Photo Credit | Dr. Ebrahim Othman (pseudonym)
More than 1.6 billion people—23 percent of the world’s population—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, and organizing independently of the state. Citizens who dare to assert their rights in these repressive countries typically suffer harassment and imprisonment, and often are subjected to physical or psychological abuse. In these countries, state control over public life is pervasive, and individuals have little if any recourse to justice for crimes the state commits against them.
In this year’s Worst of the Worst report, nine countries were identified by Freedom House as being the world’s worst human rights abusers in calendar year 2011: Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Two disputed territories, Tibet and Western Sahara, were also in this category. All of these countries and territories received Freedom in the World’s lowest ratings: 7 for political rights and 7 for civil liberties (based on a 1 to 7 scale, with 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free). Within these entities, political opposition is banned, criticism of the government is met with retribution, and independent organizations are suppressed.
Seven other countries fall just short of the bottom of Freedom House’s ratings: Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and Libya. The territory of South Ossetia also is part of this group. All eight, which received ratings of 7 for political rights and 6 for civil liberties, offer very limited scope for independent discussion. They severely suppress opposition political activity, impede independent organizations, and censor or punish criticism of the state.
PR and CL stand for political rights and civil liberties, respectively; 1 represents the most free and 7 represents the least free rating. The ratings reflect an overall judgment based on survey results. ▲ ▼ up or down indicates a change in political rights, civil liberties, or status since the last survey.
Sadly, the Worst of the Worst and Threshold countries have endured on average for 37½ years without any transfer of power between competing political parties or forces. Few among them have risen above the Not Free rating in Freedom in the World for more than a few years. Of those that have, Belarus has received a Not Free rating since 1996, within two years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka becoming president; Eritrea has received the lowest possible ratings (6 or 7 out of 7) for political rights since independence in 1993; and Sudan has remained a Worst of the Worst country for every year since 1989, when a military coup brought the current leader, Omar al-Bashir, to power.
The news is not all bad however. The number of Worst of the Worst and Threshold countries has risen and fallen over the years, but the long-term trend is downward. From a peak of 38 such countries in 1984, the number declined to 15 countries in 2003, and stood at 16 countries for 2011. This decline was associated in large part with the move from one-party states and military dictatorships to multiparty systems in Africa and the collapse of communism in Europe.
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