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.
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.
Or consider that people at the grassroots seem to have found their voices in some of the most surprising places. It was not just in Tahrir Square or at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that average citizens took to the streets. Russia, long thought a “hotbed” of passivity, has been rocked by protests over electoral fraud and widespread corruption.
China, which experiences thousands of minor citizen revolts each year over such issues as corruption and environmental damage, usually leaves their resolution to local officials. But demonstrations in Wukan, Guangdong Province, over secret land deals and the killing of a local villager became so large, raucous, and well-publicized that higher-ups felt the need to step in to negotiate.
Even in repressive Kazakhstan, oil workers have refused to give up their protests over wages and working conditions despite a brutal government response. Thanks to the Internet, citizens in every corner of the globe (with the exception of North Korea) are learning that even the most authoritarian government cannot afford to ignore its people’s will forever.
Or finally look at respect for the rule of law. True, Muammar Qaddafi was summarily executed by the Libyan rebels. But Laurent Gbagbo, former Ivory Coast strongman, was transferred by his adversaries to The Hague following his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed after refusing to concede his defeat for reelection.
International law is still a fragile instrument and the ICC’s failure to win any convictions of those it has indicted means that its effectiveness has not yet been proven. But Mr. Gbagbo’s transfer, with the support even of countries like the United States that has failed to join the Court, reflects recognition that legal remedies can often be more attractive than military ones.
All this progress is not to deny that rape continues largely unabated in Congo or that China continues to hold thousands in prison without trial or that Robert Mugabe continues to use force and fear to sustain his rule in Zimbabwe. Burma may slip back into total repression and who knows when North Korea will emerge from it. Occasionally human rights even regress.
But at the end of the day, the fundamentally positive direction of change is clear. For human rights, 2011 was a year far more deserving of celebration than tears.