The Worst Dictatorships – and Most Enduring

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Photo: Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki

By Daniel Calingaert, Executive Vice President

The depraved slaughter of civilians in Syria, which began with sniper fire on peaceful demonstrators and later degenerated into bombings of residential areas and execution-style killings of women and children, masks a darker truth.  While the violence of the current crackdown distinguishes Syria today, it emerges from decades of brutal dictatorship, and equally brutal dictatorships are alive and well across the globe.  They tend to get noticed only when particularly gross abuses take place or they escape attention almost entirely.  For close to one-fourth of the world’s population, intense repression has become routine.

Freedom House’s recent release report on the Worst of the Worst highlights the misery of the world’s most repressive societies.  In these 16 countries, citizens 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, or organizing independently of the state.  They risk harassment, imprisonment, and even torture when they dare to assert their rights, and they have little if any recourse to justice for crimes the state commits against them.

In some of these countries, high-profile dissidents manage at times to grab international attention and direct it to human rights abuses, as Chen Guangcheng did in China, but other countries habitually carry out abuses that go largely unnoticed.  In Eritrea, for example, national elections have never taken place; all private media is banned; arbitrary detentions and torture are common; and in some prisons, inmates are held in metal shipping containers or underground cells in extreme temperatures.  In Uzbekistan, the government suppresses all political opposition, harasses or prosecutes the few remaining civic activists and critical journalists, and exercises strict control over Islamic worship, including the content of sermons.  Neighborhood committees function as an official system to monitor citizens.

The “Worst of the Worst” countries tend to have deeply entrenched regimes, which have endured on average for 37½ years without any transfer of power between competing political parties or forces.  The longevity of these dictatorial regimes and the intensity of their repression suggests that repression is integral to their survival.  They have managed to stay in power for decades by eliminating effective political opposition, severely circumscribing civil society, and silencing their critics.

However, change is possible even in the countries with the worst human rights records.  The number of Worst of the Worst countries has declined from 38 in 1984 to 15 in 2003 and now stands at 16.

Political transformations over the past year show further possibilities for change.  Côte d’Ivoire has brought its civil conflict to an end and completed a transfer of power to a new president.  Burma has seen the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the election to parliament in April 2012 of 43 opposition National League for Democracy members, including Aung San Suu Kyi, although the regime has ceded little power to the opposition, and substantial human rights abuses continue.  In Libya, the collapse of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi’s autocracy paved the way for competitive elections earlier this month.

The Arab uprisings showed how brittle dictatorships can be.  Autocrats who previously seemed invincible suddenly looked shaky in the face of widespread demands for change.  They responded to public protests with harsh crackdowns, rather than genuine reform, but they still looked vulnerable, and their survival became open to question.

Countries that perpetrate the most egregious abuses should top the international human rights agenda.  The UN Human Rights Council should keep a spotlight on these countries, including China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, which have largely avoided scrutiny.  In its six years, the Council has never appointed a special rapporteur or adopted a country-specific resolution to condemn human rights violations committed by these three Council members.  Regional organizations, in Africa, Europe, and Southeast Asia, should press member states that are among the Worst of the Worst to live up to their commitments to respect fundamental rights.  And governments of long-established democracies and newly democratic states should take the lead in challenging the world’s most repressive regimes through robust diplomacy and foreign aid policies.

The denial of fundamental rights in the Worst of the Worst countries is often overlooked, yet it remains a blight on humanity.  It calls out for redress.  The international community needs to bolster its efforts to promote respect for fundamental rights in the countries that are most lacking in freedom.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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