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Inter Press Service

World in the Throes of a Human Rights Revolution, Says Amnesty

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The growing demands for democratic reforms spreading across the Middle East and North Africa - along with the dramatic rise of social media networks - have triggered "a human rights revolution on the threshold of a historic change", says Amnesty International (AI).

"People are rejecting fear," as spontaneous political uprisings have ousted repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and authoritarian governments in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria have been jolted by mass protests and street battles.

{41/365} Egyptian Revolution (Day 16) - Not giving up.

"Not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power," says AI Secretary-General Salil Shetty.

In its annual global human rights report released Friday, the London-based organisation says courageous people, led largely by youth, are standing up and speaking out in the face of bullets, beatings, tear gas and battle tanks.

This bravery, combined with new technology that is helping activists to outflank and expose government suppression of free speech and peaceful protest, "is sending a signal to repressive governments that their days are numbered".

"Now there are whispers of discontent being heard from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe," says the report, released on the eve of AI's 50th anniversary, which falls on May 28.

At the same time, repressive governments in Azerbaijan, China and Iran "are trying to pre-empt any similar revolutions in their countries".

The 400-page report provides the state of human rights, and specifically widespread abuses, in some 157 countries, including Afghanistan, Angola, Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, Myanmar, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Viet Nam and Zimbabwe.

The report singles out the specific restrictions on free speech in at least 89 countries, highlights cases of prisoners of conscience in some 48 countries, documents torture and other ill-treatment in 98 countries, and reports on unfair trials in 54 countries.

AI also points out the deteriorating country situations worldwide, including a grim picture for activists in Ukraine, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan; spiraling violence in Nigeria; and an escalating crisis posed by Maoist armed insurgencies in central and northeast India.

Conflicts have also "wreaked havoc" in the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Russia's North Caucasus, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Somalia, "with civilians often targeted by armed groups and government forces".

On the positive side, the report points out the signs of progress, including the steady retreat of the death penalty; some improvements in maternal healthcare, including in Indonesia and Sierra Leone; and the bringing to justice of some of those responsible for human rights crimes under past military regimes in Latin America.

Information wars

But the primary theme of the report is the continuing protests in the Middle East and North Africa where there is "a critical battle" underway for control of access to information, means of communication and networking technology such as social media networks that has fuelled a new activism that governments are struggling to control.

But "as seen in Tunisia and Egypt, government attempts to block internet access or cut mobile phone networks can backfire - but governments are scrambling to regain the initiative or to us this technology against activists," according to AI.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, told IPS the unprecedented opportunity for human rights change in the Middle East comes from the courage and creativity of a newly- energised, newly mobilised civil society across the Arab world and beyond.

Social media continues to play a part, but it is that of an instrument, not a strategy, she said.

"Just as the then-cutting edge fax machine played an unprecedented role in the Tiananmen Square protests (in China), cassette tapes in Iran's anti-Shah movement, and secretly printed and distributed nidat (leaflets) served to mobilise the activists of Palestine's first intifada, creative young activists took advantage of all the potential of cell phones, Facebook, Twitter accounts and more to build the Arab Spring," said Bennis.

But those are tools, and when repressive governments, including in Egypt and Tunisia, clamped down, shutting off the internet, closing cell phone service and turning off Facebook, democracy campaigners shifted seamlessly to the old face-to-face methods of organising.

"Word was spread through the mosques, in quiet words passed to neighbours and co-workers, written notes appeared. The mobilisations continued," said Bennis, who has written extensively on Middle East politics and is author of several books, including "Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict".

AI's Shetty says that powerful governments, which have underestimated the burning desire of people everywhere for freedom and justice, must now back reform rather than sliding back into cynical political support for repression.

"The true tests of these governments' integrity will be to support the rebuilding of states that promote human rights but that may not be allies, and their willingness as with Libya to refer the worst perpetrators to the International Criminal Court (ICC) when all other justice avenues fail," Shetty said.

He warned that corporations providing internet access, cellular communications and social networking sites and that support digital media and communications need to respect human rights.

"They must not become the pawns or accomplices of repressive governments who want to stifle expression and spy on their people," he said.

Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies told IPS the challenge to human rights in the Middle East today comes not from dictatorial regimes shutting down access to social media but it comes from their refusal to recognise that the Arab Spring, especially but not solely its victories in bringing down dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, has created an entirely new dynamic in the region.

"The U.S., which for more than half a century scaffolded those dictatorships with money and arms in search of an ultimately elusive stability, is facing an unprecedented challenge to retool U.S. foreign policy in light of these changes," she pointed out.

So far, she said, the U.S. record is, charitably, mixed.

In Egypt, the Barack Obama administration came late to the realisation that the U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak regime was indeed destined for the dustbin of history, and they scrambled to retool a position that would at least appear to side with the Egyptian people's overwhelming demand for freedom, democracy and an end to dictatorship.

They have not, however, reversed longstanding reliance on the Egyptian military.

The military's continued receipt of the vast majority of the 1.3 billion dollars in U.S. aid to Egypt is helping to create a serious divide between the new government and the still-empowered military, Bennis declared.

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