Freedom in the World
In 2015, Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay and his government continued to make progress in implementing public transparency and anticorruption initiatives, including prosecutions against public officials accused of graft. However, journalists and rights monitors, both domestic and international, raised concerns about threats to press freedom.
Political Rights: 29 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 10 / 12
King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck formally succeeded his father in 2008, though he had been in power since the outgoing king’s abdication in 2006. 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 monarchy is highly popular with the public.
The constitution provides for a bicameral Parliament, with a 25-seat upper house, the nonpartisan National Council, and a 47-seat lower house, the National Assembly. Members of both bodies serve five-year terms. The king appoints five members of the National Council, and the remaining 20 are popularly elected; the lower house is entirely elected, and the head of the majority party is nominated by the king to serve as prime minister. The logistics of voting and vote counting remain heavily dependent on expertise and technology from India.
In the 2013 parliamentary elections, the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won 32 seats. The Druk Peace and Prosperity Party, which had dominated the first national elections in 2008, won the remaining 15 seats. Tobgay, the PDP leader, became prime minister. International monitors deemed the 2013 elections free and fair. The free vote and peaceful transfer of power were seen as signs of a healthy democratic system.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 10 / 16
Political parties, previously illegal, were allowed to begin registering in 2007. Bhutan now has two officially registered major parties and three smaller ones. One of the small parties—the Bhutan Kuen-Nyam Party (BKP)—was disqualified from participating in the 2013 elections due to its inability to field candidates in all constituencies. Citizens must receive government approval to form political parties and hold political rallies, which significantly hinders the development of parties.
Bhutan still relies on India for defense and many foreign policy matters, which are consequently somewhat excluded from domestic political debate.
Electoral rules stipulate that political parties must not be limited to members of any regional, ethnic, or religious group. No party exists to represent Nepali speakers. International monitors have noted that Nepali speakers have been turned away from voting.
C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12
Bhutan has made a rapid transition from a system in which the monarch and his advisers had enormous influence over Parliament to one in which Parliament determines its own policies. Although the king retains some powers and influence, the party in control of Parliament selects its own cabinet. The cabinet has increasingly taken on governance without deferring to the monarch for guidance, and Prime Minister Tobgay has shown more signs of independence than his predecessor.
Although corruption exists in Bhutan, the country has in recent years made significant strides in addressing the issue. The 2006 Anti-Corruption Act established whistle-blower protections, and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), whose role was strengthened and expanded in 2011, is tasked with investigating and preventing graft. The current government has repeatedly backed up the ACC’s efforts to suspend and investigate officials suspected of graft.
Some of the most powerful political elites in the country have been held accountable by the courts in recent years, setting an example for lower-ranking officials. In July 2015, Prime Minister Togbay removed Foreign Minister Rinzin Dorje from office following corruption allegations against him, which eventually led to Dorje’s conviction and sentencing to one year in prison in September. An appeal was pending at year’s end.
Tobgay has welcomed a loyal opposition in Parliament, and has tried to make the office of the prime minister more open to the public through media appearances and the use of social media. He has also strengthened transparency by making the salaries of officials public and using his office to make the central and local budgets more open to review.
A right to information law passed by the National Assembly in 2014 would put the onus on government officials and agencies to release information. Its adoption was preceded by two years of significant and open debate. However, the upper house delayed action on the measure, and it had yet to win final adoption in 2015.
Discretionary Political Rights Question B: −1 / 0
The government has for decades attempted to diminish and repress the rights of ethnic Nepalis, and to force many of them to leave Bhutan, thereby changing the ethnic makeup of the country.
The government expelled a large percentage of Nepali speakers in the early 1990s, after previously stripping them of their citizenship. Many fled to Nepal as refugees. The government maintains that many Nepali speakers left Bhutan voluntarily or had been illegal immigrants, but in 1992, well over 100,000 such refugees living in extremely poor conditions in Nepal were denied reentry to Bhutan, and the Bhutanese government has consistently refused to repatriate them. A resettlement effort aimed at transferring the refugees to third countries began in 2007. By late 2015, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal had been resettled, mostly in the United States, with approximately 18,000 remaining.
Civil Liberties: 27 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 9 / 16
Bhutanese laws protect freedom of expression and belief, but substantial barriers remain, including to press freedom. The National Security Act assigns prison terms for 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. Defamation can be treated as a criminal offense, and self-censorship is believed to be a problem. While there are multiple private media outlets, many depend on advertising from state bodies. Nearly 40 percent of the population had internet access in 2015; social media as well as online news outlets were available.
A 2015 survey of 119 current and former Bhutanese journalists revealed general concerns about press freedom and access to information, as well as safety issues and fear of reprisals in connection with reporting that is critical of the government or other powerful groups. Almost half of the current journalists surveyed reported receiving threats in response to critical coverage, ranging from warnings of employment-related penalties to threats of physical abuse and harassment.
The constitution protects freedom of religion, but local authorities are known to harass non-Buddhists. While Bhutanese of all faiths can worship relatively freely in private, the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism is Bhutan’s official religion and receives state support through subsidies and other measures. The Hindu minority is also recognized and reportedly receives some state support. Bhutan’s small Christian community has allegedly been subject to harassment by the authorities. In 2014, two Christian pastors who allegedly organized a Christian gathering without gaining permission from local officials were convicted on charges related to improper licensing for public assemblies and unapproved receipt of foreign funds. By January 2015, both had paid fines in lieu of prison sentences.
Few restrictions on academic freedom have been reported. However, in a 2015 report on education equality, the UN special rapporteur on the right to education echoed concerns raised by other international monitors regarding reported alleged discrimination against ethnic Nepali students, who lack proper facilities and instruction in the Nepali language.
Private discussion is generally free and open, though restrictive laws and other factors may deter uninhibited speech on sensitive topics, such as those related to ethnicity or the monarchy.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 4 / 12
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but public gatherings require government permission, which is often denied.
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. Under the 2007 Civil Society Organization Act, all new NGOs must register with the government. The constitution protects the right of workers to form associations, but not for the purpose of conducting strikes. Most of the country’s workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture and is therefore not unionized.
F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16
Since 2007, Bhutan has moved decisively toward a system based on the rule of law, and its judiciary is now considered generally autonomous. An independent Judicial Service Council controls judicial evaluations and promotions. Senior judges are appointed by the king on the recommendation of the National Judicial Commission, which includes the chief justice, the most senior Supreme Court member, the head of the National Assembly’s Legislative Committee, and the attorney general. The Supreme Court serves as the final arbiter of appeals.
The civilian police force generally operates within the law. Prisons in Bhutan for the most part meet international standards. There are dozens of political prisoners being held in the country, according to NGOs, though at least 14 have been released since 2010. Most are jailed for being part of banned political groups or parties, such as the local communist party or parties that advocated for the rights of ethnic Nepalis; in some cases, the charges are allegedly fabricated to justify the arrest of government critics.
The constitution protects against discrimination based on sex, race, disability, language, religion, or societal status. While these provisions are generally respected, Nepali-speaking people reportedly face employment discrimination. Despite legal protections, people with disabilities continue to face societal discrimination, particularly in rural areas. There are no legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and no formal NGO in the country explicitly works on the rights of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. Same-sex sexual activity, described as sexual conduct “against the order of nature,” remains a criminal offense and can be punished with up to a year in prison.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16
Bhutanese citizens have the freedom to travel domestically and internationally, but no laws protect against forced exile. Bhutanese security forces sometimes arrest Nepalis seeking to enter the country. Those lacking a security clearance certificate are subject to restrictions on freedom of movement and face difficulties in starting a business, but the government has in recent years simplified the process for obtaining a certificate.
Since 2013, Bhutanese are no longer required to wear traditional dress under most circumstances. Women participate freely in social and economic life but continue to be underrepresented in government and politics. The law protects against domestic violence, with the possibility of prison sentences ranging from one month to three years. Rape, including spousal rape, is also illegal. However, societal taboos lead many incidents of rape and domestic violence to go unreported. Moreover, despite improvements in law to protect women from gender-based violence, both government and NGO actors acknowledge a lack of public awareness about legal protections, particularly in rural communities.
Female household workers, who often come from rural areas or from India, are vulnerable to forced labor and other abuse, as are foreign workers in the construction sector. Laws against human trafficking and forced labor are weakly enforced.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year