Is Russia as unfree as the Congo?
League tables and charts ranking countries according to things like “freedom” or “power” seem increasingly ubiquitous. Washington-based Freedom House has released its annual “Freedom in the World” survey, which grades countries on a 1-7 scale (1 being “most free”) in two areas—political rights and civil liberties. Meanwhile, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace have put out their “Failed States Index 2007,” which ranks 177 countries in order of “vulnerability to internal conflict and societal deterioration.” (Sudan tops the list, followed by Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe.) Over at the University of Michigan, researchers on the “Correlates of War” project have adopted a historical approach, charting the major countries’ share of power throughout the 20th century using pie charts.
Are such projects useful, or merely interesting gimmicks? Despite their apparent rigour (they are invariably accompanied by extensive descriptions of methodology), there is a basic problem with attempting to divorce an abstract quality like freedom from the specific context in which it operates. How does life in Serbia compare with Saudi Arabia? A rating on a 1-7 scale doesn’t begin to capture it. This perhaps helps to explain why some of the results in Freedom House’s survey, in particular, seem so odd. China scores a 7 and a 6 for political rights and civil liberties—putting it on a level with Zimbabwe—while Russia is judged as unfree as the Congo. Can this really be true? There is a danger, perhaps, that such projects can become a way for irrefutably “liberal” countries like America to implicitly rebuke their largest rivals.
Watch out for a move early in the Brown era to make evidence from telephone tapping usable in court. A review is likely to be set up, led by three or four senior legal figures. Intercept-based information about terror suspects, without the ability to convict them, has led to legal anomalies such as control orders. But in recent years, a wide consensus has emerged—embracing even civil liberties groups like Liberty—which favours using intercept evidence in court. The security services have been against the idea, partly out of fear of revealing their working methods, but also on resources grounds: preparing a court-ready transcript of an intercept that has been running for several years is very costly. One of the ideas that the review will consider is pre-trial agreements for the use of edited transcripts.