Peace, in the sense of the absence of war, is of little value to someone who is dying of hunger or cold. It will not remove the pain of torture inflicted on a prisoner of conscience. It does not comfort those who have lost their loved ones in floods caused by senseless deforestation in a neighboring country. Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individuals and nations are free.
– The Dalai Lama
As the year closes, it is appropriate to stop to look back and see how we have progressed or regressed in the area of human rights in 2009. The thing about human rights is that the path to progress is rarely ever a straight line; often what looks like a step back will actually allow people to take a step forward. Such may be the case with top human rights stories of this past year such as the Green Movement in Iran, healthcare rights in the US, or the climate change talks currently going on in Copenhagen. One thing is certain: there are still many challenges ahead of us in the fight for human rights. However here are some thoughts on 2009 and what to look for in 2010 from regular bloggers Nikolaj Nielsen, Jessica Corsi, and Kimberly Curtis.
Person of the Year:
It’s always difficult to pick out one person in the course of a year who stands out. What is interesting is that this year all three of us chose groups rather than a single individual as the most important persons of the year.
Nikolaj’s pick: Frontline Journalists and Human Rights Defenders
This past year has seen numerous journalists and human rights defenders killed or imprisoned for their work in revealing the human rights abuses. Many of these people worked on the frontlines, risking their lives to bring the truth to the rest of the world. The importance of this work, particularly in the past year, is one of the reasons why the European Parliament awarded the Russian human rights watchdog group Memorial the prestigious Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought this past week. Although the award will do little to bring back the journalists that have been slain this past year such as the 31 Filipino journalists killed in November or Russian journalist Natalya Estemirova who was killed in July, it again highlights the high value of their work and the price that so many have paid this past year for the human rights of others.
Jessica’s pick: Reproductive Rights Leaders in the United States
Recognition should be given to the myriad leaders and activists who organized in the U.S. to make sure that reproductive rights were not left out of the historic U.S. health care reform package. In the midst of the economic crisis and the political opening of landmark U.S. healthcare reform–reform that would finally bring the U.S. closer to the rest of the developed world in terms of providing access to health care–reproductive rights advocates became locked into a battle with religious leaders that had successfully captured political power during the George W. Bush era. While many within the U.S. Democratic Party, including the few women Senators and congress people, were willing to give up access to reproductive health care in order to sidestep this fight, reproductive rights advocates ranging from high school and University students to seasoned lobbyists and journalists made sure to keep the spotlight on access to safe and affordable abortion.
Kimberly’s pick: Ordinary people coming together
From the record-setting attendance on the National Mall for Barack Obama’s inauguration to crowds of people in Berlin that marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it seems that 2009 was all about ordinary people coming together. Some of these crowds celebrated change, while others such as those in Iran and Guinea came together to fight for their rights, often with grisly consequences. The predicted potential of virtual social networking seemed to finally be realized as people used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to not just talk about the latest developments in their social lives with friends, but communicate real information to the rest of the world about what was happening in their countries. Although revolution did not happen in many of these places, 2009 showed that the power of the people is still alive and well in the 21st century.
Most Unexpected Event:
Both Jessica and Nikolaj picked the same event: Barack Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As the highest honor awarded in the humanitarian field, many around the world were surprised that he was awarded the prize before achieving any significant feats on the international stage.
But as Jessica notes, there were other reasons why the award was surprising: Many claim that President Barack Obama
was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to express international support for the U.S.’ reengagement with multilateral peace efforts, including efforts to bring an end to wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Another reason for the award might have been his policy of re-engagement with Muslim nations. What was so surprising about this award was its timing. It was given before the U.S. had fully elaborated withdrawal timelines and procedures for ending its wars, and after it had engaged in some decidedly unpeaceful and certainly unexpected military operations, such as the September 14 assassination of a suspected terrorist by U.S. Special Forces helicopters in southern Somalia. If the prize is read as an indication of global sentiment for substantial changes in U.S. foreign policy, as opposed to a congratulations for actions that have already been taken, it comes as less of a surprise.
Kimberly chose the obvious event that has been written about on several other blogs: the Iranian election protests. Although Iranians overthrew the Shah in massive protests more than 30 years ago, Iran is not really known for street action due to the oppressive policies that the government is notorious for. That is one of the reasons why the post-election protests took so many by surprise. It’s also why the results of the protests – killings, arrests, prisoner abuses, and kangaroo courts – were not surprising at all. Still, there is a reason why most of the world was engrossed with the protests while they took place: whether you like it or not, Iran is an important regional power and will continue to be so. The post-election protests, while not a revolution, definitely altered the course of Iranian politics and will almost certainly be viewed in hindsight as the start of an important new chapter in Iranian history, hopefully one that gives more credence to human rights and the will of the people.
What to Watch for in 2010:
The general trend of using international law and universal jurisdiction to hold individuals accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity will continue as the International Criminal Court becomes more prominent and takes on new cases. However because justice is a retroactive approach to human rights abuses, there will also be increasing pressure on prescriptive action as well. In light of this and Obama’s Nobel lecture, the debate over the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P) is due for a revival. Only this time around, corporations will also be brought into the fold as their actions in conflict zones and with oppressive regimes will be increasingly scrutinized.
Economic and social rights, legal entitlements for the poor: Poverty, increasing and deep, will continue to plague us for years due to the global recession. As a result, we’re likely to see an increased focus on Economic and Social rights, such as the right to work, the right to fair remuneration, the right to food, and the right to health and healthcare. Increased poverty will also refocus efforts around legal entitlements for the poor such as land ownership and community ownership of natural resources.
Climate justice: Climate justice will gain traction as the poor nations and poorest peoples of the world become better legally equipped and politically organized to hold everyone from corporations to governments accountable for the effects of climate change and pollution. As a result we will see increased legal accountability for non-state actors.
Increasing legal accountability for State action during conflict: Powerful governments such as the US and the UK will be held more responsible than ever for violations of human rights during conflict, a trend helped in part by the increasing power of the International Criminal Court. For example, a Milan Court convicted and sentenced 23 former CIA agents for the abduction of a Muslim cleric and rendition practices. This trend of conviction in national courts will continue.
Anti-Muslim sentiments: Anti-Muslim racism and tension between the “Muslim world” and “the rest” will continue in the short and medium term, leading to more human rights violations, claims, court decisions, and policy developments on everything from religious clothing to state conducted or supported torture that was motivated by a person’s Islamic affiliations.
The mainstreaming of LGBT rights: LGBT rights will continue to become more mainstreamed in the global North. We will witness expanded recognition of gay marriage and related civil rights and family law claims such as child custody and health care rights.