- In honor of World Human Rights Day (December 10), I would like to present to you the top 10 worst human rights offenders in the world, with a little help from Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. This list is far from comprehensive and updated stats in January may change things a bit, but in it you’ll find many old favorites, a few soon to be falling from power, and not one will surprise you.
1. Equatorial Guinea
How can one forget Equatorial Guinea? It is home to the oldest African dictator, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Obiang has been in power since 1979 and has used the last 30 years to soak up oil revenues into offshore accounts and suppress the majority of his citizens. Unfortunately, in Equatorial Guinea there is no free political opposition, civil society groups, or media. Obiang is looking to place his eldest son as successor through some forced "constitutional measures," despite his son’s international reputation for corruption. Without some real outside pressure, the future does not look bright for Equatorial Guinea’s poverty-stricken masses.
Despite over 20 years of independence, Eritreans remain tightly controlled by one of the world’s most repressive governments with arbitrary and indefinite detention, torture, forced labor for national service, and restrictions on basic freedoms of speech, movement, and belief. It is no coincidence that Eritrea is one of the most difficult places to get a visa to travel to (imagine trying to get out). Citizens are micro-managed in every aspect of their lives – nongovernmental public gatherings of over seven people are outlawed and minority religious activities are banned with the faithful being imprisoned and forced to renounce their beliefs.
3. North Korea
New ruler, so far same old rules. While I harbor some (probably naive) hopes of a gradual opening of North Korea (a la China), little has been done by Kim Jong-un to grant his people the rights to religious, media, or organizing freedoms. Historically, North Koreans have been punished, even executed, for stealing and hoarding food as well as any crime deemed "anti-socialist." With its history of forced labor and famine, North Korean leaders would be prudent to begin opening up their borders to a modern economic system, though it would have to be done slowly to prevent more poverty (and the westernized values of democracy) from rushing in – no one wants that.
4. Saudi Arabia
One of the only Middle East human rights offenders to get away without a stern talking to by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (coughUSoilconspiracycough). It has almost been forgotten that during the Arab Spring, in most of the region, the Saudi government quickly repressed its own citizens’ demands. There are also the well-publicized laws that keep women as second class citizens. Not to mention the mistreated migrant workers, becoming a type of slavery, from poorer Asian nations. What Saudi Arabia could profit from is the realization that women can become a productive workforce (if let into a few freedoms) and that well-treated labor lasts longer and can work harder than labor that is mistreated into ill-health (we only need to ask pre-1865 U.S. plantation owners what their work forces’ life expectancy was to figure that out).
Admittedly, human rights abuses in Somalia are a different sort – it’s hard to protect basic freedoms when you have trouble building peace and governance. Unfortunately, the ongoing fighting in Somalia has resulted in enormous casualties and abuses of civilians, perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Without a genuine commitment to peace and a government, legitimized by its citizens, that is strong enough to quell rebel attacks, basic human rights will continue to be under threat. Conflict in Somalia has gone on long enough, and the world needs to stop using the country as an example of a "failed state" and start supporting it in seeking sustainable solutions.
Ah, one human rights offender that we can all hope won’t be around in 2013 (although Egypt’s revolution has shown revolution does not equal freedom). Even if we attempt to forget about the egregious human rights abuses by both government and rebel forces during the ongoing civil war, Syria is at the top of the world’s list of police states. With arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and torture, Assad has attempted to keep hold on his country, daring to go so far as jailing and torturing internationally known activists and journalists. Hollow reforms were put in place to quell civil conflict at the beginning, but these have proven transparent and inadequate to counteract the ongoing repression by Assad. I can only say that I’m looking forward to seeing the strong facade of the House of Assad crumble and hope the opposition is up for the task of rebuilding a strong, democratic state (at least they’ll have enough recent examples in the Middle East to learn from).
Like too many "democracies" in the world, Belarus’ electoral system is flawed and corrupt victories for its long-standing president have resulted in brutal riots between police and (usually peaceful) protestors. As with many of our other favorites here, civil society and the press are controlled to the point where many commenters can see little progress since the days of the USSR. Speaking of Russia, one of Belarus’ only friends, Putin and Medvedev (whoever happens to be President at the time) continue to condemn U.S. and EU sanctions against Belarus and use the situation to take control of the country’s gas market.
I have to admit, I was tempted to leave China off this list, I mean don’t you get sick of reading about the same offenders every year? But I cannot ignore the complete repression of ethnic minorities across China, which probably sows more dissent than respect, or the fear that freedoms would foster secession. In addition to these well-known issues, China suppresses its (and Western) media, has a harsh system of discrimination against migrant workers, leads the world in executions, and has had countless disasters resulting in tainted foodstuffs and dangerous building codes. It is no mystery about what is going wrong with China, and while it is resisting opening up politically as it opens up economically, the large gap between rich and poor as the Chinese economy sprints forward will prove unsustainable and will only lead to a very messy conflict if reforms are not taken.
10. Assorted Homophobic Countries
While Uganda may be in the news for its "Kill the Gays Bill," that some say ie merely a distraction to delay corruption investigations and will not be passed (at least with the death penalty), there are seven other countries where homosexuals (male or female) can recieve the death penalty: Sudan, Mauritana (though there are no reports of it happening in the last 15 years), Nigeria, Somaliland, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. There are an additional 64 countries where "offenders" can be imprisoned, many for decades and some up to life sentences. For the record, only 11 countries in the world have legalized same-sex marriage and five others have partial legalization (such as by state or city). While the fight for homosexual rights in Uganda is important, it is just as important elsewhere (here’s a cheat sheet). Let’s avoid selective armchair activism, shall we?
Now, you may have expected me to throw the United States in there. Many human rights activists will critique the opportunity I had to throw the U.S. death penalty, racial discrimination, and migration issues (and coughGuantanamocough) in its face. Human Rights Watch even gives the U.S. one of the longest chapters in its report (while the EU is lumped together). I would rather educate you on some human rights offenders that you may know a little less about and whose offenses are almost inarguably worse than those found in the U.S.
Feel free to call me biased, but I feel safer in the U.S. than any of the other nations on this list. Since I believe in free speech, you may disagree – in the comments below.
By Katie Gresham(Kate Gresham is a graduate of American University's International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, Katie currently lives in London where she works wit)