Freedom House has released a depressing report, “Worst of the Worst 2012: The World’s Most Repressive Societies.” According to the New York-based organization, “Autocratic rule remains widespread and persistent” even in what is supposed to be a new, enlightened age. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population, more than 1.6 billion people, “live in countries with the worst records of political and civil rights, and these countries have suffered under brutal dictatorships for decades.”
Still, today, at least, one-fourth of humanity suffers under severe oppression. These people, observed Freedom House, “have no say in how they are governed and face severe consequences if they try to exercise their most basic rights, such as expressing their views, assembling peacefully, and organizing independently of the state. Citizens who dare to assert their rights in these repressive countries typically suffer harassment and imprisonment, and often are subjected to physical or psychological abuse.”
The Worst of the Worst are a motley crew. Eleven governments and territories are at the bottom, where “political opposition is banned, criticism of the government is met with retribution, and independent organizations are suppressed.” The miscreants: Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tibet, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Western Sahara.
Another eight rate just a bit higher, but nevertheless “severely suppress opposition political activity, impede independent organizations, and censor or punish criticism of the state.” This depressing group is made up of: Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, Libya, and South Ossetia.
There is no unifying feature of the 19 other than ruthless repression of liberty. In Somalia the oppression occurs in a failed state. In the others brutal dictatorships enforce their will. Explained Freedom House: “The common thread among these countries is an individual or collective dictatorship that rests on a very narrow elite and uses extreme forms of repression to hold on to power.”
Most of the oppressors have been busy for a very long time. “North Korea has stayed at the very bottom of the ratings scale” since the institute began its Freedom in the World survey. Somalia has been at or near the bottom over the same period. Nearly three-quarter of the others have spent more than 25 years on the list.
The ruling elites in these states have proved to be deeply entrenched: “These regimes have endured on average for 37 ½ years without any transfer of power between competing political parties or forces.” Such longevity could be achieved only through repression which “is integral to their survival. These regimes have managed to stay in power for decades by eliminating effective political opposition, severely circumscribing civil society, and silencing their critics.”
The prospects for change remain cloudy. Historically, repression is down. Noted Freedom House: “From a peak of 38 such countries in 1984, the number declined to 15 countries in 2003, and stood at 16 in 2011.” This process was driven by the collapse of communism and move away from authoritarianism in the Third World. Over the last year progress was evident in Burma and Libya, though in both the ultimately outcomes remain in doubt.
On the other hand, there is substantial bad news. China “has committed increased resources to internal security forces, engaged in systematic enforced disappearances of dozens of human rights lawyers and bloggers, and enhanced controls over online social media.” It is even worse in Tibet, where “authorities have continued to restrict basic freedoms and impose harsh security measures.” Cuba responded to the impending visit of Pope Benedict XVI by detaining dissidents. Sudan “launched a harsh crackdown on any sign of dissent.” Worst of all was the brutal attempt by the al-Assad regime to retain power in Syria.
The Freedom House report includes a summary of the 19 countries and territories. In Belarus dictatorial President Alyaksandr Lukashenka responded to public protests over another stolen election with “an extensive crackdown on all forms of dissent.” Prison was meted out even to protesters who stood wordlessly clapping their hands.
Burma was a relative bright spot, with the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and relaxation of controls over the media. Whether the military is prepared to accept genuine civilian rule, and end its brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities, is as yet unknown.
In Chad fraudulent elections maintained control by the ruling party. Moreover, “Freedom of expression is severely restricted, and self-censorship is common.”
China, the world’s most populous nation with the world’s second largest economy, is regressing. The ruling Communist Party, which just moved through its long-awaited leadership transition, has increased its “efforts to restrict public discussion of political, legal, and human rights issues.” At the same time, Beijing “stalled or even reversed previous reforms related to the rule of law, while security forces resorted to extralegal forms of repression.” The latter included the disappearance of human rights lawyers and bloggers.
Although the Cuban government released some political prisoners in an agreement with the Catholic Church, Havana also detained a number of human rights activists in advance of the Pope’s visit. The government separately has relaxed some economic restrictions.
Equatorial Guinea long has been one of Africa’s most oppressive nations. The country held a fraudulent constitutional referendum. When it hosted the 2011 African Union summit, the government launched a crackdown, with “security forces reportedly detaining hundreds of suspected dissidents,” reported Freedom House.
Eritrea is another state known mostly for its brutal repressiveness. The rulers have never held elections in the almost 20 years since the country’s successful secession. Unfortunately, “The Eritrean government’s suppression of the basic political rights and civil liberties of its citizens continued.” Independent media is not simply restricted; it is banned.
Laos remains a communist throwback in which there is no political or media freedom. Libya, in contrast, improved with the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi, though the country’s ultimate fate remains to be decided.
North Korea probably is the most repressive, misgoverned nation on earth. So far the death of dictator Kim Jong-il has led to no relaxation of the regime’s totalitarian controls. The only reform might be the issuance of designer hand-cuffs in prison. The North is an issue for more than its own oppressed people because it is developing nuclear weapons and threatening South Korea with war.
Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian Muslim state. Supposedly an important U.S. ally, Riyadh grew more repressive with “new restrictions on the media and public speech as well as the severe treatment of religious minorities, including crackdowns on Shiite Muslim protests.”
Somalia may be the closest example of anarchy on earth today. Noted Freedom House: “The Somali state has in many respects ceased to exist, and there is no governing authority with the ability to protect political rights and civil liberties.”
South Ossetia has declared independence from Georgia but has not implemented democracy. Rather, the outgoing president “jailed and threatened opposition figures and changed legislation to prevent the registration” of opposition candidates.
Sudan has never been a free society. Unfortunately, there was “a surge in arrests of opposition political activists and leaders, the banning of a leading political party, the violent response to public demonstrations in Khartoum and other cities, and a crackdown on the activities of journalists.” The situation could worsen with the potential of conflict after the secession of South Sudan.
Syria saw a significant deterioration with increased government repression and the slide into civil war. Beijing continued to maintain its harsh rule in Tibet. Turkmenistan “took greater repressive measures against human rights activists inside and outside the country.”
Uzbekistan is another Central Asian dictatorship. That nation’s government “suppressed all political opposition and restricted independent business activity.” Moreover, “the few remaining civic activists and critical journalists in the country faced prosecution, hefty fines, and arbitrary detention.”
Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony conquered by Morocco, saw a decline in liberty “due to the inability of civil society groups to form and operate, as well as serious restrictions on property rights and business activity.” Unfortunately, native “Sahrawis continued to be denied basic political, civil, and economic rights.”
It would be comforting to believe that the world was steadily and inevitably moving toward greater liberty. However, while there are moments of great progress—such as the collapse of communism—there also are moments of great despair.
Some day freedom may come to the Worst of the Worst. However, so far repression has proved to be brutally resilient. While the U.S. cannot turn into a crusader state attempting to liberate all these peoples by force, Americans and other people of good will around the world should do what they can to embarrass and challenge regimes which oppress.
* Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.