Today is the first day of the new year, 1 January 2013. Before embarking on the new year, I wanted to share a list compiled by Freedom House that reflects back on some of last year’s human rights developments. How did the world do following an eventful 2011?
Unfortunately, the bad seemed to outweigh the good this year, as many authoritarians held on to power and continued upheaval in the Middle East threatened to derail any democratic progress. Internal conflicts in a number of African countries boiled over, and the bulk of the former Soviet Union appeared to be moving in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, widely hailed political achievements in countries like Burma, Egypt and Georgia were complicated by negative twists.
Ongoing ethnic conflicts in Burma have undercut a recent democratic opening that was significant enough to allow the first visit by a U.S. president. Relatively free and competitive elections in Egypt have been overshadowed by continued unrest and authoritarian maneuvers by President Mohamed Morsi. In Georgia, what was considered a historic democratic transfer of power has been potentially jeopardized by what some regard as politically motivated prosecutions of former ruling party officials.
Though this list is far from exhaustive, the following were some of the best and worst human rights developments in 2012.
LGBTI Victories in the Western Hemisphere:
There were several important victories in the battle for LGBTI rights in 2012, particularly in the United States and Latin America. A U.S. president voiced public support for gay marriage for the first time, and three states — Washington, Maryland and Maine — passed laws allowing same-sex marriage, bringing the total number of states with such rules to nine. In addition, the first openly gay woman was elected to the U.S. Senate. In Argentina, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2010, the Senate passed legislation that allows gender to be legally changed without medical or judicial approval, and includes sex-change surgery and hormone treatment in government health insurance plans. The same month, Chile passed an anti-discrimination law that penalizes all forms of discrimination. Although not specifically written to protect LGTBI rights, the measure was spurred by the brutal killing an openly gay man. Even Cuba has jumped on the bandwagon, electing its first transgender person to municipal office. Same-sex marriage is also legal in Canada and some parts of Mexico. Sadly, for all of the progress seen in this hemisphere, the situation for LGBTI people has actually worsened in much of Eurasia and Africa.
Passage of the Magnitsky Act:
Russia’s human rights decline made it an easy choice for this year’s “worst” list, but one development is worthy of celebration — the passage by the U.S. Congress of the Magnitsky Act. The legislation is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail after exposing a multi-million dollar fraud by Russian officials. It will place visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support as part of a larger measure that normalizes trade relations with Russia and Moldova. President Obama signed the legislation on December 14 despite harsh objections from the Kremlin. This law could set a precedent for how the United States and other free societies address gross human rights violations around the world. The European Parliament has endorsed the adoption of similar legislation.
Conviction of Charles Taylor:
In April, former Liberian president Charles Taylor became the first former head of state to be convicted of war crimes since World War II. He was sentenced in May by a UN-backed special tribunal to 50 years in prison for his role in a decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone. He was specifically found guilty of aiding and abetting the “commission of serious crimes including rape, murder, and destruction of civilian property” by rebel forces in that country. Taylor stepped down as Liberian president in 2003 amid serious domestic challenges to his rule and international calls for his resignation. His departure ended 14 years of intermittent civil war that had killed some 200,000 Liberians. He sought asylum in Nigeria, but was eventually handed over to the special tribunal.
Survival of the Tunisian Revolution:
While the freely elected transitional authorities in Tunisia have been buffeted by public frustration with high unemployment and pressure from conservative Islamists, the country has not yet suffered the fate of many of its neighbors in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. Varying degrees of instability and repression persist in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and particularly Syria, but Tunisia has made slow if uneven gains in its democratic transition. The constitutional drafting process is creeping forward without the bitter conflicts seen in Egypt, and the ruling Ennahda party, which was at one time a radical Islamist faction, has largely followed through on its commitment to govern moderately and work peacefully with secular parties. As the country approaches the two-year anniversary of the revolution, however, economic struggles have led to anti-government protests, one of which left nearly 200 people wounded, and support for the ruling coalition has definitively waned. The constitution is two months overdue, and there have been some concerning violations of press freedom. Despite these challenges, Tunisia continues to provide a positive example to the wider region.
Civil War in Syria:
The civil war in Syria is the worst human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in the world today. The latest estimates put the death toll at 42,000, with no end in sight. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an alarming number of reporters — 28 — have been killed while covering the conflict in 2012. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been on the verge of collapse for months, with many of his top advisers defecting or fleeing the country, yet he has vowed to remain in Syria, dead or alive. It is not even clear that his removal alone would end the fighting. Meanwhile, attacks by government forces on civilians in rebel-held areas are unceasing, and there are now concerns that the military is arming missiles with chemical weapons. Some rebel groups in the fragmented opposition have resorted to kidnapping and retribution killings, raising serious questions about postwar governance. No amount of diplomacy or international pressure has succeeded in convincing Russia to stop providing arms to government forces, or China to back broad-based demands for al-Assad to step down. And there is simply no political will within the United States or the rest of NATO to hasten the end of the conflict through direct intervention.
Devastation in Congo:
Over the past century, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most resource-rich countries on the African continent, has been gutted by a combination of colonialism, corrupt and ineffective government, ethnic conflict and a succession of armed militias and rebel groups that have raped and pillaged their way through the countryside, often using conscripted child soldiers. As many as five million people have died since the late 1990s. The fraudulent 2011 reelection of feckless president Joseph Kabila was followed by the mutiny of hundreds of ethnic Tutsi soldiers, who then formed the March 23 (M23) rebel movement, widely believed to be funded by neighboring Rwanda. In November, M23 invaded and took control of Goma, a provincial capital with a population of 1 million, leading nearly 140,000 people to flee their homes. The international community has largely turned a blind eye to the country’s seemingly endless crisis, perhaps because there does not appear to be an easy solution. On a positive note, international pressure forced M23 to vacate Goma after just a few weeks, and the United States and Britain, which had long tolerated Rwanda’s denials that it was contributing to the unrest, cut military aid to the country as a result of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But these steps on their own appear unlikely end the fighting.
Coup and Extremism in Mali:
As in Congo, the horrific human rights situation in Mali was not caused by any single event. Rather it was a cascade of disasters that included a military coup, a reinvigorated Tuareg separatist movement, an influx of hard-line Islamist militants and the combined effects of long-term drought, poverty and corruption. This perfect storm has created a humanitarian crisis that demands international action. Northern Mali is now controlled by militant groups that blend radical Islam with transnational crime. These militants have quickly introduced a crude imitation of Sharia, banning music, destroying historic sites deemed “un-Islamic,” and summarily punishing alleged crimes like alcohol use and adultery. There are widespread reports of rape and forced marriage, as well as the recruitment of child soldiers. According to the latest UN report, over 200,000 people are currently displaced. The international community, deeply concerned by these violations as well as the broader security threat posed by such a sizeable haven for terrorists, has pressured what remains of the Malian government to overcome its internal divisions and prepare for an international invasion to reclaim the rebel-held north.
Russia’s Precipitous Decline:
Since Vladimir Putin’s tightly controlled reelection as president in March, the political situation in Russia has become increasingly dismal, with some experts comparing it to the Soviet era. As part of an escalating clampdown on anti-corruption activists and political opponents, the government has enacted numerous pieces of legislation that will have a harmful impact on human rights and the functioning of civil society. Most disturbingly, one new law requires civil society organizations that receive foreign funds to register as “foreign agents” or face possible criminal charges. In a related development, USAID was forced by the Russian government to withdraw from the country. Expanded definitions of “treason” and “espionage” in the penal code have opened the door for authorities to round up government critics as well as citizens who consult with foreign firms or simply monitor human rights abuses. Other repressive measures have recriminalized libel, curbed Internet freedom, outlawed “homosexual propaganda,” and imposed additional restrictions on public gatherings. Independent voices, some within the government, who have tried to speak out against this wave of legislation have been expelled, arrested or otherwise muzzled.
Repression in Bahrain, Other Gulf States:
After an independent report commissioned by Bahrain’s King Hamad uncovered widespread human rights abuses committed during the violent suppression of a protest movement in February 2011, the government promised to implement the recommended reforms. That was a year ago. Not only has the regime failed to enact anything other than minor cosmetic changes, seemingly designed to mollify the international community, it has also continued on a path of repression. Impunity for the security forces and censorship persist, and dozens of human rights activists remain imprisoned, including 2012 Freedom Award winners Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and his daughter Zainab. In recent weeks, the government has stepped up the pressure, banning “unlicensed” demonstrations and stripping 31 opposition members of their citizenship. Journalists and human rights groups, including Freedom House, have been repeatedly denied entry to the country to report on these abuses. Sadly, Bahrain is not the only Gulf state in decline. Several neighboring governments have begun to make some alarming moves to silence their critics. Deportations, travel bans and unexplained detentions, as well as disturbing new legal restrictions freedom of expression, have been seen in the United Arab Emirates. A ban on “unlicensed” peaceful demonstrations was passed in Kuwait. And Oman has jailed dozens of people for making critical comments about the regime.
The Menace of Blasphemy Laws:
The online dissemination of an offensive film that mocked Islam and sparked violent anti-American riots and protests in more than two dozen countries served as a reminder of the pernicious nature of laws that prohibit blasphemy in many parts of the world. These laws, which ban insults to religions and religious figures, not only have a chilling effect on free expression but are often used to justify violence, repress religious minorities, and settle personal grudges rather than combat intolerance. According to a Freedom House special report, there is no evidence that restricting speech reduces religious intolerance. In fact, the evidence shows that prohibitions on blasphemy actually lead to a wide range of human rights abuses. This does not prevent some Islamic leaders from using global bodies like the United Nations to push for international norms that prohibit blasphemy. In 2011, after enormous advocacy efforts by human rights groups and a number of countries including the United States, Canada and much of Europe, the push for this kind of legislation was replaced by a more circumspect call for the promotion of religious tolerance and dialogue. Sadly, these moderating efforts were endangered this year by yet another flare-up of religious outrage.
*This piece originally appeared on Freedom House’s blog, Freedom at Issue. To read the original, click here .