Are human rights really in decline? Look how far we've come.

In the face of reported global abuses, it's tempting to bemoan the lack of human rights progress. But even before protesters in Egypt and the Middle East took a historic stand for freedom, human rights has actually made big gains. Here are four key developments from the last decade.

Shortly before I left my position as head of Amnesty International in 2006, I gave a lecture at Syracuse University on the state of human rights around the world. At a dinner beforehand, the university president asked faculty members whether human rights were better or worse off today than they were 200 years ago. With one exception, the faculty all insisted that human rights were in worse shape.

The one person who demurred from that judgment was David Crane, professor of law and former prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone. He pointed out that the notion of bringing perpetrators of war crimes before an international court would have been inconceivable in 1806. I added that, in fact, the notion of universal human rights was not even a recognized concept then.

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I often think of this conversation when listening to people bemoan how little human rights progress the world seems to be making. Of course, it is true that terrible human rights violations continue to occur on a daily basis, and no one would deny the need for far more effective enforcement of human rights laws.

But when I reflect on all that has changed in the first decade of the 21st century alone, I cannot help but agree with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s popular summary of Theodore Parker's idea that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Middle East unrest a sign of progress

In this new decade, today’s unrest in the Middle East – however complicated with violence and uncertainty – may be another testament to this progress, depending on what comes after each regime. The wave of popular uprisings now threatening autocrats across the Arab world appears to represent an extraordinary step toward greater freedom and improved human rights in the region.

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Just a few months ago, not many would have thought the ouster of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to be possible. In Egypt, even as pro-Mubarak supporters launched a violent crackdown against activists, human rights representatives, journalists, and citizens, anti-government protestors persevered in the message that has already earned unprecedented concessions from the Egyptian regime.

While struggles in the Middle East and other parts of the globe continue, it’s encouraging to take stock of how far the cause of human rights really has come.

Progress of the last decade

Consider these four developments from the past 10 years:

The International Criminal Court was born. Before July 1, 2002, those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity knew that, except in the rare event that the international community convened a special tribunal, they need have little fear that their criminal deeds would ever be punished. Though the court has not yet achieved a conviction, the mere specter of possible prosecutions has already brought change to places like Guinea and Uganda.

Use of the death penalty continued to decline. During the last decade, 26 more countries abolished the death penalty. Today the number that employ it (58) is at a historic low. In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled its use unconstitutional in the cases of the mentally retarded (2002) and juveniles (2005). Executions continue to decline, as does the frequency of capital sentences.

The number of human rights groups exploded. A recent study for the US Holocaust Museum identified 115 organizations working on genocide prevention. Of those, the 12 major groups were all founded in the past five to seven years. The same trend is true of national and regional human rights organizations. Virtually every country, even some of the most repressive, can now boast indigenous groups that track violations, report abuses, and try to hold their governments to international standards.

Technology joined the human rights fight. Furthermore, those proliferating groups must no longer rely on 20th-century techniques alone. Twitter-organized protests are now the norm, as we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt recently. Sophisticated data analysis applications are mapping evidence of human rights crimes from Guatemala to Liberia. Satellite imaging has identified slave-labor camps in North Korea and protected villages at risk in Darfur, Sudan.

We really have come a long way

The human rights camp still suffers setbacks with some regularity, of course. Freedom House has reported that the number of electoral democracies has reached the lowest level since 1995. But long-term human rights victories depend upon changing global political and cultural norms, and that takes time. And patience.

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After all, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into existence only 62 years ago, even its most ardent supporters would have scoffed at the notion that its affirmation of "the right to marry and to found a family" would ever be applied to gays and lesbians.

Monumental as the future battles will be, it is important to pause occasionally and savor the satisfying truth that, when it comes to human rights, we really have come a long way, baby.

William F. Schulz is president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization.

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