Judgements
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Freedom in Yemen: Hazy Judgements
By Rafael Broch
03/13/2007

Freedom House is a giant NGO that tries to advance the global spread of freedom. To that end, sponsored by the US-government, they produce reports assessing the state of freedom in 192 countries.

One such report recently categorised Yemen as 'partly free', and gave it a score of 5 out of 7 – 1 being the most free, 7 the least. (Yemen's neighbouring states Oman and Saudi Arabia were judged rather categorically to be 'not free'.)

Now considering some of the responses to this report, Freedom House judgements obviously command serious authority. Aidroos Nasser is a member of Yemen's Socialist Party, and his response was very gentlemanly. "We really need to raise the level of freedom," he said. "It is true that people can form parties, but we see that journalists have been followed and subjected to violations."

Some politicians from Yemen's General People's Congress concurred, others protested. The GPC's spokesperson defended Yemenite freedom. "It is now possible for everybody to form parties and NGOs are able to form syndicates." Either way, the report struck a nerve.

What is most curious is nothing to do with its actual findings, or the subsequent debate in Sanaa. It is that these officials responded to the findings at all. Are they correct to feel threatened by the work of distant Washington analysts with their 'broad range of sources of information'?

A debate on the side

There is a longstanding debate between political theorists over the question of how a country's freedom ought to be measured. The more alive that debate, the less consensus there is on the meaning of freedom, the more questionable Freedom House's scorings are.

The problem busying the academics is this:
• Is a free country one where I can do almost anything I like without interference?
• Or one where all the important activities are unobstructed?

Charles Taylor, a famous Canadian professor, liked to say that it couldn't be the first kind because then Albania under Hoxha - a regime during which there were no pesky traffic lights interrupting your journey (but plenty of communist tyranny) - might be considered freer than Britain today, where countless traffic lights interrupt one's transit. But then if it is only the important actions being available that count towards freedom, we have a new problem: who gets to decide what those are?

The approach Freedom House take is to defer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The political rights and civil liberties enshrined therein can be used as the objective benchmarks of a free society. With those in place, measuring a country's freedom is just a matter of ticking boxes and calculating proportions.

But that doesn't work. The importance of the rights spelled out in the declaration's 30 articles varies widely, so it cannot be as simple as giving countries a round mark out of 30. The right to peaceful assembly (article 20) may be more valuable than periodic holidays with pay (article 24), but who will agree exactly how much more valuable? So identifying the mixture of freedoms respected in different countries brings us no closer to a world freedom ranking. Rigid analyses of countries' freedoms seem elusive.

Calculating or speculating?

We may all know that Albania under Hoxha was a less free society than modern Britain. But Freedom House purport to make sturdy proclamations based on a 'multilayered process of analysis and evaluation'. They would like to think that their assessments are accurate. That Yemen is actually 7.1% more free than Oman, and that their three-colour categorisations of every country as 'free', 'partly free' or 'not free', reflect delineated realties.

To the western mind, there is nothing inherently objectionable about what Freedom House advocates (human rights) or aspires to (democratisation). They do good work. What is more questionable is the crudeness of the methodology behind their judgements. What with mass displacement and violence in the north of the country, and death threats to the Jewish community in Sa'ada, Yemenites may rightly feel disgruntled over the level of freedom in their country. But they should not be concerned about a speculative ranking assembled from dubious measurements.

raf@london.com

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