Freedom in the World: Westeros
Freedom in the World ScoresFreedom Rating 7/7 Political Rights 7/7 Civil Liberties 7/7 (1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)
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Westeros, though traditionally known as the Seven Kingdoms, is a realm of nine feudal regions ruled by a paramount monarch based in the capital, King’s Landing. The monarchy and most regional and local lordships are hereditary, and ordinary residents have little opportunity for political participation. The monarch, currently Queen Cersei, controls all executive, legislative, and judicial functions; the vassal rulers exercise similar authority in their jurisdictions. Civil liberties are not generally recognized, and human rights conditions have deteriorated sharply in recent years due to a multilateral civil war.
Key Developments in 2017*:
- The ongoing civil conflict was complicated by two foreign invasions during the year, one by sea from Essos and another from beyond the northern border, raising new doubts about when peace and security would be restored.
- Both the government and rebel factions carried out high-profile summary executions during the year, indicating a continued deterioration of what little legal order existed before the war.
- Antigovernment forces used dragon fire, a naturally produced incendiary weapon, in combat on at least two occasions.
Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled claimant to the throne from the dynasty whose ouster permitted the establishment of the incumbent line of rulers, led a seaborne invasion of Westeros from the eastern continent of Essos in 2017, establishing a base at the island of Dragonstone and securing the loyalty of several rebellious factions in the long-running civil war. Forces loyal to Queen Cersei’s government reestablished control over the Reach, an important region whose ruling house had allied itself with Targaryen, and captured key rebel leaders from the Iron Islands in the northwest and Dorne in the extreme south.
However, the government subsequently suffered a major military defeat as its troops returned from the Reach, and a fragile truce was established in light of a new, common threat. Late in the coverage period, a force of reanimated corpses known as the Army of the Dead invaded the realm from the north, breaching border defenses at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and killing an unknown number of Free Folk refugees who had been recruited and deployed there by the separatist ruler of the northern region.
After years of fighting, nearly every one of Westeros’s nine regions remained in a state of political and economic disarray; the ruling houses of four regions—Dorne, the Reach, the Stormlands, and the Riverlands—were apparently left legally extinct as result of the violence. Dorne, the North, and the Vale of Arryn were still in a state of rebellion at year’s end, the Iron Islands were held by a ruler in alliance with rather than subordinate to the government, the capital of the Westerlands was briefly captured by rebel forces during the year, and the government’s control over all but the region around King’s Landing appeared tenuous.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 0 / 40
A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The monarchy is hereditary, though Queen Cersei established her reign through an irregular succession following the deaths of her husband and children by accident, murder, and suicide. After taking power, she proclaimed a new dynasty in the name of her ancestral line, House Lannister, replacing that of her late husband, House Baratheon.
The monarch rules with the assistance of a privy council, also known as the Small Council. It includes a prime minister—the Hand of the King—as well as ministers responsible for defense, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement. All members serve at the pleasure of the monarch, and the council’s structure and membership can be expanded or modified as the monarch sees fit.
Although the Targaryen claimant to the throne has yet to establish effective governance beyond the offshore island of Dragonstone, she maintains a Small Council structure similar to that in the capital. Her “Hand” is Tyrion Lannister, the estranged brother of Queen Cersei.
Local and regional lords, whose positions are also hereditary, often govern their fiefs through less formal or specialized arrangements. Heirs who have yet to reach adulthood are sometimes subject to regencies by older relatives or senior vassals.
The lord commander of the Night’s Watch, an autonomous military order responsible for guarding an immense ice wall that marks the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, is elected for a life term by all members of the order. However, the Night’s Watch governs only a strip of land adjacent to the Wall, and its practices are considered an exception to the prevailing norm of hereditary rule. Moreover, the last elected commander, Jon Snow, recently delegated his authority to an acting commander before leaving the order to take up the leadership of the rebellion in the North.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
There is no national legislature in Westeros, though regional rulers sometimes summon ad hoc assemblies of their vassal lords to discuss and ratify major decisions.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4
Westeros apparently lacks a written constitution, and elections of any sort are extremely rare. They occur at irregular intervals, only within specialized organizations, and with limited electorates. In Night’s Watch elections, for example, the vote is restricted to members of the order, who are all male. Ordinary residents of the order’s territory are excluded from the franchise.
In an unusual case of limited voting for a regional lord, the nobles and ship captains of the Iron Islands recently held a traditional “kingsmoot” to choose between two rival heirs from the ruling House Greyjoy. The vote was conducted by acclamation, with no secret ballot, and a priest from the ruling house presided over the event.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 0 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4
The hereditary and feudal political system offers no meaningful opportunity for peaceful popular participation, including in the form of political parties.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
There are no provisions for a peaceful rotation of power through elections. All changes in leadership have been the result of the incumbent’s natural or accidental death, murder, or suicide. The Baratheon dynasty, to which Queen Cersei is the de facto heir, was established through a successful armed rebellion by her late husband, Robert Baratheon, against the long-ruling Targaryen dynasty.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The political loyalty of ordinary residents is both assumed and required by whatever hereditary ruler, armed force, or elite group holds power in a given area. It is backed by coercion and in some cases reinforced through economic rewards. In the more stable areas of Westeros, traditional feudal relationships between nobles and commoners remain intact and require little use of violence to maintain. However, the only real alternatives for those who are dissatisfied with the governance of their local or regional lords, or with the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, are armed rebellion and emigration.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
Political power is concentrated in the hands of aristocratic members of the Andal ethnicity, who dominate central and southern Westeros and largely adhere to the Faith of the Seven in terms of religion. Northerners, including the noble families, typically belong to the indigenous ethnicity known as First Men, and many maintain animistic religious practices. The Iron Islanders in the northwest and residents of Dorne in the extreme south each have their own unique religious and cultural identities, to which their respective aristocracies belong.
While commoners of all ethnicities are largely excluded from political affairs, some groups are particularly marginalized, including indigenous tribes in the Vale of Arryn and Free Folk refugees from beyond the Wall.
Female members of the aristocracy can attain political power in the absence of male heirs, though this does not necessarily result in greater attention to issues of specific concern to ordinary women. Because LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) identity is stigmatized in most of Westeros, the interests of these groups are not addressed by political leaders, even if some powerful LGBT nobles enjoy more freedom on a personal level.
C. Functioning of Government: 0 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
Queen Cersei is an unelected ruler, and the ability of her appointed government to make and implement policy is heavily impaired by its loss of territorial control over the North, the Vale of Arryn, the Iron Islands, Dragonstone, and other portions of Westeros, largely in connection with the rebellion and invasion now led by Daenerys Targaryen.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4
There are no independent anticorruption bodies that can hold senior officials accountable for abuse of office, and no significant corruption prosecutions have been reported in recent years. The distinction between state assets and the private wealth of the ruling family is often unclear. The government is believed to be heavily indebted to foreign creditors, specifically the Iron Bank of Braavos, and the total lack of transparency regarding the level of public debt, the disposition of war booty, and state spending in general leaves ample room for graft.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4
Westeros lacks a freedom of information law, and there is no evidence of public consultation on pending laws and policies. Public officials are apparently not required to make asset declarations. Some lords consult with key vassals or ad hoc assemblies of warriors on major political or military decisions. Under normal circumstances, the monarch and subordinate lords would regularly hold court to hear complaints or petitions, but with some exceptions, this aspect of governance seems to have broken down in the context of the civil war.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 6 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 5 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4
Residents of Westeros lack access to mass media technologies, including the printing press, television and radio broadcasting, and the internet. The ruling elite have access to a network of trained courier ravens, but the information conveyed in this way is often considered sensitive intelligence and withheld from the general public. A few individuals in the North are able to project their consciousness into the bodies of other people or animals, and thereby gather information remotely, though this too is seldom shared widely.
News is spread largely by word of mouth and personal letters, and the notion of independent journalism is not recognized. Political speech and expression in general, including artistic expression, are limited by the threat of punishment for treason or other offenses without due process.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4
The main and official religion of Westeros is the Faith of the Seven, and adherents can generally practice freely. Earlier in the civil war, one rebel leader and claimant to the throne, Stannis Baratheon, converted to worship the Lord of Light—a deity recognized widely in Essos—and took some steps to suppress the Faith of the Seven in areas under his control, though he was eventually killed after a military defeat.
The Faith of the Seven recently suffered a more damaging blow when Queen Cersei ordered the bombing and destruction of its spiritual center, the Great Sept, which killed its top cleric, the High Septon, along with many other religious officials. However, that High Septon had been the leader of an extremist faction of the faith; he revived the enforcement of harsh religious law and gained considerable influence over the government under King Tommen Baratheon, Cersei’s son and predecessor, who killed himself after the explosion. The incident therefore destabilized the faith’s hierarchy, at least temporarily, but also eased tight religious restrictions, and ordinary believers were presumably able to continuing practicing.
The Brotherhood Without Banners, a guerrilla force that claims to protect the civilian population of the Riverlands against all factions in the civil war, is led by followers of the Lord of Light and includes a number of converts among its fighters. However, it is not known to practice forcible conversions or other religious abuses. In at least one case in recent years, members of the Brotherhood who attacked adherents of the Faith of the Seven were subsequently detained and executed by the Brotherhood’s own leadership.
The other faiths with significant followings center on the Drowned God, worshipped almost exclusively in the Iron Islands, and the Old Gods of the Forest, the animistic deities recognized mostly in the North. Neither is subject to repression or interference, though some institutions, notably knighthood, are generally open only to those who practice the Faith of the Seven. Moreover, each of these religions enjoys some form of official status in its respective area, putting other groups at a tacit disadvantage.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4
The only institution of higher learning in Westeros is the Citadel, located in the city of Oldtown in the Reach. It is the headquarters of the all-male Order of Maesters, a member of which is assigned to each town and castle in the country, tasked with advising the ruling lord regardless of political affiliation. These maesters may also serve as tutors to the lords’ children. The Citadel is largely free of political or other outside interference, but scholarship there is overseen by a council of archmaesters, who strictly control the course of study, access to the facility’s library, and all other aspects of life at the site. There do not appear to be any independent student associations at the Citadel.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4
The monarch’s Small Council includes an intelligence chief who controls a network of spies and informants. Other powerful actors, such as Petyr Baelish, have operated their own intelligence networks, and a former royal spymaster, Varys, now serves Targaryen. These systems of surveillance are primarily focused on major political rivals and adversaries in the civil conflict, but ordinary residents may also be subject to observation and arbitrary punishment given the polarized environment associated with the war and Cersei’s known intolerance for dissent or criticism. In one recent case, a man who publicly insulted the queen in King’s Landing was murdered by her bodyguard.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 1 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4
Given the general restrictions on political participation by ordinary people in Westeros, organized demonstrations and protests are rare. Such civic mobilization is also hampered by the scarcity of large population centers and ready means of communication.
The few mass assemblies on record in recent years have descended into violence. For example, during the reign of King Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei’s elder son, a seemingly spontaneous gathering of King’s Landing residents surrounded a royal procession to protest severe food shortages related to the civil war. Insults and scuffles soon escalated into deadly clashes between protesters and royal guards, and days of rioting and looting ensued. During King Tommen’s reign, an angry mob assembled to insult Cersei and pelt her with objects during a ritual humiliation imposed by the High Septon at the time; more serious violence was prevented by the presence of an armed escort.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4
Aside from religious groups and small-scale charitable entities such as orphanages, Westeros appears to be devoid of nongovernmental organizations, and ordinary residents are broadly excluded from civic affairs.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4
There are no laws protecting unionization, collective bargaining, or the right to strike. Some specialized craftsmen might organize through guilds, but the economy is largely agricultural, and there is no large-scale manufacturing that could support an organized labor movement. Agricultural labor is apparently governed by a system of feudal obligations rather than negotiable contracts.
F. Rule of Law: 0 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
The monarch and all subordinate lords serve as the chief judicial authorities in their respective jurisdictions. They preside over trials and issue sentences for those they find guilty. This lack of separation between executive and judicial powers means there can be little expectation of impartiality. Among other conflicts of interest, a lord could easily sit in judgment of his own relatives in the close-knit aristocracy. The risk of bias is magnified by the fact that the legal system is based largely on customary law and individual judgment rather than a comprehensive and uniform body of written law.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4
Trials and other legal proceedings generally lack due process, and there are no guarantees of access to counsel. Defendants from the nobility can demand a trial by combat and avoid execution or other corporal punishment in some cases by paying a fine. Men—both nobles and commoners—can join the Night’s Watch to avoid criminal sentences; women can join a strict monastic order called the Silent Sisters. Most crimes are punished with execution, corporal penalties like amputation, or monetary payments, as opposed to long-term imprisonment, and the sentences are carried out swiftly, meaning there is little or no opportunity for appeal.
The past year featured a number of high-profile trials that amounted to little more than summary executions. Sansa Stark, the acting ruler of the North, presided over a trial of Baelish, the regent of the Vale, in which the defendant was offered no counsel, preparation, access to witnesses, or other fundamental rights. After his alleged crimes were read out to him, he was immediately killed by Sansa’s sister, Arya Stark. Targaryen tried and executed two nobles, Randyll and Dickon Tarly, for treason after defeating their army in battle; when they refused to acknowledge her claim to the throne, she immediately ordered them burned to death. Similarly, after Queen Cersei’s brother Jaime Lannister reconquered the Reach for the government, he compelled its rebel ruler, Olenna Tyrell, to drink poison on Cersei’s orders, though the procedure had none of the trappings of a trial.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
There are no independent checks on the behavior of security forces or law enforcement personnel, and no impartial avenue for appeal in cases of physical abuse. In a prominent case of torture during the year, the queen ordered Ellaria Sand, the rebel ruler of Dorne, to be confined in a King’s Landing dungeon in such a way that she would be forced to watch as her detained daughter died from poison. There is a history of torture and death in custody in other parts of Westeros, including in the North, where House Bolton—a family loyal to the government but recently defeated by rebel forces—was known for flaying victims alive.
The long-running war has featured routine violence and abuses against the civilian population, as indicated by the emergence of the Brotherhood Without Banners, which claims to protect ordinary residents against noble-led armies.
The conflict has also entailed a general breakdown in the rule of law, with a growing list of major crimes that have gone unpunished. For example, members of House Frey, the ruling family in the Riverlands, were murdered en masse early in 2017, and their apparent killer, Arya Stark, remained at large at year’s end.
An incendiary chemical substance known as Wildfire has been manufactured and stockpiled by government forces and used in combat at least once during the war. The same substance was used to destroy the Great Sept. In the past year, Targaryen forces used dragon fire in combat in Westeros for the first time in centuries. A modified form of dragon fire was used by the Army of the Dead late in the year.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4
There are no legal protections against discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or other relevant categories. Interethnic and interregional hostility is common, particularly in the context of the war, and some indigenous minority groups, such as the hill tribes of the Vale and crannogmen in the southernmost portion of the North, are especially marginalized in Westerosi society. There are no secular laws against same-sex sexual activity, but such activity is generally stigmatized in Westeros, with the exception of Dorne. The High Septon who died in the destruction of the Great Sept had promoted persecution of same-sex sexual activity, but this apparently ended with his death.
Free Folk, known derisively as Wildlings, constitute a refugee population in the North, where the local inhabitants are traditionally hostile to their presence. Most had fled an apparent genocide by the Army of the Dead to the north of the Wall, and the Night’s Watch recently reversed its policy of blocking border crossings so as to recruit the refugees and bolster its own border defenses. A large force of Free Folk that had been deployed to the eastern end of the Wall was destroyed when the Army of the Dead invaded late in the year.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 0 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0 / 4
The long-running civil conflict has seriously impaired freedom of movement within Westeros, with government and rebel armies, raiders from the Iron Islands and beyond the Wall, and armed groups of bandits and deserters all presenting obstacles to safe travel. Large numbers of civilians have been internally displaced, with many swelling the population of King’s Landing and straining its resources.
Even under more peaceful conditions, mobility in terms of residence, employment, and education has been restricted in practice by rigid class distinctions and feudal labor systems that prevail in most of the realm.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 0 / 4
Property rights are regularly abused in the context of the civil war, which has featured rampant plundering and the confiscation or reallocation of lands and titles based on political allegiance. For example, the North, the Riverlands, and the Reach—along with their principal castles and agricultural lands—have all been seized and reassigned to different families at least once in recent years.
In most of Westeros, property is inherited based on male primogeniture, though in Dorne estates pass to the oldest child of either gender. Children born out of wedlock are not eligible to inherit land or titles.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 0 / 4
Forced or arranged marriages are common, and there are no laws against spousal rape. Women are considered eligible for marriage at the age of menstruation, even though the legal age of majority is 16. Rape outside marriage is a crime, punishable with castration, though perpetrators can avoid corporal punishment by joining the Night’s Watch, which entails an oath of celibacy. There is widespread impunity in practice for sexual violence of all kinds, particularly among the wealthy and powerful.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4
Equality of opportunity is severely restricted by the feudal class system, which concentrates wealth and economic power in the hands of noble families and limits social mobility.
There are no effective legal safeguards against exploitative labor practices. Slavery is illegal; raiders from the Iron Islands customarily take captives who are employed in forced agricultural or mining labor, or held in forced concubinage, but they cannot be bought or sold as chattel, and their condition is not inheritable. Prostitution is legal in Westeros; while sex workers are not formally enslaved, they are highly vulnerable to physical abuse and economic exploitation. Child labor is apparently common, and children are notably employed as spies in the government’s intelligence network.
The Army of the Dead relies entirely on forced conscription to replenish its forces.
Note: The scores and narrative do not reflect conditions north of the Wall.
* For the purposes of this report, the calendar year 2017 is roughly equated with the Game of Thrones television season that was broadcast during 2017. With regard to background information, where there is a conflict between the television series and the book series, this report generally draws on the television series.
Correction: This report was revised in March 2019 to describe dragon fire and Wildfire as incendiary rather than chemical weapons.
Scoring Key: X / Y
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.