2011: A year of progress for human rights
Human rights lept forward in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Smaller steps also indicate progress, including a more forceful Arab League with Libya and Syria, grassroots protests in Russia, and respect for rule of law with the extradition of Laurent Gbagbo to the Hague.
Advancements in human rights come in either leaps or smaller steps, but far more often in steps. We notice the leaps, of course: In the 1990s, apartheid ended in South Africa and so did communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union; in 2002, the International Criminal Court was established. We saw another leap in 2011 with the Arab Spring.Skip to next paragraph
It is too early to tell the full implications of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya for human rights, to say nothing of the future of Syria or Bahrain. But at the very least they demonstrate that tens of thousands of Muslims, not incidentally including women, were willing to put their lives on the line for a chance at greater freedom. The successful humanitarian military intervention in Libya set a precedent that cannot help but unnerve tyrants everywhere.
But most human rights change comes about one step at a time, in those relatively modest forward movements that may not seem momentous at first, but often prove in the long run to be transformative. We had lots of such developments in 2011, some of them barely noted in the media.
One that has gotten far less attention than it deserves has been the role of regional organizations in the pursuit of human rights.
Traditionally it has been the United Nations or one of the great powers, often the United States, which has taken the lead in confronting human rights violations. But this year the Arab League, long an apologist for authoritarian leaders, not only provided cover for the military intervention in Libya but is signaling strong disapproval of the carnage in Syria. Indeed, Arab League monitors are on the ground in Syria today.
And one of the reasons that Burma (Myanmar) may be on the brink of reform is because of its desire to be seen as a leader within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Having to be accountable to your neighbors, not just the international community, both improves enforcement – the more sheriffs, the better! – and signals that human rights norms, like respect for free speech or abhorrence of mass atrocities, have now penetrated more locally.