An Explosion of Freedom


The State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1991," due out in a few weeks, documents the continuing world revolution that in the last two years has transformed Eastern Europe and most of the former Soviet Union, and has dramatically improved personal freedom and security in a dozen African countries.

The outlines of this revolution are well-known and were reported by Freedom House in its "Freedom Around the World, 1992." But the State Department's coming report, prepared under the careful scrutiny of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Schifter, provides greater detail on the dramatic transition from totalitarianism to democracy in the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc. It makes stunning reading, especially when compared with equally detailed reports on earlier years.

Bulgaria is as good an example as any of a country that has been wholly changed by this peaceful revolution.

A human-rights report issued in February of 1989 described Bulgaria as a "centralized Marxist-Leninist state in which the Communist Party . . . holds a monopoly of power," and in which an "omnipresent network" of state security police and border guards and a system of "harsh repression" maintains "strict internal control" over political, economic, social and cultural activities.

Compare that assessment to the one in the new report, which says, "Two years after the overthrow in November, 1989, of Communist dictator Todor HD, Bulgaria is a constitutional republic, ruled by democratically elected government. . . . Reforms of the security apparatus continued."

The 1989 analysis told us that human rights were not respected in Bulgaria. There were "reports of hunger, beating and degrading treatment of political prisoners . . . of political prisoners denied medical treatment, refused fresh water, kept in extremes of darkness and light . . . exposed to the elements." Internal exile was widely practiced. Denials of public trials, counsel and clear sentences were common.

Censorship and prohibition of "remarks which might increase distrust of state power or cause confusion" were standard practices, as were heavy sentences for offenses like "ideological sabotage." Rights of assembly, freedom of movement and religious practice were routinely denied. So were the rights to organize trade unions or strike.

But in 1992 Bulgaria, the new report tells us: "There were no reports of . . . political or extrajudicial killing . . . no reported disappearances . . . no torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment . . . no arbitrary detentions.

"Freedom of speech and a free and independent press flourished in 1991. . . . Religious freedom continued to expand. . . . Freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave were not limited. . . . The requirement for exit visas was abolished in January. Thousands of Bulgarians left throughout the year in search of economic opportunities in the West." Today, workers may form or join trade unions of their choice and strike.

Perhaps most important, the report tells us, in 1991 Bulgarian citizens have the right to change their government through election. As usual, with democracy and governments based on consent comes freedom, rule of law and protection of civil, political and human rights.

This is a true revolution, rapid and liberating, the same revolution that has swept Eastern Europe toppling dictators, loosening controls, demanding freedom, rule of law, respect for human rights -- now. The new report notes that:

"The Czech and Slovak Federal Republic is ruled by a democratically elected government formed after parliamentary elections in June, 1990."

"Romanians live under a government that generally respects the fundamental liberties of the individual."

"Albania experienced a profound political change in 1991, moving from a one-party Marxist-Leninist state to a parliamentary form of government with constitutional protection of human rights."

Ditto Poland and Hungary.

Regarding the former Soviet Union, the report reflects the sharp break between the period of incomplete reform associated with perestroika and the rupture with the Communist state that came after defeat of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19. Progress was apparent and carefully noted before the coup attempt, but the democratic revolution occurred after the coup had been put down. The end of the era can be marked, Mr. Schifter suggests, by the toppling of the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet secret police, in front of the KGB headquarters on August 22, 1991.

Accounts of continued widespread repression and systematic denial of human rights in China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Burma, North Korea, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Equatorial Guinea and Haiti, and of partial denial of rights elsewhere, make it clear that the freedom revolution is not yet finished. But it has reached far beyond Europe, to places like South Africa, Zambia, Benin, Niger and Angola. And it is still spreading.

Indeed, there has never been an explosion of freedom quite like that seen in 1991. The challenge now to the people of the new democracies is to keep the rights they have won. The challenge to the rest of us is to help them do so.

Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.

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