Image source: Freedom in the World 2018, published by Freedom House

The 10 Most Repressive Countries in the World — and the 10 Most Free

The recent talks with North Korea have brought renewed attention to that nation — and to the extremely repressive nature of its government. By any measure, North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world. However, North Korea is not the only country with a dismal human rights record. Several dozen of the world’s nations are highly oppressive, sometimes brutally so. Yet each nation is unique — and therefore direct comparisons between these countries can be tricky. Suppose it was your job to evaluate every country on Earth as to how repressive or free it is — and to give each nation a score based on your findings. How would you go about doing that? What criteria would you use? How would you find and collect the data that corresponds to each criterion? And after you had gathered all the data and performed your analysis, which 10 countries of the world would rank as the most repressive, and which 10 would rank as the most free?

As it turns out, there are several organizations that have taken on this very task — to evaluate every nation on Earth as to how repressive or free it is, and to give each nation a score that reflects the results. Each of these “Freedom Indices” produces a different set of rankings, but there are more similarities than differences among the various results. All of the rankings put North Korea at or very near the bottom of the list. All of the rankings place democracies such as Norway and New Zealand near the top of the list — or at least very high on the list. It is also worth noting that each of the principal indices is updated on an annual basis — because the world is always changing. Each year, some nations experience an erosion of freedom compared to the previous year, while some other countries experience an increase in freedom.

Therefore, to identify the 10 most repressive and 10 most free nations on earth, we will look for a consensus among six of the most respected Freedom Indices — using the most recent results from each index. We will start with three indices that use the most typical criteria for measuring freedom and democracy, and then we will incorporate three additional indices that take a more specialized approach.

The three initial indices for this analysis are:

The Most Repressive Nations

What are the most repressive nations on earth, according to these three indices? All three indices agree that North Korea and Syria are among the three most repressive nations on the planet. In fact, two of the indices rank North Korea as the absolute worst.

All three indices agree that Turkmenistan is among the six most repressive countries, that Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea are both among the eight worst, and that Uzbekistan is among the ten worst. Based on this consensus, we can conclude that six of the most repressive countries in the world are:

  1. North Korea
  2. Syria
  3. Turkmenistan
  4. Saudi Arabia
  5. Equatorial Guinea
  6. Uzbekistan

Beyond this consensus, each of the indices has chosen a different set of four nations to round out their list of the worst ten. Two of the indices consider Eritrea to among the three most repressive countries in the world, in the same league as North Korea and Syria. Other countries that scored in the bottom ten in one list or another are South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo (Kinshasa), Tajikistan, Yemen, Bahrain, and Burundi.

NOTE: South Sudan was omitted from two of the indices, and Somalia was omitted from one of them. These omissions may skew the results slightly.

Three Other Indices

Before we look at the opposite question — the list of the freest countries on Earth — let’s take a look at three other indices, each of which presents a more specialized viewpoint regarding the questions of freedom and repression:

The World Press Freedom Index focuses exclusively on press freedom, making it much more specialized than the first three indices. The Index of Economic Freedom (EF) is also quite specialized, focusing on “economic freedom”, as defined by the values of the political right. In other words, this index is a measure of how business-friendly the various nations of the world are. Another conservative index, the Human Freedom Index (HF), looks at freedom in the world through a libertarian lens. Fifty percent of the HF score is based on economic freedom, defined in a manner similar to the EF index. But the other half of the HF score is based on other key aspects of human freedom — thereby providing a broader and more balanced perspective, while still reflecting conservative values.

The Press Freedom index lists the four most repressive countries in the world as North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Syria — which is consistent with the first three indices. But after these worst-of-the-worst, the next five most repressive countries are listed as China, Vietnam, Sudan, Djibouti, and Cuba. All five of these countries scored poorly in the first three indices, but none (except Sudan) so poorly as to land in the bottom ten of any list. In other words, these countries are willing to allow certain very limited freedoms, but not freedom of the press. (Note that three of these countries — China, Vietnam, and Cuba — are communist nations.)

The Economic Freedom Index has a somewhat different list of the ten most repressive countries in the world. Due to a lack of data, this index omits Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq from it rankings — which skews the results somewhat, because some of these nations would certainly have appeared in the bottom ten. Consistent with the first four indices, this index lists North Korea as the worst country in the world, and Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea as among the ten worst. However, after North Korea, it considers the three worst countries in the world to be Venezuela, Cuba, and Congo (Brazzaville) — when evaluated in terms of economic freedom.

The third of our three specialized indices — the Human Freedom Index — is of limited use in identifying the most repressive countries in the world, because so many of the top candidates were omitted from the rankings — including North Korea, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Cuba, Djibouti, Uzbekistan, and Iraq. (These countries were omitted due to a shortage of reliable statistics.) Of the countries that were indeed ranked, Syria and Venezuela are listed as the worst two.

If we consider all six lists, then the following countries appeared in the bottom twelve on three or more lists:

  1. North Korea (5 of 5)
  2. Syria (5 of 5)
  3. Equatorial Guinea (5 of 5)
  4. Turkmenistan (5 of 5)
  5. Saudi Arabia (5 of 6)
  6. Eritrea (4 of 5)
  7. Yemen (3 of 5)
  8. Uzbekistan (3 of 5)
  9. Central African Republic (3 of 6)

This aggregated list therefore represents a consensus view — indicating the nine most repressive governments in the world. (Tenth place would probably go to Sudan, which appears in the bottom thirteen countries in 3 out of 5 indices.)

Now that we have this list, what should we do with it? First of all, we should remember which countries are on the list. In every one of these countries, a brutally repressive national government makes life miserable for a large part of the population. (In some of these countries, civil war magnifies the suffering several times over.) We should look for ways that the world might help the suffering people of these countries. Equally important, the democratic nations of the world should avoid pursuing policies that encourage further repression by undemocratic leaders. It would also be helpful if we all attempted to learn more about the specific situation in each of these countries.

What Does Freedom Actually Mean?

Let’s now consider the opposite question. If we were to list the ten freest countries in the world, then which countries would appear on that list? Just as there are far more than 10 repressive countries in the world, there are far more than 10 countries that qualify as free. Creating a list of the top ten is a bit tricky, because there are many different kinds of freedom. Before we can evaluate the state of freedom in a particular country, we have to decide which categories of freedom to consider. A typical list of our most important freedoms is the following:

  • Freedom of expression (including free speech and freedom of the press)
  • Freedom of association (including freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and freedom of assembly)
  • A fair legal system (including equality before the law, and freedom from arbitrary arrest)
  • Freedom from arbitrary seizure of property
  • Free economic activity

Democracy is often considered to be essential to freedom. While freedom and democracy are not synonymous, the two concepts are closely related. We use terms like “self-determination” and “government by the people” to express our belief that government should answer to the people. Furthermore, democracy helps to ensure that government respects our other freedoms. A true democracy includes:

  • Government by elected representatives of the people
  • Free and fair multi-party elections, with universal suffrage
  • Judicial and legislative constraints on the executive branch of government

The first three indices cited in this article (Freedom in the World, Democracy Index, and V-Dem) all put great emphasis on democracy, in addition to the other freedoms listed above. The three indices use similar criteria to evaluate the countries of the world, but each index uses its own methodology to match these criteria to various sets of measurable data. Therefore the results vary somewhat between the three indices.

Unlike our first three indices, our other three indices are far more specialized. The World Press Freedom Index focuses exclusively on press freedom. The Economic Freedom Index focuses exclusively on freedom of economic activity. The Human Freedom Index is a hybrid, with half the score focused exclusively on economic freedom, and the other half focused on several other categories of freedom.

Countries with the Most Freedom

So now let’s revisit our first three indices (Freedom in the World, Democracy Index, and V-Dem) to identify the freest countries in the world. All three of these indices list Norway as #1 — the freest, most democratic nation on Earth. All three indices list Sweden in the top three. In total, there are six countries that the three lists agree should be in the top ten:

  1. Norway
  2. Sweden
  3. Finland
  4. New Zealand
  5. Denmark
  6. Australia

There are two additional countries — Switzerland and Canada — that appear in the Top Ten in two different lists. Other countries that scored in the Top Ten in one list or another are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Iceland, Ireland, Estonia, Costa Rica, and Portugal.

Now let’s bring in the three specialized indices — Press Freedom, Economic Freedom, and Human Freedom.

The Press Freedom index agrees with the first three indices that Norway is the best country in the world, and that Sweden ranks #2. This index ranks Netherlands, Finland, and Switzerland in the top five, and it places New Zealand and Denmark in the top ten — all consistent with the first three indices. However, this index also lists Jamaica, Belgium, and Costa Rica as among the top ten countries of the world (with regard to press freedom).

The Economic Freedom (EF) index, with its narrow focus on friendliness to business, produces a distinctly different set of results. It lists Hong Kong and Singapore as the two freest countries in the world — even though both rank considerably lower in the first four indices. (Both countries are considered to be authoritarian regimes, with limited democracy and significant limits on freedom of speech and of the press.) However, there is a solid reason for placing Hong Kong and Singapore at the top of this particular index — because there is no disputing that these two places are both quite friendly to business.

NOTE: Hong Kong is not actually an independent country — it is a territory of China. However, due to its separate legal system and its semi-autonomous status, it makes sense to list Hong Kong separately from China in these rankings.

The other striking anomaly in the Economic Freedom index is that the United Arab Emirates is ranked among the ten freest countries in the world — while the first three indices all consider the U.A.E. to be a highly repressive dictatorship that ranks among the bottom 12% of all countries in the world. But again it is simply a matter of focus. The U.A.E. strives mightily to be friendly to business, while remaining highly repressive in most other regards.

On the other hand, the Economic Freedom rankings agree with the first four indices that New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, and Canada all deserve to be the in the Top Ten. It also places Ireland, Estonia, and the United Kingdom in the top ten — all of which have very good scores in the other four indices. The EF index does not list either Norway or Sweden among its top ten, although it does give both countries very good scores. So despite the distinct anomalies, there are more similarities than differences between this index and the first four.

Our final index — Human Freedom — also presents a conservative viewpoint strongly influenced by concepts of economic freedom (that is, friendliness to business). However, only 50% of the score is based on economic freedom, while the other 50% is based on other human rights considerations. According to Human Freedom, the three best countries are Switzerland, Hong Kong, and New Zealand. Also in the Top Ten are Ireland, Australia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. All ten of these countries appear in the Top Ten list of at least one other index.

Taking into account all six of our indices, the following countries appear in the Top Ten in three or more of the lists:

  1. New Zealand (6)
  2. Norway (5)
  3. Finland (5)
  4. Denmark (5)
  5. Australia (5)
  6. Switzerland (5)
  7. Sweden (4)
  8. Netherlands (3)
  9. Canada (3)
  10. Ireland (3)

Therefore we now have a consensus answer as to the ten freest countries in the world. In addition to appearing in several different Top Ten lists, all ten of these countries scored quite well in all six indices — almost always in the top twenty.

NOTE: Most of the six indices do not include extremely tiny nations such as San Marino and Andorra — and therefore such tiny countries are not eligible to appear in the consensus Top Ten list.

The Elephant in the Room

Some people might find it odd that the United States has not been mentioned in this discussion. In fact, all six indices included the U.S. in their rankings, but none of them ranked the U.S. in the Top Ten. The United States is often called “the land of the free” — so what happened? How well did the U.S. actually rank?

Not surprisingly, the ranking for the U.S. varied somewhat from one index to another. The highest ranking was 18 out of 180 countries, which is the 10th percentile. The lowest ranking was 45 out of 180 countries, which is the 25th percentile. Therefore, by any of these comparisons, the U.S. is among the freest 25% of all nations in the world. This is a respectable result, but certainly not outstanding. The general consensus among these indices is that the U.S. is not among the freest 10% of all nations in the world — which leaves the U.S. with some room for future improvement.

Conclusion

Now that we have a list of the 10 freest countries in the world — New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, Netherlands, Canada, and Ireland — how can we make use of this list? First of all, it is worth paying close attention to these ten countries — with an emphasis on understanding why these countries are considered to be so free. All 10 of these countries are vibrant democracies, but they also differ from each other in certain key details. Therefore it is worth studying how these different flavors of democracy can all produce such outstanding results. If each of us looks carefully at these ten examples, then we are likely to find some valuable lessons that can be applied elsewhere.