A year after Russia attacked Ukraine, a coalition of intellectuals, activists, economists and geopolitical experts released a report card that ranks countries based on impunity across five “dimensions”—unaccountable governance, conflict and violence, human rights abuse, environmental degradation, and economic exploitation.
The Atlas of Impunity (AOI), as the report is called, uses a scoring mechanism to rank 197 countries. Surprising and disturbing findings make it a useful tool to stimulate debate and place checks and balances on “a world in danger of spinning out of control”. The AOI begins with the Ukraine crisis to place in context the incidents of abuse and imbalance of power, where the powerful think they do not have to follow rules.
Former UK foreign secretary David Miliband leads the project. He wrote an article in February 2021, when the report was published, in which he said: “The war’s impact goes far beyond the region. It has driven up food and energy prices worldwide, contributing to the record 349 million people experiencing food insecurity and to famine-like conditions in East Africa. The conduct of the war has flouted the most basic international laws and conventions, posing a fundamental threat to the global order. As such, it offers a textbook example of the Age of Impunity.”
Miliband, along with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, with analytical support from Eurasia Group, says the aim of the AOI is to provide, for the first time, a rigorous definition of impunity across the aforementioned dimensions as well as independent, credible data sets to measure it. The report says: “Thankfully most of the world is not at war. But while the impunity of bombing a hospital is not yet normalised, the abuse of power is increasingly evident. The documentation of the scale of that abuse is the purpose of this Atlas.”
The team makes a bold statement in the report’s introduction, saying: “Impunity is the exercise of power without accountability, which becomes, in its starkest form, the commission of crimes without punishment. In a phrase, impunity is the idea that ‘the law is for suckers’.” Explaining why they chose impunity as a measure, the report says that while they could have used parameters such as democracy versus autocracy or Global South versus Global North, they believe the framework of impunity versus accountability captures the multidimensional nature of global challenges.
Hoping the Atlas will provide proof to call for a rebalance in the world, the researchers say they want to send out a clear message to countries violating laws, which have an internal and global impact. Furthermore, their actions are being tracked and the violations will be in the public domain for anyone to use.
Among the key findings in the report is this one: although countries such as Afghanistan and Syria are the worst in terms of accountability for obvious reasons, the economically rich countries and democracies do not necessarily score well on many of the dimensions. For instance, India, which is a strong democracy and an emerging economy, ranks poorly at 46 in overall impunity among the 197 countries surveyed. However, it comes in at 103 in the sphere of unaccountable governance, indicating that its electoral process and political culture is perhaps better than some of its peers.
The AOI says the data gathered produce different results from similar indices that focus on questions such as the quality of democracy, the level of economic freedom, or the role of corruption. These differences highlight the value of using impunity as a frame and looking across all five areas simultaneously as opposed to studying them in isolation.
The report’s striking findings include the following: The legacies of colonialism and the slave trade are correlated with higher impunity scores; environmental degradation is where impunity continues to thrive, even among otherwise accountable societies, such as Canada; violence against women and gender-based discrimination codified in law or by societal norms are global problems; the US is closer to the median than top performers, though it ranks much better than Russia or China; and human rights are being abused and accountability is falling even within democracies such as India, Israel, Malaysia and the US.
The report says four critical themes emerge from the data. “Circumstances are not destiny, and countries have agency,” states the first. It explains that on average, data show that higher-income countries tend to perform better than lower-income ones. However, it would be a mistake to assume that a country’s income and geographic location alone determine whether impunity is allowed to thrive. For instance, Gambia scores better than half of the countries in the Atlas despite being a low-income country.
The second theme states, “The great powers are not so great.” Countries such as the US and Russia have lower scores because of their involvement in foreign conflicts and/or large arms export industries, as well as their poor performance on environmental degradation.
The third takeaway says that “democracy is not a guaranteed defence against impunity”. Weaker democracies such as Mexico, Kenya, and Ukraine are scored on par with non-democratic countries such as Jordan and the UAE, highlighting the challenge for elections and party politics to ensure accountable governance.
The fourth theme—“moving toward a more accountable future”—provides a snapshot in time of a single year, says this inaugural AOI. The hope is that subsequent editions will allow them to track improvements or degradations in impunity by country on a yearly basis.
- A coalition of intellectuals, activists, economists and geopolitical experts released a report card that ranks countries based on impunity across five “dimensions”—unaccountable governance, conflict and violence, human rights abuse, environmental degradation, and economic exploitation.
- Former UK foreign secretary David Miliband, along with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, with analytical support from Eurasia Group, says the aim of the Atlas of Impunity is to provide, for the first time, a rigorous definition of impunity across the aforementioned dimensions as well as independent, credible data sets to measure it.
- India, which is a strong democracy and an emerging economy, ranks poorly at 46 in overall impunity among the 197 countries surveyed.
- The five countries with the worst accountability rankings are: Afghanistan (Score 4.25), Syria (4.16), Yemen (3.88), Myanmar (3.85) and the Central African Republic (3.77).
Using 67 statistical indicators drawn from 29 validated sources, the AOI measures impunity of 197 countries and territories across the five dimensions. To calculate country scores, the AOI normalises each indicator on a 0-5 scale, with the country exhibiting the greatest level of impunity scoring 5, and that with the highest degree of accountability scoring 0. Indicators in each dimension are then aggregated by simple mean; a country’s dimension mean is then min-max normalised from 0 to 5 once again into its dimension score. Each country’s scores for the five dimensions are averaged into a headline score, once again using equal weightings. This implies that equal conceptual importance is given to each dimension, just as each indicator is counted equally in its contribution to the dimension score.
In general, the impunity score data show a strong positive correlation between overall impunity and unaccountable governance, economic exploitation, and human rights abuse. The report says these relationships are not unusual as “effective and accountable governance is the cornerstone of sound economic policymaking and the protection of human rights”.
The top five countries in the impunity rankings are: Afghanistan (Score 4.25), Syria (4.16), Yemen (3.88), Myanmar (3.85) and the Central African Republic (3.77). India is at 46 (2.89) sitting just between Mexico (2.90) and Zambia (2.88). Nepal ranks at 64 and Sri Lanka at 77.
“Data show strong correlation between impunity and economic exploitation, unaccountable governance, and rights abuse.”
The data show that high-income, liberal democracies in western Europe have the lowest levels of impunity. New Zealand is the only non-European country among the Atlas’ top performers. The European nations that rule the rankings are Finland (0.29), Denmark (0.35), Sweden (0.43), Norway (0.53) and Germany (0.62).
The AOI report also delves into “Regional perspectives”. The report explains that Canada is a top performer in the impunity rankings but underperforms in two key areas. In environment degradation, Canada’s climate and geography mean that it is energy-intensive to travel domestically and to heat homes during winter. Its sizable natural resource and energy sectors also have significant environmental impacts. And the country also underperforms with regard to human rights, due to the disproportionate poverty, violence and incarceration rates faced by its indigenous population.
The 27 EU member countries all rank in the top one-third of performers with a low level of impunity, because of their high standards for accountability across a range of factors, including social, political and economic.
Eurasia is a concern, with Russia ranking 27 and the country with the highest level of impunity in the region. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has played a central role in its underperformance as it plunged the region into a military, diplomatic, and economic crisis. Georgia, on the other hand, ranks 110 in the Atlas, making it the best performer in the non-EU, post-Soviet space, thanks to good scores on economic exploitation and human rights.
Latin American countries score diversely. All of them except Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Chile fall outside the best-performing quartile of countries with the lowest levels of impunity. This is largely because conflict and violence indicators drive up impunity levels for many nations. Venezuela ranks a miserable 11, largely the result of the authoritarian rule of Nicolas Maduro.
In South Asia, India’s low ranking of 46 is because of its poor scores in terms of conflict and violence, human rights abuse, and environmental degradation.
In South-East Asia, most countries in the region are near the median in the Atlas, though Myanmar (which has the fourth highest impunity score in the AOI), Timor Leste (ranked 103), and Singapore (ranked 128) are notable regional outliers.
Impunity levels are high in the Middle East and North Africa. As the region is going through a period of change, researchers believe the data will fluctuate. Some countries are experiencing a deterioration of impunity-related metrics while others are taking concrete steps to make improvements.
The rankings of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa highlight the strong challenges they face in all data dimensions. South Africa’s ranking of 98 reflects its problems with corruption and rent-seeking. Kenya’s ranking (52) reflects challenges relating to democratic governance and electoral processes. For Nigeria (24), its low levels of accountability are the result of human rights abuses, corruption, and security challenges.
The report concludes that there are many reasons to be hopeful. A number of countries perform considerably better on the AOI than their income alone would indicate. Several countries have pledged or initiated crucial reforms that have the potential to improve accountability. The researchers then state their hope that progress made towards accountability will serve as an example for others so that policy lessons can lead to better outcomes elsewhere.
Miliband sums up his views in his article saying: “The systems and cultures of impunity are built over time. Stopping them needs more than laws and norms. It requires not just their defence, but a counterculture of accountability. As Ukrainians fight to defeat impunity on the battlefield, there is a wider job for the rest of us.”