The Forgotten Five: Autocratic Regimes That Avoid International Criticism

Many authoritarian regimes have managed to avoid serious criticism by exploiting strategic partnerships with the United States and its allies.

By Geysha Gonzalez and Margaret Marshall

The international community regularly focuses on human rights abuses in rogue states like Russia and North Korea or warzones like Syria and Iraq, but many authoritarian regimes have managed to avoid serious criticism by exploiting strategic partnerships with the United States and its allies.

The following is a small sample of the world’s low-profile autocracies.


Azerbaijan: The Great Pretender 

As a major exporter of oil and natural gas in a strategically important location, Azerbaijan maintains close partnerships with the United States and Europe. However, the regime’s level of domestic repression is as bad as Russia’s, with human rights violations ranging from land grabs and rigged elections to attacks on corruption-fighting journalists and crackdowns on peaceful protests. Given this worsening record, it is not surprising that President Ilham Aliyev—who treats public wealth as his own after essentially inheriting the presidency from his late father—has devoted exorbitant sums to public relations campaigns and lobbyists in democratic capitals in a disturbingly successful effort to maintain Azerbaijan’s friendly image.

Ethiopia: The Developmental Dictatorship

As one of the largest recipients of foreign aid and investment, Ethiopia is treated as an exemplar for African economic development. It also hosts the headquarters of the African Union and cooperates with democratic powers on regional security matters. However, the country is ruled by a one-party regime that uses antiterrorism laws and other measures to jail opposition politicians, silence critical media, and cut off foreign funding for civil society groups that stray from its agenda. Ethiopia is also known for creating the harshest system of internet censorship in Africa, and has imprisoned activist bloggers without regard for due process.

Saudi Arabia: The Strategic Ally

Saudi Arabia is the United States’ most important ally in the Arab world. The Saudis have assisted in U.S. struggles against the Soviets, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden, and they have played a key role in pressuring Iran and Russia through manipulation of the world oil supply. Most recently, they joined the alliance against the Islamic State militant group. At the same time, the country is itself ruled by a reactionary absolute monarchy and one of the world’s harshest interpretations of Islamic law. The United States turned a blind eye when Saudi Arabia sent military forces to help quash pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, and the kingdom has been equally bold in propping up new Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It appears determined to protect a regional order in which the United States ties itself to autocratic regimes, implicitly supports the repression of ordinary citizens and moderate opposition, and then provides the military muscle to combat the extremist violence that invariably arises as a result.

Vietnam: The Underdog

Vietnam has built an increasingly warm relationship with the United States and its allies in recent years, drawing extensive investment and a degree of military cooperation. It is viewed as a plucky underdog in the face of territorial aggression by China, a problem that has also affected democracies in the region. However, Vietnam’s Communist Party regime is almost a mirror image of China’s, featuring restrictive internet censorship laws, accelerating convictions of political dissidents and bloggers, and close supervision of party-controlled religious groups. Vietnam has the largest number of prisoners of conscience in Southeast Asia, with over 200 behind bars, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). 

United Arab Emirates: Under the Radar

The United Arab Emirates’ glittering façade attracts hordes of tourists, investors, and foreign workers, but it also serves to hide the dynastic state’s massive human rights abuses. The UAE systematically denies foreign residents the rights associated with citizenship, harshly restricts press freedom, and leaves no room for free elections or political opposition. Nevertheless, the country is home to a key military base used by the United States and its allies, played a crucial role in coalition operations in Afghanistan, and has joined the fight against the Islamic State. The UAE’s wide-ranging economic and military ties ensure that it can continue its domestic repression with very little international criticism. Moreover, like Saudi Arabia, it has lent support to el-Sisi and other regional autocrats, and has even conducted its own military operations in places as far afield as Libya.