Oppressive Regimes

Last updated: Sept 2011


Ethical Consumer's 2011 list of Oppressive Regimes


World Map of Oppressive Regimes

World Map of Oppressive Regimes - Click on the map to enlarge it.


Oppressive Regimes and their Allies


Ethical Consumer was propelled into being over twenty years ago by the boycott of South Africa and the pressing need for citizens around the world to take a stand against apartheid. 

We have used economic support for oppressive regimes as a barometer of corporate social responsibility ever since, and companies with operations in such countries are penalised under our rating system. 

The rationale behind this is straightforward: companies benefit from the very conditions which contribute to oppression, such as harsh labour conditions, lax environmental regulations and an economic environment conducive to corruption and tax avoidance.  Furthermore, trading with a regime helps to make it financially viable.  Oppressive regimes are supported by a series of economic ties without which they would not survive.  Foreign investment is a crucial element of this.


Business Complicit

The levels of corporate engagement with such regimes have become not just an embarrassment, but a threat to companies themselves.  A reputational risk that could ultimately hit companies where it hurts: their profits.  In May 2011 the campaign group Global Witness released a leaked document that revealed where the Gaddafi regime had stashed its cash, including $292 million in the high street bank HSBC.[1] 

PepsiCo, Nestlé and  Procter & Gamble, invested millions in Egypt during the now-reviled Mubarak regime.  Egypt was the second biggest recipient of foreign direct investment in Africa, trumped only by Angola - a country where human rights are violated with impunity and where the disparities in wealth are enormous.

We are living in times of immense geo-political change.  Government oppression and corruption has ignited protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa, whilst people in the industrialised North are taking to the streets in fury over corporate tax evasion.  The links between corporations and oppressive regimes are easier to spot now than they ever have been.  Meanwhile, Wikileaks has exploded the walls shrouding secret “diplomacy,” revealing massive complicity and collusion of powerful states in the oppression of people around the world.

Companies, particularly with brands in more ethically sensitive markets such the UK, are all too aware of the need to avoid consumer backlashes.  They have, and will, respond to consumer pressure. Which presents us with an invaluable means of affecting change.



Supply chain issues

Companies do not need to have direct operations in oppressive regimes to benefit from, and be implicated in, human rights abuses.  In the supply chains of a huge proportion of products on our supermarket shelves there are endemic human rights abuses.  Forced child labour is used to produce cocoa in West Africa and cotton in Uzbekistan. 

Computers, mobile phones and other digital equipment are likely to contain 'conflict minerals', which feed violence in Africa.  Palm oil, an ingredient used in an estimated 43 of Britain's 100 best-selling grocery brands, is implicated in land rights abuses of indigenous people in many areas of the world.  Some of the world's worst human rights abuses are fuelled by the demands of Western consumer markets, and the companies selling such products rarely have obligations to eliminate such practices. 

The responsibility for this situation lies not solely with companies, but an international trading system in which self-regulation and voluntary, non-binding commitments of companies are continually presented as adequate measures to protect against abuses. 

This system, developed and perpetuated by the powerful countries of the North, serves to entrench the economic supremacy of the minority over the dignity and human rights of people in economically poor, but often resource-rich, countries.  Countries that do not appear on the list therefore cannot wash their hands of the abuses that take place in the countries that are. 


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British problems

In this context, two issues are worth highlighting regarding the United Kingdom. 

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, on its way through parliament at the time of writing, will make it practically impossible for victims of corporate crimes committed by British companies in the global South to seek justice in the courts because they won’t be able to access the funds required. 

Secondly, 91% of the value of arms sale transfers from the UK between 2004 and 2007 were with 'developing' countries, on a par with arms exports from Russia (96%) and China (100%).  In contrast, arms transfers to developing countries accounted for 50% of sales from the USA and 54% from France.[2]  Brutal repression of citizens in oppressive regimes is carried out with the weaponry and torture equipment exported by countries that claim to respect human rights. 

The very concept of an oppressive regime, usually taken to describe the actions of a state towards its citizens, is in itself problematic: It excludes analysis of a state's actions towards non-citizens and its actions extra-territorially. 

Abuses perpetrated against the most vulnerable people - refugees and citizens living in war zones  –  often don’t appear in the statistics.  Furthermore, the majority of data used to generate the list specifically refers to human rights abuses carried out by the state – it does not, for example assess human rights abuses carried out by non-state armed groups.

Therefore where state control of its territory is weak the potential exposure of individuals to human rights abuses may not be reflected simply by the oppressiveness of the state.  Consequently, the list published here does not provide a complete picture of human rights in the world.



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Includes the rating of all 196 countries and our list of the 38 countries which we have defined as 'oppressive regimes'.






The List of Oppressive Regimes


Iran tops Ethical Consumer's 2011 Oppressive Regimes list, scoring 9.5 out of a possible ten, closely followed by China

In joint third place scoring 8.5 are Burma, Sudan and Yemen.

Also appearing on the list, in order of worst to the least worst, are: Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bangladesh, Libya, Nigeria, Belarus, Eritrea, India, Russia, Israel, Colombia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Chad, Laos, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Honduras, Kazakhstan and Thailand

A full list of country scores is available to download below.

To generate the list, data was sorted into 10 categories, producing an overall score out of 10.  Countries which scored more than six were included in the list, with the exception of Egypt, Tunisia and Guinea (see below).  The period the data relates to is 2009-2010.

The first five categories relate to the physical harm of citizens and political imprisonment, and the last five relate to civil rights.  The categories were selected in order to reflect a reasonably holistic view of the country, with a slight weighting towards issues particularly relevant to the operations of companies.   Limitations were inevitable as a result of lack of systematic, global data.  Omissions include the treatment of minority groups and women, and sexual violence perpetrated by state forces.   




A shorter version of this article first went to print in Ethical Consumer magazine in June 2011, a time during which the political landscape was shifting dramatically.  A decision was taken to exclude three countries from the final list despite the fact they scored highly enough, because they were undergoing, or had recently undergone, significant regime changes. 

In February 2011 mass demonstrations in Egypt lead to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, who had been President for 30 years, and the military assuming control of the country.  In Tunisia, a revolution cumulated in Prime Minister Ben Ali being forced into exile in January 2011 after 23 years of rule.  In September 2009, a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Guinea's capital, Conakry, ended in the brutal massacre of over 150 people, and the savage gang rape of dozens of women at the hands of Guinea's military.  Since then, Moussa Dadis Camara, the former self-proclaimed President and head of the military, has stepped down, and the country has begun the transition from military to civilian rule, with the first democratic election in December 2010. 

In these cases it was felt that it was unsuitable to use the 2009-2010 data to provide an accurate picture of the current regimes. Furthermore, as inclusion on the list results in negative scoring for companies in Ethical Consumer’s rating system, it would have the potentially perverse result of penalising companies newly investing in economic activity in those countries.

In selecting six as a cut-off point above which countries are classified as oppressive, we have generated a list that includes roughly a quarter of the countries assessed.  The remaining countries were further grouped into three bands, as represented on the map.  These bands also represented roughly a quarter of countries. Six as a cut-off point also ensures that a country will have picked up at least one mark in both the first five and the last five categories.  In so doing we have avoided the (possibly theoretical) situation where a country appears on the list if it doesn't perpetrate physical harm or political imprisonment.

However, Ethical Consumer recognises that the cut off point selected will always, in some sense, be arbitrary.  Countries which narrowly avoided being on the list, scoring six, were: Angola, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Guatamala, Indonesia, Rwanda and Uganda.



See our Methodology, Limitations of Research and Appendix