As published on theguardian.com, Friday 17 February, 2023.
The US scores surprisingly badly in a new ranking system charting abuses of power by nation states, launched by a group co-chaired by former UK foreign secretary David Miliband.
The US comes close to the median of 163 countries ranked in the Index of Impunity, reflecting a poor record on discrimination, inequality and access to democracy. The country’s arms exports and record of violence are an even bigger negative factor.
The US ranks worse on impunity than Hungary and Singapore, one a poster child for democratic backsliding and the other an illiberal democracy.
The UK performs creditably at 147, only 26 rankings away from the most accountable state. Its score is brought down by its protection of offshore tax havens that facilitate tax abuse in other countries.
Former colonies, many affected by the slave trade, fare poorly in the index, suggesting the experience of imperialist subjection has caused a continuing damaging legacy. Nearly all of the top 20 ranked in the index in terms of impunity are former colonies or touched by colonialism.
The findings are likely to stimulate the already fraught questioning of the presumed superiority of the west, an issue that bedevils debate at the UN and has come to dampen some of the expected support for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion.
But the index will provide little ammunition for Russia, which ranks 28 out of 160 states, the highest level of impunity in its region, and the result of poor scores for conflict and violence, environmental degradation, abuse of human rights and unaccountable governance.
China also performs poorly, at number 48.
The work, launched ahead of the Munich Security Conference, has been prepared by an international group co-chaired by Miliband, the former British foreign secretary, and Prof Mónica Pinto of the University of Buenos Aires in collaboration between the Eurasia Group and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
The authors say the concept of impunity is the exercise of power without accountability, which becomes, in starkest form, the commission of crimes without punishment. The report says: “There are good grounds to fear we are entering a global ‘age of impunity’, in which ‘the rules are for suckers and civilians pay the price’.”
It argues that “while the impunity of invading a neighbour or bombing a hospital, contrary to international law, is not yet normalized, the abuse of power is increasingly evident: climate change on the march; autocrats on the rise; and the rules-based-order in retreat. The documentation of the scale of that abuse, in each country in the world, is the purpose of this index.”
The authors argue their chosen analytical frame could be a better way of understanding and measuring what is happening in the world today than democracy v autocracy, left v right, or east v west.
The authors say it aims to capture the multidimensional nature of global challenges ranged across five main dimensions - governance and human rights, economic inequality, environmental damage, adherence to norms in times of conflict, and the linkages between a country’s domestic politics and its impact abroad.
For each of the five dimensions, the authors examined up to 17 different independent credible datasets to measure impunity across each dimension, so making it possible to produce an overall score and ranking for each country in the world.
Among the most powerful countries in the international system, Germany and Japan perform the best, benefiting from their lack of direct involvement in the types of conflicts that hurt the scores of more militarised powers, including the US and Russia. Broadly, high income liberal democracies perform well with Nordic countries Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway scoring the best rankings in the index.
Environmental degradation is where impunity continues to thrive, even among otherwise accountable societies. For instance Canada, which is one of the best performing countries overall on the index at 22, is in the top quartile of countries for environmental degradation.
The study implicitly challenges the framework of democracy versus autocracy set by the US president, Joe Biden, through his democracy summit last year. It argues: “Emphasizing the centrality of democracy alienates the many societies that do not operate under the principles of democratic governance and yet still care about constraining power. It also misses the internal debates over accountability that can happen within both democratic and non-democratic societies.”
The index shows, for instance, that countries such as India, Israel, Malaysia, or the US are self-evidently democratic, but do not score well on human rights.
Miliband said: “Impunity means the decision to launch a missile attack on a hospital in north-west Syria. It means the decision to prevent the transfer of critical aid into Yemen or within Ethiopia. It means the daily rocket attacks against civilian housing in Ukraine.
“Impunity is not just the commission of crimes – which in conflict zones means war crimes – without punishment. It is the exercise of power without checks and balances on the abuse of power. And while the abuse of power in war zones is most extreme, it is not the exception. When I say we are living in an age of impunity, I mean we are living at a time when critical checks and balances on the abuse of power – by governments, by business, by private citizens – are in retreat.”