The Future of Freedom


By Wendy Melillo

Published Oct 1, 2008 8:01 AM

Illustration by Jeremy Deveraturda

All over the world, people are reexamining what the word 'freedom' means to them — and whether democracy is the best way to deliver it. Meanwhile, individual rights are under siege across the globe.

The Future of Freedom: Viewpoints From Across the Planet
Participants in alphabetical order

International authority on Islamic law and Islam
Professor, UCLA Law School
Past Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Children’s advocate
President and CEO, Para Los Niños Regent, Loyola Marymount University Former president and general manager, Hoy

Actor, activist
President, Death Penalty Focus
Co-star, M*A*S*H

AIDS activist, dance critic
Associate professor, UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures

Public affairs scholar, political analyst
Dean, UCLA School of Public Affairs
Founding director, UCLA Center for Communications and Community

Pollster, political analyst
Commentator, Fox News Channel
Author, Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear

Advocate, educator
Founder and executive director, Tostan
Winner, 2007 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize

Political affairs expert
President, Foreign Services International
Former Ambassador, Mauritania
Former Chief of Mission, Baghdad
Former Deputy Director, White House Task Force on Terrorism

Human rights advocate
Co-founder and medical director, Program for Torture Victims
Former personal physician to ex-president of Chile Salvador Allende

Dissident, politician
Chairman, Adelson Institute at the Shalem Center
Author, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror

Author, journalist
Correspondent, Yahoo! News
Former correspondent, CNN and NBC
Author, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars

Film director, writer
Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, The Ring and Mouse Hunt, among others

Sociocultural anthropologist
Co-director, UCLA Center for Chinese Studies
Professor of anthropology, UCLA
Author, Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999

As America approached its first Independence Day following the September 11 attacks, the Ad Council was poised to launch a new campaign called the "Campaign for Freedom" to focus national attention on the civil liberties U.S. citizens enjoy. One spot, "Library," featured a young man being taken away for questioning by security officers after requesting two books that Americans were not allowed to read. The tagline read: "Freedom. Appreciate It. Cherish It. Protect It."

The irony was that when the PSA hit the air in July 2002, many Americans did not realize that the passage of the Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in October of 2001, had already given the FBI the power to force libraries and bookstores to provide the government with check-out and purchase lists. The Act also placed librarians and booksellers under a permanent gag order forbidding them from telling citizens when their records were being scrutinized.

Since 9/11, our nation has done much serious soul-searching on the issue of freedom and its proper relationship to security. But the global state of freedom, at least as we define it, is equally unsettled. All over the world, democracy — the sine qua non of a free society for Westerners — is being questioned, debated or threatened.

If you ask activists, they're just as likely to argue that the discussion should start with ensuring that people have enough to eat and access to medicine than a romantic and vague notion of "freedom." Artists might think in terms of the ability to follow ideas wherever they lead without boundaries.

Political thinkers and scholars might ponder the impact of the policies of governments — ours as well as those of emerging powers. In China, notes Yunxiang Yan, co-director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, "increasingly they see the possibility of a new kind of market economy which is not necessarily bound with democracy, especially the American type of democracy. And it's working."

And in our own country, experts question the assumptions by which we have defined and linked the concepts of freedom and democracy. UC Berkeley Professor and former Clinton Administration cabinet member Robert Reich thinks that America's hyper-capitalism is destroying democracy at home and around the world. CNN host and Newsweek contributor Fareed Zakaria has argued that democracy doesn't always work, and can even be inimical to freedom. And Frank Gilliam, dean of UCLA's School of Public Affairs, notes that "there are some monarchies that, I suspect, would think they are free societies."

We even have different definitions for the words themselves. Dr. Jose Quiroga, medical director of Los Angeles-based Program for Torture Victims, the first torture treatment center in the United States, notes that "the terms 'freedom' and 'liberty' as two separate words exist only in English. The Latin, Slavic and German languages contain only one term — liberty."


Beyond the debate over how and whether to provide U.S.-style democracy, one point is not in dispute: Those who do seek freedom, by any name, are in danger.

How well freedom is faring in some parts of the world is evidenced by such stories as The Washington Post's July 5 account of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who refused to accept his recent election loss and relied on his military forces to keep him in office. The military plan's code name? CIBD, which stood for Coercion. Intimidation. Beating. Displacement.

Barely more than a year ago, as many as 100,000 protesters led by Buddhist monks and nuns created the largest anti-government protest since the failed 1988 democratic uprising in Myanmar, formerly Burma. The military junta responded with a crackdown that included raids of Buddhist monasteries, beatings and soldiers firing automatic weapons into crowds of protesters.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in July for Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. China has continued its forced resettlement efforts of nomadic herders in Tibet. When Fidel Castro stepped down earlier this year, his brother Raul was the only nominee to replace him in a vote seen as a formality. Women still can't drive a car in King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia, the only Arab Muslim country that bans all non-Islamic religious practices on its territory. And Egypt's charges last year against Ibrahim Eissa, the independent journalist and editor of al-Dustour newspaper, for reporting on President Hosni Mubarak's failing health, is one of the latest examples of how Mubarak has yet to fulfill his 2004 pledge to stop issuing prison sentences to journalists based on what they publish.


The advocacy group Freedom House notes that 2007 was a year of "notable" setbacks for global freedom, with declines being most prevalent in South Asia, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. It was the first instance of two consecutive years of decline in global freedom in the past 15 years. Currently 90 countries (47 percent) out of the 193 in the world are considered free as defined by a respect for basic human rights and political freedoms, according to the group's global "Freedom in the World 2008" survey.

Despite gains in expanding liberty around the globe over the last 30 years where countries have tossed out dictatorships, embraced democratic principles and developed a respect for civil liberties, new efforts to stop the spread of democracy threaten to undo some of the significant gains made, according to Freedom House's 2008 report "Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies."

"The strategy of those involved in this campaign to roll back democracy has many facets: dismantling independent media, marginalizing the political opposition and preventing independent think tanks and NGOs from obtaining necessary resources," the report says. "In addition, many of the world's worst violators of human rights and democratic standards have joined in loose coalitions at the United Nations to deflect attention from their records of repression."

Also in The Future of Freedom:
Left Behind: The Democratic Poor
The poorest citizens of the world fare about the same in a democracy as in other governments, a UCLA researcher finds, and argues that countries must address starvation before free speech.

Moreover, what happens to freedom when rich, authoritarian nations that eschew democratic principles like Saudi Arabia and China can make significant infrastructure investments in Third World countries? To what extent do the controversies over the war in Iraq and other U.S. foreign policy positions impact the reputation of democracy as a guarantor of freedom?

We asked thinkers in many different fields and with many different opinions, on campus and off, what freedom means to them and where they think it is headed around the world. Some of their answers are hopeful. Some are fearful. All may surprise you.