The Least Free Places on Earth

April 11, 2010

North Korea

North Koreans enjoy the lowest level of freedom in the world, according to Freedom House. All power is held by Kim Jong Il, who assumed power in 1994 upon the death of his father, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, whose statue in Pyongyang is shown above. The regime maintains a network of prison camps in which thousands of political prisoners are subjected to brutal conditions. All facets of a person’s life — including employment, education, place of residence, access to medical facilities, and access to stores — are determined by a semihereditary system of social discrimination that classifies citizens into 53 subgroups under broad security ratings (from “core” to “wavering” to “hostile”) based on their family’s perceived loyalty to the regime.


A shopkeeper in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, counts his earnings. The ruling junta, led by Senior Gen. Than Shwe, governs Burma by decree, controlling all branches of power, impoverishing the formerly wealthy country, and committing widespread human rights abuses against its population with impunity. The junta rejected its landslide defeat in the 1990 elections and has kept pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in prison or under house arrest for most of the past 19 years. Peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks were brutally suppressed in the fall of 2007, leading to international condemnation.

Equatorial Guinea

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo holds broad political power in Equatorial Guinea, a country that has never held a credible election. Africa’s third-largest oil producer is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with Obiang and his inner circle amassing huge personal wealth from Equatorial Guinea’s substantial oil profits. Most of the country, like this city slum, has yet to reap the rewards. Human rights abuses — including torture, detention of political opponents, and extrajudicial killings — are widespread.


Once an international pariah, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, above, began mending ties with the international community in 2003, when his country officially took responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families. Political power in the oil-rich state theoretically lies with a system of people’s committees, but in practice Qaddafi rules unopposed. Organizing or joining anything akin to a political party is punishable with long prison terms and even death. Women rejected by their families are considered wayward and can be held in “social rehabilitation” facilities indefinitely and without charge.


A man walks through the devastation of Mogadishu, the capital of a state that has virtually ceased to exist. Technically, the country is governed by the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), but its actual control is minimal. There are no effective political parties, and the political process is driven largely by clan loyalty. Conflict continued in Somalia throughout 2008 between the TFG and insurgent groups, including the Islamist militant group Shabab, causing further civilian deaths and the displacement of thousands of Somalis, particularly from the capital, Mogadishu. Attacks against aid workers increased during the year, significantly reducing the activities of many United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations.


Africa’s largest country has been embroiled in nearly continuous civil wars since it gained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who first came to power in a 1989 military coup, was the target of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in March on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide for his role in Sudan’s ongoing violence in Darfur. It is widely believed that his government has directed and assisted the systematic killing of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in the war-torn region since 2003 through its support of militia groups. Above, a displaced Darfuri woman carries her child along train tracks.


Turkmenistan quickly emerged as the most repressive of the newly independent states after the fall of the Soviet Union. President Saparmurat Niyazov, the former head of the Turkmen Communist Party, took power in 1991, isolating the country, gutting formal institutions, muzzling the media, and creating an elaborate personality cult around himself, complete with a gold-plated statue in his image that revolved to always face the sun. Upon his death in 2006, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov took power and promised reforms, pushing through a new constitution and removing the statue, but the country remains a one-party state in which all aspects of political and civil life are strictly controlled. Above, a soldier stands guard at Niyazov’s funeral.


President Islam Karimov has held power in Uzbekistan since 1991 and dominates all aspects of Uzbek politics, including both the legislature and judiciary. No genuine opposition party functions legally, and members of unregistered opposition groups are severely repressed. The soldiers above guard the central square of the city of Andijan. In May 2005, Uzbek security forces brutally crushed a popular uprising in Andijan, killing hundreds of civilians and bystanders. Uzbek authorities rejected international calls for an independent investigation into the massacre and instituted a wide-ranging crackdown targeting potential opposition figures, human rights defenders, and former officials.

Chechnya (Russia)

In the poster above, then Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with then Chechen presidential candidate Alu Alkhanov. The Kremlin credits Alkhanov’s successor, former rebel leader Ramzan Kadyrov, with helping subdue Chechnya’s insurgency and bringing order to the oil-rich Russian republic. Kadyrov’s private militia is linked to numerous abductions and disappearances, as well as the maintenance of unsanctioned prisons and torture chambers. Kadyrov’s emphasis on traditional Chechen Islam — including a call for polygamy in the republic — has led to increased discrimination against women.

Tibet (China)

China maintains tight control over Tibet, a remote Himalayan region known as “the roof of the world.” Although most regard the exiled Dalai Lama as their leader, Tibetans lack the right to freely elect their officials or determine their political future. The monk above offers his prayers at the Dalai Lama’s palace temple in Dharamsala, India. Chinese security forces routinely engage in arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and execution without due process, punishing even nonviolent protests against Chinese rule. China further restricted freedom of movement and exerted more control over the practice of Tibetan Buddhism following massive antigovernment protests in 2008.


All political power in Belarus is concentrated in the hands of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, often described as Europe’s only remaining dictator. Having successfully abolished term limits, Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994 and maintains complete control over the government, courts, and legislative process. Elections are decorative affairs, and opposition parties hold no seats in the rubber-stamp legislative assembly. Opposition activists, like the young woman above, are routinely arrested for demonstrating. Citizens need an internal passport to travel within the country.


Despite its substantial mineral wealth, Chad remains one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. Corruption related to the misuse of oil revenues is rampant within the inner circle of President Idriss Déby, who took power in a military coup in 1990. Ethnic and political conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of Chadians from their homes, and human rights groups have accused both security forces, like the young soldiers shown here, and rebel groups of killing and torturing civilians with impunity. After a failed coup attempt in 2008, the government arrested opposition figures and imposed new restrictions on the press.


China is home to more than half of the world’s “not free” population, according to Freedom House rankings. The Chinese Communist Party keeps a tight grip on political power, depriving Chinese citizens of the right to elect their leaders, participate in political opposition, or hold their government to account. China uses one of the most sophisticated and extensive systems of Internet filtering in the world and imprisons more journalists and more individuals for their online activities than any other country. Above, a guard passes a display showing a parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.


Fidel Castro may have stepped down last year after 49 years in power, but Cuba remains a one-party state, now under Fidel’s brother, Raúl. Freedom of movement and the right to choose one’s residence and place of employment are severely restricted, and attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense. Owning a cellphone and accessing the Internet from home were finally legalized in 2008, but the costs of both are far outside the reach of most Cubans. Above, a typical example of the Cuban regime’s anti-American propaganda in Havana.


The Eritrean government maintains an iron grip on the country’s political and social structures. National elections have been postponed indefinitely, independent political parties do not exist, and the government controls all broadcast media and restricts independent print publications. Journalists arrested in a 2001 crackdown remain in prison. The country’s long-standing suppression of democratic and human rights at home is accompanied by an aggressive foreign policy, which has included conflict with Ethiopia, support for antigovernment rebels in Somalia, tension with Yemen, and meddling in Sudanese civil conflicts. Here, Eritrean women tend to a flock of sheep and goats.


The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party maintains a monopoly on political power in one of the world’s few remaining communist states. The government, led by President Choummaly Sayasone, regulates virtually every facet of life, providing officials with ample opportunities to demand bribes. Poverty puts many women at risk, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 trafficked each year for prostitution. Thousands of mountain people have been displaced by the government’s attempts to destroy ethnic Hmong groups that have fought a low-level rebellion against the regime since 1975. The Laotian farmers above plant rice in a field in the country’s southwest.

Saudi Arabia

The kingdom is an authoritarian monarchy in which all political power is held by the royal family and in which the Koran and the Sunna (rules derived from the deeds and sayings of the prophet Mohammed) serve as the country’s constitution. All Saudis are required by law to be Muslims, and the government prohibits the public practice of any religions other than Islam. Women, like this one at a trade fair in Riyadh, are forbidden from driving, receive half the inheritance awarded to their brothers, and find their testimony equal to half that of a man’s in sharia courts.


Supporters of President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally in Damascus. Assad took power after his father’s death in 2000, pledging to liberalize Syria’s politics and economy. His early presidency — which featured the release of political prisoners, the return of exiled dissidents, and open discussion of the country’s problems — seemed promising, but was quickly followed by a return to repression. Freedom of expression, association, and assembly are tightly restricted, and the government holds an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 political prisoners. Publication of material that harms national unity, tarnishes the image of the state, or threatens the “goals of the revolution” are criminal offenses.


President Robert Mugabe, above, has overseen this previously wealthy country’s near total economic and social implosion since assuming power 29 years ago. Parliamentary and presidential elections in March 2008 were surrounded by a state-directed campaign of violence and intimidation targeting members and supporters of the opposition and resulting in at least 170 deaths, thousands of beatings and rapes, and hundreds of arrests and detentions. A fragile power-sharing deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change remains in effect, though the country’s economy, healthcare sector, and education system remain in ruins.

Courtesy Foreign Policy

2 Responses to “The Least Free Places on Earth”

  1. Zainab Ali Says:

    This is an excellent post, as it’ll help readers to understand the importance of democracy. The authoritarian regimes in these countries have inflicted a lot of injustices on their respective populations.

  2. yayaver Says:

    I was not even knowing name of few countries mentioned here. Thanks for this information.

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