The Arab Spring and the Dawn of a New Era for Human Rights
The Arab Spring was a historical turning point for human rights, ushering in a new era where human rights are universally accepted as the basic foundation of successful governance. That was the message conveyed at a panel held last Friday at the Brookings Institute on "Human Rights and the Arab Awakening: Assessing the United Nations Response." Keynote speakers included Kyung-wha Kang, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Both Deputy High Commissioner Kang and Ambassador Donahoe spoke about the Arab Spring as an occasion to truly cement human rights as the "third pillar" of the work of the U.N.
Deputy High Commissioner Kang spoke of Tunisia before the revolution as "model case" in international development, a nation on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals. But in all of the talk of positive economic development, many international officials ignored the continued lack of basic human rights and equality, leading to the widely unforeseen uprising that sparked revolution throughout the region. This is a clear example, in Kang's view, of why human rights must be a crucial component in development and humanitarian work throughout the world.
Ambassador Donahoe built on this message, elaborating the unique opportunity afforded by the Arab Spring to promote human rights throughout the world. Donahoe said that the Arab awakening shook up the international system. Human rights are no longer a global north vs. global south issue, as they have often been cast historically, but rather they are an issue with the potential of boiling over in every nation in the world. Leaders have had to reevaluate their values systems and decide what side of history they wanted to be on: oppressors or liberators. This is clearly a positive new dynamic for human rights worldwide.
Ambassador Donahoe also spoke to the extremely positive success of the U.N. Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner's Office in protecting the citizens of Libya. The UNHRC issued a report on the mass atrocities of Gaddafi's regime and the very next day the Security Council took action, placing embargoes on Libyan exports and referring Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court. Overall, the HRC and the office of the High Commissioner were able to use the Arab Spring as a chance to greatly expand their presence in the Middle East and North Africa, opening a new office in Tunisia, establishing a special envoy for Libya, and planning a new regional office in Egypt. These are constructive and encouraging steps for human rights, not only in the region, but in the world as a whole. More citizens will be protected, despotic leaders will receive signals that no bad deed goes unpunished, and the Human Rights Council gains strength that promotes its work throughout the world.
The clear omission here is Syria. Though discussed by the panelists, there was no clear answer for why the United Nations has been unable to maintain this momentum against the violence being carried out by the Assad regime. What is clear is that weak international action against the regime is not for a lack of trying on the part of the Human Rights Council. HRC adopted a resolution in August that condemned Syria and launched an independent international commission of inquiry into establishing the facts and identifying those responsible for the violence. This official enquiry followed a fact-finding mission from earlier last summer that proved that widespread human rights violations are occurring.
The Human Rights Council should be lauded for its attempts to shine light and bring condemnation on the crimes against humanity committed by the Assad regime. It is the Security Council, and particularly members who have presented road blocks to the efforts to condemn and punish Assad (namely, China and Russia), who deserve international shame and pressure for failing in their responsibility to protect innocent Syrians, politicizing the lives of innocent civilians. The Human Rights Council is a deliberative council, meant to observe and inform the work of the Security Council. They can advocate and argue on behalf of citizens, but it is the Security Council that must take action. It is the Security Council that carries the big stick.
As Deputy High Commissioner Kang and Ambassador Donahoe pointed out, human rights are no longer an ignorable issue thanks to the Arab Spring. Governments that fail to address the most basic rights of their citizens will increasingly find themselves at the mercy of an empowered populace no longer willing to cower and accept repression. The Security Council and the entire international community must stand behind these activists and stand up for our values. We must decide which side of history we want to stand on. I stand with freedom and democracy. It's time our world leaders and the Security Council do too.
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