Impunity – an atlas of unfairness

All actions have consequences. It’s a law of physics – Newton’s third of motion – and it also ought to be a rule in human societies. Generally it is, but as unfairness wields its influence, the rich and powerful are able to avoid many of the consequences of their activities.

That’s the basis for a new atlas of impunity, produced by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the political risk consultant Eurasia Group. As they put it:

“Impunity is the exercise of power without accountability, which becomes, in its starkest form, the commission of crimes without punishment.”

The report goes on to suggest that: “Impunity thrives when the imbalance of power is so great that the powerful think they do not have to follow the rules.” In other words, impunity is a clear form of unfairness. And unfortunately, “This feeling is one we think is prevalent, and which we fear is on the rise.”

There are detailed conclusions but the headlines are summarised in this global map:

The published data covers 197 countries in total, of which the authors believe they have enough data coverage to rank 163. The overall analysis represents a new tool for businesses and investors in thinking about the world and the stability and reliability of its regimes. The analysis of how such tools might be deployed by both investors and companies in my recent paper for the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law applies.

Indeed, there’s significant alignment between the insights from the Atlas and existing global assessments of the Rule of Law. Overall, there are 8 indicators specifically from a Rule of Law analysis (the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index) and many others will be recognisable as measures used in such analyses. As with other measures of the Rule of Law, weaker performance reflects a poorer environment for business activity and so a brake on overall economic performance.

The 8 explicitly Rule of Law indicators are out of 67 in total, and are spread across 3 of the 5 components of the overall index. These components are:

  • Unaccountable governance
  • Abuse of human rights
  • Economic exploitation
  • Conflict and violence
  • Environmental degradation

It is here that the Atlas of Impunity differs from previous measures of Rule of Law and similar assessments: within the environmental and conflict components, the Atlas includes elements considering a country’s impact on the wider world. Both components are predominantly about issues within countries, such as air quality and waste management, and community safety and homicides respectively. But they also include indicators including (again respectively) the overall ecological footprint and involvement in the arms trade. As the report states, “the impunity framework helps us understand the connection between what happens at home and what happens abroad. It speaks to interdependence in a way that national frameworks cannot.”

This seems fair and an important advance on what came before. It brings in a sense of a nation state’s impunity for the damage that it causes the rest of the world, a sense of the fairness of its influence on the wider world. However, it is notable that the correlation between these two elements and the overall score is much lower (0.80 for conflict and violence and 0.69 for environmental degradation) than the remarkable levels of correlation between the other three elements and the overall score (between 0.93 and 0.96). So though Norway has low scores on the environment because of its export of fossil fuels and its rich-world environmental footprint, pulling its scoring notably below its neighbours Finland, Denmark and Sweden, it still ranks fourth overall behind these three. Canada’s position is also notably weakened for reasons similar to Norway, but still ranks highly.

The list of the weakest-performing countries is perhaps even less surprising: Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and the Central African Republic, all of them scarred in different ways by their recent pasts. The authors are keen to point out that while results are framed by the past, history isn’t destiny. They note Senegal and Ghana as among those outperforming their difficult heritages.

As with other such indices and rankings, there is much that both companies and investors (in their sovereign debt investment and stewardship approaches, but also in corporate stewardship activities) can do to reflect on the lessons from them, and work to reinforce better and more robust societies in the countries in which they invest. That will bolster economic prosperity and so business and investment performance, as well as helping to build a fairer world.

See also: Investor actions to drive value and fairness through the Rule of Law

Board actions to protect value and boost fairness through Rule of Law

Atlas of Impunity 2023, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Eurasia Group, February 2023

The Rule of Law and investor approaches to ESG: Discussion paper, Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, September 2022

World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index