Human Rights Day 2012: 8 Characteristics of the Most Repressive States


“Almost one in four people live in countries with the worst records of civil and political rights....” So begins the powerful report from Freedom House, an esteemed D.C.-based think tank that published “The Worst of the Worst 2012: The World’s Most Repressive Societies.

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day, a day for both sobriety and celebration. One that acknowledges the extreme horrors many in repressive societies face and revels in the capacity of human expression. Human Rights Day was designed to commemorate the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In its report on the "Worst of the Worst" this year, Freedom House calls out: Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It also notes that the related/disputed territories of South Ossetia, Tibet, and Western Sahara are equally reviled offenders. Below are some of the major characteristics these lands share:  

1) Repressive Regimes: All of these nations and territories, with the exception of Somalia (a failed state), are under the control of brutal dictators who have held power for decades.

2) No Electoral Democracy: Besides South Ossetia, which has an unmonitored voting process not recognized by the international community, none of these states or territories are electoral democracies.

3) Severely Restricted Press Freedom: All of these nations suffer from limited or nonexistent freedom of the press and expression. In Eritrea, a group of journalists have been imprisoned since 2001 and 10 are believed to have died in custody. In Syria, it is illegal to disseminate any material deemed a harm to national unity or the image of the state. In Tibet, Chinese officials tightly control information, and anyone seen with Dali Lama-related materials risks government orchestrated punishment. In North Korea, televisions and radios are permanently fixed to state channels. In Somalia, a Malaysian journalist reporting on the famine was shot and killed in 2011.

4) Torture: Government-sponsored torture is prevalent in China, Eritrea, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tibet, and Uzbekistan. In March 2012, Amnesty International published a gut-wrenching piece on torture tactics in Syria, detailing methods including flesh being gouged by pincers, subjection to sexual violence, and severe beatings, often while in stress positions. Kim Young-hwan, a South Korean advocate for North Korean democracy, was tortured in China this year. In 2011, Human Rights Watch released a report, “No One Left To Witness: Torture, the Failure of Habeas Corpus, and the Silencing of Lawyers in Uzbekistan.” The report discusses practices including electrocution and asphyxiation. A Human Rights Watch press release on the report includes a quote from Steve Swerdlow, an Uzbekistani researcher at the organization saying, “ The West has to wake up to the fact that Uzbekistan is a pariah state with one of the worst human rights records….”

5) Official Corruption: In every country and territory listed, corruption is a serious problem, mostly catalyzed by the state’s absolute power over the economy. In addition, all of the government’s listed can be characterized by an overall lack of transparency and accountability. Many of these land’s leaders are more driven to retain power than by national interests.

6) Politically Motivated Detentions: All countries and territories listed hold political prisoners. In Cuba, the absolute number of politically motivated short-term detentions has increased from 2,078 in 2010 to 4,123 in 2011. Human Rights Watch said Cuba "remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent." In some Eritrean prisons, inmates are locked in metal shipping containers or underground bunkers. Foreign journalists face detention in Syria and this year in Tibet detention has increased from the monastic and activist community to ordinary citizens advocating for Tibetan rights.

7) Gender Inequality: In Saudi Arabia, women’s rights are severely restricted to the extent that they may not drive cars and cannot travel without a male relative. The Chairwoman of the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, Farzaneh Milani, is quoted to have said, "Gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding, and subordinating women." In Belarus, the extreme income discrepancies between men and women have subjected many females to severe poverty, causing them to become victims of the international sex trade. Women face widespread discrimination and violence in Chad. According to Freedom House, “Female genital mutilation is illegal but routinely practiced by several ethnic groups.”

8) Restrictions on, or Persecutions for, Religious Practices: All the nations and territories listed severely limit religious expression and some persecute practitioners outright. In Saudi Arabia, all Saudis by law must be Muslim, practice of any other religion is prohibited. In Burma, the government has been known to interfere with religious assemblies. In China, tens of thousands are estimated to be in prison or held in detention centers for their religious views; all religious groups must register with the government, which regulates their activities.  Though religious freedom is guaranteed in Sudan, it is not at all upheld in practice, and the government uses religious laws as a means to oppress political opponents.