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,” a notion that human rights leaders fear is on the rise in political institutions around the world. From behaviour in conflict to economic exploitation, and environmental degradation to democratic backsliding, the battle between impunity and accountability is a critical lens for understanding what is happening worldwide.
The Atlas of Impunity is a comprehensive tool designed to track the abuse of power across five key societal dimensions – unaccountable governance, abuse of human rights, economic exploitation, conflict and violence and environmental degradation – and spark vigorous debate on the rise of unaccountable power worldwide.
“With the Atlas, we provide, for the first time, a rigorous definition of impunity across five key dimensions of national and international life, as well as the independent, credible data sets to measure impunity across those dimensions.”
The inaugural Atlas, expanding on the work of legal experts, human rights advocates, and policymakers, defines impunity as the exercise of power without accountability, and is built on 67 statistical indicators drawn from 29 universal, independent and credible sources.
The Atlas is led by an external, independent global advisory board composed of human rights experts and activists, former diplomats, and former government officials with a range of regional and policy perspectives. It is a project of David Miliband, former UK Foreign secretary; Eurasia Group, which provided analytical support; and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
The legacy of colonialism and the slave trade is correlated with higher impunity scores. Nearly all the 20 countries with the highest levels of impunity are former colonies or countries affected by colonialism. Similarly, about one-third of the 30 worst-ranked countries were affected by the slave trade. However, while impunity scores are informed by circumstance, they can be molded by policy choices: some countries that have suffered from the historical legacy of slavery and colonization such as Ghana and Senegal, score well on the Atlas.
The US is closer to the median than top performers and ranks higher on impunity than both Hungary and Singapore. Indeed, most of the world’s great regional powers—including China, Russia, Brazil, India, or Iran—perform relatively poorly compared to economic and geographic peers.
Environmental degradation is where impunity continues to thrive, even among otherwise accountable societies. Canada, which is one of the best performing countries on the Atlas and traditionally scores well on similar indices, is only moderately better than the mean in terms of environmental degradation. India, China, Russia, and the US—all among the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters globally—place 20th, 70th, 78th, and 101st, respectively.
Violence against women and gender-based discrimination is a global problem. This type of impunity negatively affects the human rights and conflict and violence scores of theocracies such as Afghanistan. But it also affects some liberal democracies, states in conflict such as Syria, and peaceful countries including South Korea.
Human rights are being abused and accountability is falling within democracies. Certain democratic countries that perform well on the unaccountable governance dimension perform substantially worse on the abuse of human rights. In fact, Singapore, which is not a full-fledged liberal democracy, ranks better on unaccountable governance than certain democracies. Weaker democracies such as Mexico, Kenya, and Ukraine are scored on par with non-democratic countries including Jordan and the UAE.