Good Reads: Was 2011 a banner year for human rights?

From the downfall of North African regimes to the humanitarian interventions in Ivory Coast and Libya, 2011 appears to have been the year when citizens and leaders took a stand on human rights. 

Scan the headlines and you might feel like the world is going down the tubes. War, famine, power struggles, economic collapse, climate change – none of these problems seem to be going away, and some problems seem to be getting worse by the day.

But in at least one area – human rights – there seems to be some major progress, both because of citizen activism from below and political leadership from above.

Three major dictatorships have fallen across North Africa – in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – at least partly at the hands of their own people. Citizen protests spread as far away as Bahrain and Yemen, Malawi and Swaziland, and while Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has held onto power through a brutal repression that has killed thousands of Syrians, it has come at the cost of his country’s economic and political isolation.

Numbered are the days, at least in Africa, when leaders could simply grab and hold onto power perpetually through falsified elections. Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo tried that, after losing elections to Alessane Ouattara, and a combination of street protests and pro-Ouattara military might (along with some French military intervention) shut Gbagbo’s power grab down. This week, as the Democratic Republic of Congo enters a dicey period, where two men – President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi – claim to have won Nov. 28 elections, the international community will doubtless attempt to find a negotiated settlement, after election observers have declared that voting results “lack credibility.”

Watch the Monitor for continuing coverage on Congo.

In this week’s Atlantic, Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations lists some of these successes and notes that the key ingredient in all these struggles is a galvanized popular will for the respect of human rights. Quoting the findings of a global opinion survey by, Mr. Patrick notes that citizens even in authoritarian countries are beginning to demand more and more freedom.

Majorities in all nations polled, including those with authoritarian governments, support:

  • free elections with universal suffrage to select leaders, and consider that the will of the people should be the basis for the authority of government
  • the right to demonstrate peacefully and to express opinions freely, including criticism of the government
  • media freedom from government censorship
  • equal treatment for people, irrespective of religion, gender, race or ethnicity
  • government responsibility to provide citizens with basic food, healthcare and education.

Such unanimity testifies to a universal hunger among all peoples for fundamental rights.

In Foreign Affairs magazine itself, you’ll find a pair of essays that debate whether the use of military force in humanitarian interventions is a good thing or not.

Benjamin A. Valentino writes that humanitarian intervention comes at a cost, often the cost of undermining the human rights that are the intended goal. “Although humanitarian intervention has undoubtedly saved lives, Americans have seriously underappreciated the moral, political, and economic price involved,” he writes.

This does not mean that the United States should stop trying to promote its values abroad, even when its national security is not at risk. It just needs a different strategy. Washington should replace its focus on military intervention with a humanitarian foreign policy centered on saving lives by funding public health programs in the developing world, aiding victims of natural disasters, and assisting refugees fleeing violent conflict. 

Jon Western and Joshua Goldstein take the pro-intervention point of view, arguing that “Over the last 20 years, the international community has grown increasingly adept at using military force to stop or prevent mass atrocities.”

Humanitarian intervention has also benefited from the evolution of international norms about violence, especially the emergence of “the responsibility to protect,” which holds that the international community has a special set of responsibilities to protect civilians -- by force, if necessary -- from war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide when national governments fail to do so. 

To read these arguments in full, you’ll have to plunk down some change to buy the PDF file from the Foreign Affairs site. But for full snob value, nothing beats having a hard copy on your desk at work, in your coat pocket during the subway commute, or in your hands at one of those overpriced coffee shops on weekends.

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