Bhutan

Partly Free
58
100
PR Political Rights 28 40
CL Civil Liberties 30 60
Last Year's Score & Status
59 100 Partly Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy that has made significant strides toward becoming a consolidated democracy over the past decade. It has held multiple credible elections and undergone transfers of power to opposition parties. Ongoing problems include discrimination against Nepali-speaking and non-Buddhist minorities, media self-censorship, and, increasingly, the use of libel and defamation cases to silence journalists.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • Parliament’s lower house voted to decriminalize same-sex relations in June by repealing sections of Bhutan’s criminal code. The repeal remained pending before the upper house at year’s end.
  • In a July report, a working group of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warned that Bhutanese detained under national security laws, including political prisoners detained before the democratic era, suffered due process violations including a lack of legal representation.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3.003 4.004

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck formally succeeded his father in 2008. The monarch is head of state, appoints a number of high officials in consultation with other bodies, and retains a waning degree of influence over ministerial positions. The king nominates the leader of the majority party in the elected National Assembly to serve as prime minister. The 2018 National Assembly election, held that September and October, was free and fair, and resulted in a sizable victory for the United Party of Bhutan (DNT), which was formerly in the opposition. After the DNT’s victory, the king appointed Lotay Tshering as prime minister.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-seat upper house, the National Council, and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Members of both houses serve five-year terms. The king appoints five members of the nonpartisan National Council, and the remaining 20 are popularly elected as independents; the National Assembly is entirely elected. The April 2018 upper-house election saw record turnout; some observers ascribed the higher turnout to reforms designed to encourage voting and make casting ballots easier for residents, such as a new system of voting by post. The National Assembly election was held in two rounds in September and October 2018, with the two parties that won the most support in the first round advancing to the second. The DNT, which launched in 2013, won 30 out of 47 seats, followed by the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party (DPT), which won 17 seats. The then ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) did not advance to the runoff.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3.003 4.004

Elections are administered by the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB). The commission is thought to act impartially, although some of its regulations regarding which parties can compete in elections are controversial.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 3.003 4.004

Citizens must receive government approval to form political parties. Obtaining approval is sometimes difficult, and the government has denied registration to several newly formed parties.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4.004 4.004

The opposition has a realistic chance to win elections, and there is now regular turnover in control of government. In 2018, the DNT won control of Parliament for the first time, and another opposition party, the DPT, finished second, despite having won no seats in 2013.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 2.002 4.004

India still has some influence over the choices of Bhutanese voters and politicians. In 2013, just before that year’s parliamentary election, India withdrew subsidies for oil and kerosene. Many observers viewed the decision as retaliation for the then DPT government’s move toward closer ties with China and an attempt to swing the election toward the PDP. China does not have an official diplomatic relationship with Bhutan but has assiduously courted Bhutanese leaders in recent years, especially since a 2017 standoff between China and India over territory claimed by both Bhutan and China.

The royal family also retains significant influence, although it has significantly retreated in recent years. Most members of the political elite, including members of Parliament, steadfastly support the king and are hesitant to take any positions in direct opposition to the royal family.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2.002 4.004

Electoral rules stipulate that political parties must not be limited to members of any regional, ethnic, or religious group. There is no party that represents Nepali speakers. Citizenship rules are strict, and many Nepali-speaking people have not attained citizenship, effectively disenfranchising them. International election monitors have noted that Nepali speakers have been turned away from voting.

Women are underrepresented in public office, but the proportion of women in the National Assembly increased from 8 percent to 15 percent following the 2018 election. Although no women were elected to the National Council in 2013, two women won seats in 2018; men won eighteen. Traditional customs inhibit women’s political participation, though electoral reforms introduced for the that year’s polling also boosted turnout, including among women. The government has supported several programs to empower women and increase their engagement in politics.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3.003 4.004

Bhutan has made a successful transition from a system in which the monarch and his advisers dominated governance to one in which policies and legislation are mostly determined by elected officials.

While China has become an important factor in recent years, India maintains a significant influence on Bhutanese policymaking. India specifically maintains a hold on Bhutanese foreign policy based on a bilateral treaty between the two countries first signed in 1947. India also provides significant foreign aid to Bhutan. As a result, the Bhutanese government is hesitant to make policies that will upset the relationship with India.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3.003 4.004

The government generally enforces anticorruption laws effectively. The 2006 Anti-Corruption Act established whistle-blower protections. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which had its role strengthened and expanded in 2011, is tasked with investigating and preventing graft, and has successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases. In December 2019, a Panbang court convicted a local district leader of embezzlement and issued a 10-year sentence; he was accused of colluding with Bhutan Oil Corporation (BOC) employees to inflate bills for purchases of oil, gasoline, and lubricants. The employees, who were acquitted, were previously investigated by the ACC in 2016, and the case was forwarded to prosecutors in 2017.

Nepotism and favoritism in public procurement and government employment remain problematic.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3.003 4.004

Although Bhutan lacks comprehensive freedom of information legislation, the government has strengthened transparency by making the salaries of officials public and making the central and local budgets more open to review. A right to information law passed by the National Assembly in 2014 was designed to put the onus on government officials and agencies to release information. However, the National Council still has not approved the bill.

ADDITIONAL DISCRETIONARY POLITICAL RIGHTS QUESTION
Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? -1.00-1

The government has for decades attempted to diminish and repress the rights of ethnic Nepalis, forcing many of them to leave Bhutan. The government expelled a large percentage of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s; in 1992, well over 100,000 refugees living in Nepal were denied reentry to Bhutan. A resettlement effort aimed at transferring the refugees to other countries began in 2007, resulting in the resettlement of the majority of refugees; however, 7,000 people remain in refugee camps, which the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ultimately aims to close.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 2.002 4.004

While there are multiple private media outlets, many depend on advertising from state bodies, and Bhutan’s media environment remains subject to a high degree of self-censorship, especially regarding criticism of the royal family. Powerful individuals can use defamation laws to retaliate against critics. In 2018, a journalist was sentenced to three months in prison for libel, after she posted on Facebook about a woman who allegedly mistreated her stepdaughter.

The Bhutan Information Communications and Media Act 2018, which came into force that January, replaced a 2006 law. The government said it would strengthen the independence of the media and promote a free and vibrant media industry. The legislation mandated the establishment of an independent body called the Media Council, which was fully operational by September 2019. The council monitors the media to determine which content is harmful or offensive. Press freedom advocates fear that the new body will further erode press freedom and contribute to greater self-censorship.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2.002 4.004

The constitution protects freedom of religion, but local authorities are known to harass non-Buddhists. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship freely in private, people experience pressure to participate in Buddhist ceremonies and practices.

Christian churches have often been unable to obtain registration from the government, which means that they cannot raise funds or buy property, placing constraints on their activities. Christian children are sometimes not allowed into schools based on their religion.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2.002 4.004

Few restrictions on academic freedom have been reported. However, Bhutanese university students are often hesitant to speak out on controversial political issues and practice self-censorship. Students, in conducting research, tend to receive negative feedback for posing questions that could be considered offensive or too blunt.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3.003 4.004

Freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected. However, under the National Security Act, speech that creates or attempts to create “hatred and disaffection among the people” or “misunderstanding or hostility between the government and people,” among other offenses, can be punished with imprisonment. The broad language of the law makes it vulnerable to misuse.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 2.002 4.004

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but this right is limited by government-imposed restrictions. Public gatherings require government permission, which is sometimes denied. Curfews and restrictions on the location of demonstrations also serve to curtail assembly rights.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2.002 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work on issues related to ethnic Nepalis are not allowed to operate, but other local and international NGOs work with increasing freedom on a wide range of issues. Under the 2007 Civil Society Organization Act, all new NGOs must register with the government. Registration is granted to NGOs that are determined by the government to be “not harmful to the peace and unity of the country.”

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

The constitution nominally guarantees the right of workers to form unions, but the right to strike is not legally protected. Workers may bargain collectively, and antiunion discrimination is prohibited. Most of the country’s workforce is engaged in small-scale agriculture and is therefore not unionized.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 3.003 4.004

The independence of the judiciary is largely respected. Senior judges are appointed by the king on the recommendation of the National Judicial Commission. However, the rulings of judges often lack consistency, and many people view the judiciary as corrupt.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2.002 4.004

Although the right to a fair trial is largely guaranteed and arbitrary arrest is not a widespread problem, plaintiffs and defendants in civil disputes often represent themselves. Many people who are unable to repay debts are held in detention, which is considered arbitrary under international law.

A number of political prisoners, who were detained before Bhutan transitioned to its current democratic system, remain imprisoned. In July 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) of the OHCHR reported that individuals detained under national security laws, including political prisoners, suffered due process violations including the lack of legal representation. In December 2019, a campaign group that included members of the Bhutanese diaspora and resettled refugees petitioned for the release of these prisoners.

Overall, however, the rule of law and due process has improved substantially in civil and criminal matters. In recent years, Bhutan’s courts have functioned with a relatively high degree of effectiveness.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2.002 4.004

The civilian police force generally operates within the law, and incidents of excessive force are rare. In recent years, the crime rates have generally been low. However, insurgents from the Indian state of Assam sometimes enter Bhutan and undermine security. Occasional instances of kidnapping and robbery occur along the border with India.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

The constitution protects against discrimination based on sex, race, disability, language, religion, or societal status. However, Nepali-speaking people reportedly face employment discrimination and other forms of bias.

LGBT+ people experience societal discrimination and social stigma, and there are no specific legal protections for transgender people. In June 2019, the National Assembly voted to repeal criminal code provisions that criminalize same-sex relations; the issue remained pending before the National Council at year’s end.

Despite recent gains, discrimination in employment and education persists for women in Bhutan.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2.002 4.004

Bhutanese citizens generally have the freedom to travel domestically and internationally. However, the government has established different categories of citizenship, which restricts foreign travel for some. These restrictions reportedly have the greatest effect on Nepali speakers. Bhutanese security forces sometimes arrest Nepali people seeking to enter the country.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

Individuals generally have rights to own property and establish businesses, but the process of registering a new business can be cumbersome and hinder business development. Some ethnic Nepalis who lack a security clearance certificates face difficulties in starting a business. The property registration process can also be lengthy.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

Reports of domestic violence have increased in recent years. Societal taboos lead many incidents of rape and domestic violence to go unreported. Child marriage still occurs with some frequency; according to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data from 2017, 26 percent of women are married before age 18.

G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Female household workers, who often come from rural areas or India, are vulnerable to forced labor and other abuse, as are foreign workers in the construction and hydropower sectors. Child labor continued to be a problem in 2019, mostly in the agriculture and construction sectors. Women and girls often serve as household workers, and are vulnerable to abuse.

Sex trafficking remained a problem in 2019, and the government’s enforcement efforts were inadequate to address it effectively. The US State Department noted that Bhutan may have launched only one investigation into possible sex trafficking in the 2019 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report. However, the government has previously provided funds for an NGO that helps shelter trafficking survivors.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    58 100 partly free