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The Beginning of the End for Authoritarianism: Human Rights in 2011

The Beginning of the End for Authoritarianism: Human Rights in 2011It’s been quite a year for human rights. Almost as soon as the year began, popular revolts shook the foundations of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Using the power of social media, people organized in opposition to autocratic rule across the Arab world. In Tunisia and Egypt, these movements overturned (or at least initiated the process) decades of authoritarian rule using non-violence. In response to the fairly quick collapse of these regimes, some autocrats took a pragmatic approach, promising reform in exchange for a few more years of stability.

Other despots dug in, and promised to crush the opposition. In Libya, the international community took the unprecedented step of authorizing military action to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s iron fist. But, what began as a narrowly defined civilian protection mission soon turned to regime change. Russia, China and others protested at NATO’s de facto expansion of the mission, dashing any hopes that the Security Council would replicate the “Libya model” elsewhere. Meanwhile, autocrats responded with brute force to protestors in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, eliciting mere condemnation from the international community.

2011 also saw a shift in how the Obama Administration is waging its campaign against al Qaeda and associated terror organizations. Rather than fight expensive wars, the Obama Administration has opted for drones strikes, targeted raids like the one that killed Osama Bin Laden, and providing allied governments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia with the support they need to wage a counterinsurgency campaign. Part of the shift has to do with the expected decrease in U.S. military expenditures. But, the Administration also seems to believe it can better accomplish its goals with these tactics, which also promises fewer U.S. casualties.

While the increased use of drone strikes reduces the threat of U.S. casualties, it is doubtful that such strikes result in zero civilian casualties, as the Administration claimed this past summer. The New America Foundation’s drones database, which is the most compelling study I have found, claims that the non-militant fatality rate from strikes conducted in Pakistan since 2004 is 17%. Of course, casualty counts are all based on the idea that we can firmly distinguish between combatants and noncombatants, an incredibly difficult task in this type of war.

The Obama Administration’s use of surgical strikes also elicited increased criticism from human rights and civil liberties groups in 2011. While the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden was largely free of any controversy, the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen raised constitutional concerns. Al-Awlaki was a dual citizen of both the U.S. and Yemen, and many suspected that he had inspired the Fort Hood shooting and the Christmas day bomber. As I wrote in September, such accusations still do not strip a U.S. citizen of his right to due process by an independent judiciary, and thus I believe the strike against Al-Awlaki violated U.S. constitutional law.

As 2011 winds down, the Obama Administration is also ending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and trying to ensure it will be able to do the same in two years time in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan as “Fight, Talk, Build.” Under this three pronged strategy, the U.S. has been ramping up offensive operations to eliminate the safe havens in Pakistan, while encouraging talks with the Taliban and facilitating trade and investment in Afghanistan.

International forces have also been conducting joint operations with the Afghan national security forces and plan to gradually hand over more responsibility to Afghan forces in preparation for the security transition in 2014. This past summer, the U.N. and numerous human rights groups raised concerns about accountability and professionalism in the Afghan National Security forces, suggesting the training and equipping of these forces is inadequate. The result has been poor compliance with human rights and humanitarian norms by the Afghan security forces, and the lack of efficient institutional mechanisms to lodge complaints when these forces do violate the law.

I could go on, but that is a brief rundown of 2011 from a human rights perspective. Of course, there are some notables to mention. While the Arab Spring certainly caught many off guard, the most unexpected event was the Security Council’s rapid and decisive action on Libya, including the abstentions from China and Russia. Rarely has the Security Council ever worked, much less worked so fast. While China and Russia have been willing to abstain from these type of interventions in the past, typically it has required more than a couple weeks for diplomacy to secure such an agreement.

Many remarkable individuals played a part in the Arab Spring this year, but the most notable person of the year is a man named Ryan Boyette. I first read about Boyette in Nick Kristof’s column a month ago. Boyette moved to the Nuba Mountains in Sudan in 2003 to work for Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S. based aid group. When the Sudanese government began a military offensive against rebel elements in the area, many humanitarian workers left. Boyette stayed and organized a network of people to record the Sudanese government’s atrocities, which were submitted to groups like the Enough Project, which used Boyette’s information in its human rights advocacy. When it was convenient to leave, Boyette risked his life, literally dodging the Sudanese government’s bombing raids, to document atrocities and support the community he had lived with for more than seven years.

With much of what began this past spring still unsettled, 2012 promises to be another important year for human rights. While not an expert on any one of these situations, here are my predictions for 2012. The hard work of fostering governance that is both democratic and capable of meeting the needs of the people in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is only beginning. Instability in Egypt and Libya will continue in 2012 as the political will and capacity of both interim governments to move the respective countries towards democracy will be questioned.

Syria’s Bashar al – Assad will fall in 2012, either from a military assault launched by defectors from Syria’s military or outside military intervention. Elements inside Syria seem to be organizing against Assad, and while the Security Council is unlikely to authorize coercive action again, a coalition of countries may soon decide that enough is enough – it’s time to replicate the “Libya model” in Syria. While it’s unclear whether local forces or the international community will be the deciding factor, Assad will no longer be Syria’s head of state this time next year.

Expected cuts to the U.S. defense budget will speed up efforts to leave Afghanistan. While the war in Afghanistan has been costly, in terms of lives and treasure, the U.S. and NATO must focus on more than just “getting out.” As I noted earlier this month, international forces have largely focused on “quantity over quality,” in terms of training and equipping the Afghan national security forces. Training must improve to ensure Afghan forces have the skills necessary not just to rout the Taliban, but also to conduct basic policing functions. The international community must also use its leverage to ensure the Afghan government puts the necessary accountability mechanisms in place, such as a functioning military justice system.

Improved training and accountability mechanisms are necessary to ensure the Afghan government can manage security pursuant to the rule of law when combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014. Given the deteriorating security situation, there may be a tendency to overlook human rights concerns within the Afghan National security forces. But, turning a blind eye to abuses would be a recipe for disaster as the stability of the Afghan government depends on its legitimacy and popular support. Even while the security situation gets worse, I am optimistic that the U.S. and NATO allies will take decisive steps in 2012 to ensure the Afghan national security forces better adhere to human rights norms. Whether or not such steps will be effective will be answered in 2013.

That is my forecast for 2012. Curious to hear other thoughts and opinions.



Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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