Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy that has made significant strides toward democratic consolidation and adherence to the rule of law 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.
- Bhutan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was considered highly effective in preventing rapid spread without resorting to onerous limitations on freedom. According to researchers at the University of Oxford, by the end of 2020 the country had registered approximately 670 cases, and no deaths.
- In December, Bhutan’s Parliament voted to decriminalize same-sex relations, and at year’s end the bill awaited royal approval.
- Bhutan’s increasingly contentious relations with China saw another setback in June, when China claimed an area of eastern Bhutan.
|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 monarch also 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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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?||3.003 4.004|
India still has some influence over the choices of Bhutanese voters and politicians. China does not have an official diplomatic relationship with Bhutan but has assiduously courted Bhutanese leaders in recent years. The relationship between India, Bhutan, and China has become more complicated and dangerous in recent years, as India and China have clashed near Bhutanese territory. In June 2020, Chinese officials made a new claim to territory in Bhutan’s east; the claim appeared to be a coercive tactic connected to efforts to resolve a long-standing border dispute. In November 2020, satellite imagery appeared to show that China was building a Chinese village inside Bhutanese territory.
The royal family retains significant influence, although it has significantly retreated in recent years, refraining from interference with policymaking and allowing for democratic consolidation. 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. The king played an active role in marshaling public support for measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but neither he nor elected politicians attempted to use the pandemic to consolidate political power.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the monarchy’s role and influence in partisan politics and elections have continued to recede in recent years.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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. Women won 2 of the 20 elected National Council seats in 2018. Traditional customs inhibit women’s political participation, though electoral reforms introduced for the 2018 polling also boosted turnout, including among women. The government has supported several programs to empower women and increase their engagement in politics.
|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 Chinese influence has been an important factor in recent years, India too maintains significant influence on Bhutanese policymaking, providing considerable foreign aid and shaping Bhutanese foreign policy based on a bilateral treaty between the two countries, first signed in 1947. As a result, the Bhutanese government is hesitant to make policies that will upset the relationship with India.
|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 whistleblower protections. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is tasked with investigating and preventing graft, and has successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases.
Nepotism and favoritism in public procurement and government employment remain problematic.
|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.
|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 refugees remain in Nepal, and while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pressured Nepal to absorb the remaining refugees, some continue to seek repatriation to Bhutan.
|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 had allegedly mistreated her stepdaughter.
The Bhutan Information Communications and Media Act 2018 came into force that January; 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 Media Council, which became operational in 2019, to monitor the media for harmful or offensive content. Press freedom advocates fear that the body will erode press freedom and contribute to greater self-censorship.
|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, some 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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.”
|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.
|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.
|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 2019, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 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 prisoners’ release, but they remained in jail throughout 2020.
Overall, however, the rule of law and due process has improved substantially in civil and criminal matters, and Bhutan’s courts are relatively effective.
|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, 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.
|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 December 2020, both houses of Parliament completed a final vote to repeal criminal code provisions that criminalize same-sex relations; the law awaited the king’s assent at the end of the year.
Despite recent gains, discrimination in employment and education persists for women in Bhutan.
|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.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals generally have rights to own property and establish businesses, but the process of registering property or a new business can be cumbersome and hinder business development. In recent years, the legal system has become more consistent, and establishing businesses has become easier. However, some ethnic Nepalis who lack a security clearance certificate face difficulties in starting a business.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because the government has gradually strengthened the legal and regulatory framework to support property rights and business activity, and state authorities have reduced their reliance on coercive tactics.
|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, with an additional rise in 2020 attributed to the COVID-19 lockdown. Societal taboos lead many incidents of rape and domestic violence to go unreported. Child marriage still occurs with some frequency.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
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 2020, mostly in the agriculture and construction sectors.
Sex trafficking remained a problem in 2020, and the government’s enforcement efforts were inadequate. However, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2020 upgraded Bhutan’s status because the government has made more intensive efforts to meet international standards, including prosecutions and an investigation into reports of labor exploitation.
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Global Freedom Score61 100 partly free