The racist liars of Freedom House

Freedom House is best known for its annual surveys of democracy and political freedom. The surveys rank countries according to the degree of 'freedom', and they are quoted in western media as authoritative sources on this question. Freedom House is usually described as an independent research agency. In fact it is funded by the US Government, through the US Agency for International Development, and the US Information Agency, and it has long-standing links to the intelligence services. Conservative foundations also contribute to Freedom House. Its assessments of 'political freedom' are pure propaganda, intended to present western countries in the best light. The scores are manipulated in a crude and racist way: asylum seekers in Australia show just how unfree you can be, in a model democracy

The specific example is a group of asylum seekers/refugees taken prisoner on the troopship Manoora, to prevent them reaching Australian soil. My comments are left as they were written in 2001.The refugees were ultimately taken to the island state of Nauru. Predictably, the Australian government later tried to justify its policy by reference to the September 11 attacks. Defence minister Peter Reith said Australia's borders should be defended or they will become a "pipeline for terrorists". In this climate of racism and fear, an appeal court reversed an earlier decision to admit the refugees.

Freedom House mission statement and history
Freedom House funders

Freedom House consistently gives Australia the maximum score for political freedom and civil liberties. But what does Australia look like to an Afghan refugee? Very different, as the incident with the MV Tampa illustrated. The Norwegian ship picked up asylum seekers at sea, and intended to put them ashore on Australian territory at Christmas Island. This provoked an extreme reaction from the right-wing Australian government led by John Howard - an election is imminent and immigration is always a major issue in Australia. Soldiers stormed the ship, and in effect held the refugees under military guard, until they could be transferred to a troopship, to take them out of Australian territorial waters. The Howard government wanted to fly them to New Zealand and Nauru, after landing in Papua New Guinea, but a court ordered their admission to the Australian mainland. The government then defied the court order, and ordered the troopship to sail directly to Nauru.

The military operation cost far more than simply admitting the group, to process their asylum claim - but xenophobia is not driven by economic logic. And there is no doubt that the majority of the white Australian population has xenophobic attitudes to Asian immigration. Asians outnumber Australians about 100 to 1, and being 'overrun' by Asians is the traditional nightmare of the Australian right. What concerns me here, is that Freedom House assesses Australian democracy from this perspective - the perspective of white citizen Australians. They are indeed free to be xenophobic, but the victims of this xenophobic polity do not enjoy equal freedom. Freedom House has deliberately concealed that discrepancy, and is clearly racist in doing so.

The 'MV Tampa' incident was highly publicised, but for several years the Australian government has operated a hard-line detention policy for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. (Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants, since they have a legal claim to have their application processed. However, many western countries in practice treat them as illegal immigrants). The group on the MV Tampa did not simply disappear anonymously into a detention camp, partly because they were on a Norwegian ship, and partly because John Howard himself wanted a dramatic episode for electoral purposes. Nevertheless, despite the presence of the Norwegian ambassador, protests from his government, and the presence of the international media on Christmas Island, the group was successfully isolated by the Australian military. They were physically prevented from landing. Under the circumstances, they had no option but to agree to transfer to the troopship. They ended under a more effective detention, than at any camp in the outback.

The treatment of the group from the MV Tampa is a litmus test, for the norms of Freedom House. What I will do here, is to take the methodology of Freedom House, and apply it to this group. On this basis, the reality of the Freedom House image of Australian society can be assessed. A similar test could be applied to most, if not all of the western democracies. Many hold at least some 'illegals' in administrative detention, without criminal charges or trial. I expect that this litmus test will show, as in the case of Australia, that when Freedom House speaks of freedom, it means 'white freedom'. I expect it will show that, for many refugees and asylum seekers, the true 'freedom' score of the western democracies is no higher than that of the countries they left. Australia is not a free country, that is obvious from the list below, because the freedoms of the white citizen majority simply do not exist for others. This discrepancy can not be explained, by any reasonable policy of border controls. US citizens arriving at Sydney airport are not held on troopships either. No doubt the food in Australian detention camps is better, than the food in Afghan jails, but that is not the criterion which Freedom House claims to use. They assess countries on political and civil criteria - and imprisonment is imprisonment, regardless of the food.

The methodology of the Freedom House survey

The annual country ratings are compiled by Freedom House on the basis of a Survey Methodology. This is a simple assessment based on two checklists - one for political rights, and one for civil liberties. The rating system "...rates political rights and civil liberties separately on a scale of 1 to 7." For each item on the checklists, 0 to 4 points can be awarded. The political rights list has 8 questions, the civil liberties list has 14. (Points are subtracted for ethnic cleansing, and traditional monarchies gain points for allowing consultation with the ruler). The raw scores are then converted into the 7-point freedom scale, the core of the annual survey. Score 1 means 'free", and that is Australia's score in the last annual survey. Other countries with a score down to 2.5 are also considered free, under 5.5 is "not free" - and the others are "partly free". The ratings are combined in one table, the Comparative Measures of Freedom.

Political Rights Check List for the troopship Manoora

So how does Australia score, as seen from the perspective of an asylum seeker detained on an Australian troopship? The questions are quoted unaltered from the the Freedom House list, followed by my estimate of the score...

1. Is the head of state and/or head of government or other chief authority elected through free and fair elections?

No. The asylum seekers have no head of state, and no head of government. There is an Australian polity, an Australian nation state, but they have no part in it. They certainly can not elect its government, since they have no voting rights whatsoever. Score zero.

2. Are the legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?

No. Again, the asylum seekers can not vote for any Australian government organ, at any level, local or national. They have no legislative representatives, and can exercise no influence on the laws to which they are subjected. They can not even visit the Australian Parliament building, and apparently the members of the Canberra parliament are forbidden to visit them. Score zero.

3. Are there fair electoral laws, equal campaigning opportunities, fair polling, and honest tabulation of ballots?

No. For the asylum seekers there are no elections, honest or not. The elections are for Australians. Score zero.

4. Are the voters able to endow their freely elected representatives with real power?

No. There are no elected representatives of the asylum seekers. If they did meet on the troopship, and elected a person to speak for them, this representative could not even leave the troopship - let alone sit in Parliament in Canberra. Score zero.

5. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system open to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?

The asylum seekers can no doubt group themselves into an informal association. However, they can not register as a political party in Australia, and can not participate in any real sense in the political system. It is not open to any acquisition of power by them: they sent a protest letter via the Norwegian ambassador, that's all. Score 1.

6. Is there a significant opposition vote, de facto opposition power, and a realistic possibility for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?

No. In the sense that the asylum seekers constitute 'the opposition', they have no significant support, and no chance at all of gaining power in Australia. The most that can be said is that some Australian citizens sympathise with them, and will use the political process in support of them. However, opinion polls show massive support for prime Minister Howard's stance. Even some Australian parliamentarians have received death threats, because of their support for the asylum seekers. Score 1.

7. Are the people free from domination by the military, foreign powers, totalitarian parties, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group?

No. The asylum seekers on board the troopship are 'ruled' by the military, just as much as if they lived under a military junta. They are dependent on the Australian military for all food, water, and medical care, and for all communication with the outside world. No white Australian citizen would accept these conditions as a normal form of society. Score zero.

8. Do cultural, ethnic, religious, and other minority groups have reasonable self-determination, self-government, autonomy, or participation through informal consensus in the decision-making process?

No. The group on board the MV Tampa clearly constitute a distinct minority, and in theory Australia could allow migrant minorities some form of political autonomy. However, it has not adopted any such policy, and for this group of asylum seekers it concedes no self-determination whatever. On the contrary, the most basic form of self-determination for any minority, presence on the national territory, has been refused. Australia has (on paper) a reasonable political accommodation with the country's indigenous minorities, but none of that applies to asylum seekers. Score zero.

The score is therefore 2 'raw points'. (If the maximum 4 points for ethnic cleansing were subtracted, it would be a negative score). Using the Freedom House conversion table, this gives a final placement in category 7. This score is classified by Freedom House as "not free". As seen by the asylum seekers, Australia's score for political rights is the same as for Congo-Kinshasa, Eritrea, or Saddam's Iraq.

Civil Liberties Check List for the troopship Manoora

What about civil liberties? Again I will go through the Freedom House list, and answer the questions from the point of view of the asylum seekers. I have revised the score here, to take account of the court decision on the refugees.

Section A. Freedom of Expression and Belief

1. Are there free and independent media and other forms of cultural expression? (Note: in cases where the media are state-controlled but offer pluralistic points of view, the Survey gives the system credit.)

No. The group on board the troopship have no media at all, even in the limited sense of media for communication with each other. There is no question of them, for instance, starting a radio station to criticise the government - as in the well-publicised case of the Serbian oppositional media. Of course there is a broad range of media in Australia, but even journalists from influential newspapers and TV stations were refused access to the asylum seekers. Logically, a free media can not exist for those held incommunicado. Score zero.

2. Are there free religious institutions and is there free private and public religious expression?

Yes, probably. The asylum seekers are probably permitted to hold religious services, on board the troopship. What a consolation. Score 4.

Section B. Association and Organizational Rights

1. Is there freedom of assembly, demonstration, and open public discussion?

Not in any real sense. The freedom to assemble on the deck of a ship, but not to leave it, can not constitute 'freedom of assembly' in a political sense. It is not comparable to, for instance, holding a demonstration in Canberra. It can not even be witnessed by outsiders, since the military control all access to the troopship. Nor can the 'discussion' extend any further than the crew of the ship. The status of the asylum seekers is comparable with that of convicted prisoners, who are allowed to assemble in the jail yard each day, and to talk to the guards. That is better than being held in isolation, but it is not 'freedom of assembly'. Freedom House would not recognise it as such, if this standard was applied to Australian citizens. Score 1.

2. Is there freedom of political or quasi-political organization? (Note: this includes political parties, civic organizations, ad hoc issue groups, etc.)

Only in a very limited sense. The group is probably permitted to delegate representatives, to speak with Australian authorities. Because of the language barrier, the Australian authorities probably have no control over this choice. However, any such delegation can not engage in political activity, because their access to the rest of society is blocked. Again its status is comparable with a representative committee of prisoners - a status which Freedom House would not accept as 'freedom' for citizens in general. Score 2.

3. Are there free trade unions and peasant organizations or equivalents, and is there effective collective bargaining? Are there free professional and other private organizations?

No. Any representative is not in a position to bargain, since the Australian government exercises complete control over the group. An informal organisation among the asylum seekers can therefore not exercise any function of a trade union, or comparable interest group. It could not, in any case, be registered as such under Australian law, since access to the registration procedure is denied. Score zero.

Section C. Rule of Law and Human Rights

1. Is there an independent judiciary?

There is an Australian judiciary, which demonstrated its independence of the Government, at least at the level of the lower courts. But note: the asylum seekers themselves were refused access to this judiciary. It is not their judiciary, it is indeed an Australian judiciary for Australians. The court case, demanding that their applications be processed in Australia, was brought by a civil rights group. It was not brought by the asylum seekers themselves, since they were held in detention without access to lawyers. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission also submitted a formal intervention. Now a judiciary exists primarily for those who have access to it, and can present their case before the courts. There are exceptions: children are not legal persons, and have no independent access to the courts. However, Freedom House would never accept such a dependent status, as standard practice for all citizens. And Australian citizens would not accept that their legal interests were represented only by foreign charities, or by government-appointed commissions. Australian citizens would also not regard it as 'freedom', if they were kept on a ship sailing around the Pacific, during any legal process. Score 3, revised up from 2 - and that is too generous.

2. Does the rule of law prevail in civil and criminal matters? Is the population treated equally under the law? Are police under direct civilian control?

The 'rule of law' was not applied to the group on the MV Tampa, since the Australian government refused to process their asylum claim. Indeed, it took extraordinary steps, to keep the group away from the normal administrative process. They were not allowed to land, for fear the courts would interpret this as the start of an assessment procedure. So they were transferred by boat from one ship to another, and then ferried to a third country for onward air transport, all without any logistic necessity. (The MV Tampa was moored within sight of an empty camp on Christmas Island, built specifically for asylum seekers). The Australian government clearly used this military operation to circumvent the (limited) legal procedures, which already exist for asylum seekers. In fact it repeated this strategy, even before the troopship Manoora had reached its destination. A second group of refugees was intercepted in international waters, and forcibly transferred to the troopship - again to prevent them reaching Australian soil. It then defied the order of an Australian court. While its lawyers entered an appeal, it ordered the troopship Manoora to sail on to Nauru - keeping both groups on the ship during the appeal. Obviously, there is no equality under the law in such circumstances. Australia's civilian-controlled police force did indeed board the MV Tampa, but as part of a largely military operation, and only at the start of that operation. The face of the Australian state for the asylum seekers was a unit of elite troops, and later the crew of the troopship Manoora. Score 3, revised up from 2.

3. Is there protection from political terror, unjustified imprisonment, exile, or torture, whether by groups that support or oppose the system? Is there freedom from war and insurgencies? (Note: freedom from war and insurgencies enhances the liberties in a free society, but the absence of wars and insurgencies does not in and of itself make a not free society free.)

The group was certainly not initially protected from unjustified imprisonment. A court did order that their detention be ended, but that has not has any effect. Their expulsion from Australian territory would constitute 'exile' if applied to citizens. However, it is also true, that there is no war in Australia, Nauru, or New Zealand. Score 3, revised upward from 2 - and again that is very generous, considering the Howard government's attitude to its own courts.

4. Is there freedom from extreme government indifference and corruption?

In the sense that John Howard's government has made them a prime political issue, the asylum seekers are not victims of 'indifference'. However, Howard is equally determined that, whatever these individuals have suffered, they are not coming to Australia. That is a form of primarily racist indifference in itself. A vague criterion from Freedom House: score 2.

Section D. Personal Autonomy and Economic Rights

1. Is there open and free private discussion?

Yes, the language barrier probably ensures that the refugees can speak among themselves. However, they can not engage in private discussion with Australian citizens, because the government restricts access to the ship. As a civil liberty, 'private discussion' only makes sense, when you can choose who you talk to. Score 2.

2. Is there personal autonomy? Does the state control travel, choice of residence, or choice of employment? Is there freedom from indoctrination and excessive dependency on the state?

No. The Australian state indeed controls all of these things - and probably also when the lights go out on board the troopship. The asylum seekers are in a condition of acute dependence, on a government which is hostile to them. There is no question of personal autonomy, at most the Australian military probably refrains from political indoctrination. Score 1.

3. Are property rights secure? Do citizens have the right to establish private businesses? Is private business activity unduly influenced by government officials, the security forces, or organized crime?

The refugees possessions were probably not stolen by the soldiers, but that's all. Note that Freedom House only considers the rights of 'citizens' here - which is of course my complaint about them. Obviously there is no question of expelled asylum seekers engaging in any business activity in Australia. Score zero.

4. Are there personal social freedoms, including gender equality, choice of marriage partners, and size of family?

Only within the group itself, and allowing for cultural and religious restrictions, which are not the fault of the Australian government. The asylum seekers are certainly not allowed to choose marriage partners in Australia. (This is one reason why governments choose to lock up asylum seekers. Marriage with an already legalised or naturalised refugee is a traditional route to legalisation. Complete segregation from possible marriage partners blocks this option). And the most that can be said about gender equality, is that John Howard's policy is equally harsh, for both the men and women on the ship. And for the children, so there is no age discrimination either. Score 2.

5. Is there equality of opportunity, including freedom from exploitation by or dependency on landlords, employers, union leaders, bureaucrats, or other types of obstacles to a share of legitimate economic gains?

No. It would be absurd to claim that people expelled from a national territory have any 'opportunity' there, equal or not. Neither can they take advantage of any real social or economic opportunity, so long as they are held on board a ship. Score zero.

The revised final score is therefore 23 'raw points'. Using the Freedom House conversion table, this still places Australia in category 5, classified by Freedom House as " not free". From the asylum seeker's perspective, Australia's civil liberties are comparable to those of Albania, Algeria, Chad and Haiti.

Australia is 'not free', and the Freedom House survey is 'not true'

The combined category for Australia is 6, also "not free" in Freedom House terms. The combined raw score, which is used by Freedom House in doubtful cases, is revised up to 25. That is still clearly in their "not free" category. However, even category 6 is one step ahead of Afghanistan itself, which had the lowest possible rank - 7 for both categories. A small triumph for western democracy.

Perhaps on some of the questions, my scores could be more generous. But that will not alter the general conclusion, which is clear to any objective observer: Australia's treatment of asylum seekers makes a mockery of its pretensions. The whole edifice of rights and liberties, which is supposed to be the core of western liberal democracy, is non-existent for a significant and growing group within these democracies. The Australian government invaded East Timor to enforce liberal-democratic core values, but it abandons these values at will, on a racial or ethnic basis. Other western governments have broadly similar policies. The edifice of democracy appears, on close examination, to have a whites-only sign at the door. And it is not the work of some African dictator, trying to defend his position with arguments of cultural relativism. Precisely the western democracies, who insist that their values are universal, deny their application to groups which threaten their ethnic identity.

Freedom House must know perfectly well, that western democratic pretensions are a farce for asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. But the Freedom House researchers - no doubt themselves from comfortable middle-class and largely white homes - have chosen to ignore the easily accessible evidence. The political regime enforced on the asylum seekers of the MV Tampa - and before that on detained migrants in the outback camps - is completely different, from their image of Australia. That image is false. The attempt to present it to the world as the truth about Australia, can be explained by a combination of US propaganda goals and plain racism.