Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dictator of the Year

If Parade Magazine's annual Worst Dictators in the World issue isn't enough to get me out of the blogging doldrums, I don't know what is.

This year's list began with a disclaimer noting that previously ranked dictators Fidel Castro of Cuba and Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan were excluded from this year's list. Castro was excluded for handing over the reigns (at least in name) to his brother in July and Niyazov was excluded because he died in December. I don't agree with either of these choices because this list has always been a survey of the worst dictators over the past year. Both men were in power for most of last year, and both had personality cults so immense that their presence will be felt in their countries for decades to come, so I don't think they should have been excluded.

Sudan's Omar Al-Bashir and North Korea's Kim Jong Il finished 1-2 for the second year in a row. Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei shot up six places into third place this year. I'm not going to defend Khamenei, but I think it's pretty obvious that his rise from 18th to 9th to 3rd place over the past three years has more to do with the increasingly defiant and bellicose rhetoric that has been coming out of Tehran with regards to nuclear weapons, Israel, Iraq, etc. While Iran has become a more repressive place over the past few years, it's hard to justify Khamenei's jump from the outskirts of the "best of the rest" two years ago to the top three today based solely on his lousy human right record.

The top 10 welcomed two new members this year, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi (who placed 11 last year) and Syria's Bashar Al-Assad, who moved up from 16th. I'm not sure why Qaddafi moved up, since if anything, he's been cleaning up his act as of late.

China's Hu Jintao jumped up two places to reclaim the number 4 spot this year. I continue to be puzzled by his high ranking in this survey. The Chinese government is no champion of human rights, but at least they have given their population some measure of economic freedom. Furthermore, China appears to be on a positive trajectory. The Chinese people as a whole live freer and more prosperous lives than they did ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, which is more than the people who live in most of the countries under the control of the top 10 dictators can say. The people of Myanmar have been stuck living under the control of a brutal military junta over the past 15 years and have seen their economy collapse and their country branded an international pariah and yet their leader, Than Shwe, comes in two places below Hu this year.

The 10 worst dictators list needs to decide if it wants to rank the world's dictators solely based on their dictatorial bona fides or if it wants to weigh each regime's human rights record against it geopolitical importance. The reason China always places so high (I assume) is because it's a country that wields a lot of power on the international stage. This year's list begins with an eye towards geopolitical significance (Sudan, North Korea, Iran, China) but it then switches to a more of a pure dictatorial quotient, placing Zimbabwe in the number 7 spot and four leaders of relatively obscure African countries in places 11-20 (Equatorial Guinea: 11, Swaziland: 12, Eritria: 13, Cameroon: 19). I'm really curious as to how Cameroon's Paul Biya managed to move from unranked to number 19 this year. I feel like I pay fairly close attention to international news and I fancy myself a bit of an Africa watcher and I've never ever heard of this guy. I don't recall reading any news about Cameroon in the past year good or bad (other than the Cameroon Crazies).


Michael David said...

Welcome back. I never read Parade Magazine, but I find this annual list fascinating, and I only know about it because of you. Kudos bar.

dhodge said...

The worst dictators issue is the only issue of Parade the Magazine that I ever read. In fact, I was worried that I had missed this year's issue and dug through a pile of old newspapers last week to make sure I hadn't missed it.