Essay

LEADING FROM THE STREETS

Salil Shetty, Secretary General  

Change, courage and conflict all characterized 2011 – a year in which people rose up  in protest against governments and other powerful actors in numbers not seen for decades. They protested against the abuse of power, lack of accountability, growing inequality, deepening poverty and the absence of leadership at every level of government. The contrast between the courage of protesters demanding rights and  the failure of leadership to match that courage with concrete actions to build stronger societies based on respect for human rights was painfully apparent.

At first it appeared that protest and unrest would be restricted to countries in which discontent and repression were predictable. But as the year progressed, it was clear that the failure of governments to ensure justice, security and human dignity was igniting protest across the world. From New York and Moscow to London and Athens, from Dakar and Kampala to La Paz and Cuernavaca, from Phnom Penh to Tokyo, people took to the streets. 

In the Middle East and North Africa, the initial spark was one young man’s outrage and despair in Tunisia which fed by the anger of thousands of protesters engulfed  the country and brought down the government of President Ben Ali. As protests spread through the region, Western governments were caught off guard. They knew that the protesters’ outrage at repression and lack of economic opportunities was well-founded, but they did not want to lose their “special relationship” with repressive governments which they saw as insurance against instability in a strategic region with significant oil and gas reserves.

Governments’ responses to peaceful protests in the region have been brutal and often deadly. The number of people killed, injured or imprisoned for exercising their rights steadily grew. Tens of thousands have been displaced and some made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in search of refuge. The spectre of significant numbers of refugees from North Africa led to even more xenophobic rhetoric from some of Europe’s politicians.

In Egypt, it has been more than a year since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed control in what it pledged was a transitional role. Many believe SCAF are instigating or failing to prevent violence in order to legitimize the argument that only a state run by the military is strong enough to ensure security. 

But perhaps what is most disturbing in Egypt is that more than 12,000 civilians have been prosecuted by the military or been brought before the military judiciary – more than during Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The lifting of the emergency law, a major tool of abuse, was a key demand of protesters. However, the interim government, like the Mubarak government, claim they need its special powers to ensure security. 

Another practice carried over from the Mubarak government is the forced eviction of people living in informal settlements. The vast majority of deaths during the 25 January Revolution were among marginalized communities including those who live in informal settlements or slums. Egyptians have lived for decades with the government’s version of security – they deserve better.

Women in particular have fared badly under military rule. In March 2011, a group  of young women who had been protesting in Tahrir Square were arrested by the security forces. They were then subjected to forced virginity tests and threatened by the military. In December, an Egyptian administrative court ruled the practice illegal and ordered an end to detainees being subjected to forced virginity tests. This was a positive step, but the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality has a long way to go even though women are playing a central role in the protests. When Amnesty International asked the various political parties in Egypt to commit to protect basic human rights principles such as freedom of expression and assembly, abolition of the death penalty, religious freedom, non-discrimination and gender equality – the two parties that won a majority in the parliamentary elections fell short. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which won 235 seats (47 per cent), failed to respond to Amnesty International’s request. The Salafist Al-Nur party, which came second with 121 seats (24 per cent), declined to promote women’s rights or the abolition of the death penalty.

In Libya, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi responded to street protests by vowing to destroy the protesters, whom he repeatedly called “rats.” He and his son, Saif al-Islam – previously the “champion of reform in Libya” – declared open season on anyone they deemed unfaithful to the regime. The UN Security Council’s unprecedented referral of Libya to the International Criminal Court sent a strong signal about the importance of accountability. Nonetheless, the country spiralled into armed conflict. By the time al-Gaddafi was killed in custody in October, his forces had abducted and tortured thousands of captured opposition fighters and other detainees. Hundreds of thousands of people had fled the conflict, resulting in mass displacement. Libya remains unstable: the National Transitional Council is not in effective control of the country and torture, extrajudicial executions, other forms of reprisals and forcible displacement continue. 

Iran continued the crackdown that began after the 2009 elections and demonstrated its willingness to arrest virtually anyone identified as challenging President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government closely control the media, newspapers are banned  and websites and foreign satellite television channels blocked. Protests against government policies are violently dispersed and government critics are arbitrarily arrested and detained yet people continue to defend their right to freedom of expression.

The world has witnessed this pattern of protest and deadly response in country after country. In Bahrain, the government repressed demonstrations backed by the military might of Saudi Arabia. In June, Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, reiterated US support for the country, calling Bahrain an “important partner” despite overwhelming evidence of the government’s use of deadly force against peaceful protesters and the imprisonment and torture of opposition leaders. Her muted criticism reflected the US government’s desire to ensure that Bahrain continues to provide a home port for  the 5th Fleet, even if it means ignoring egregious human rights violations.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh also refused to relinquish power even  after being seriously wounded in a bomb attack. He repeatedly backtracked after  entering agreements for the transfer of power despite countrywide protests demanding his removal. Finally, in November 2011, he ceded power in exchange for immunity  from prosecution for the crimes committed during his rule and the uprising against  it. Ali Abdullah Saleh left power in the hands of Vice-President Abd Rabbu Mansour  Hadi, who was installed as the new President during uncontested elections in  February 2012.

In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad stubbornly clung to power in the face of widespread popular uprisings against his repressive rule. Thousands of civilians have been killed or injured and many more displaced. The Syrian military’s use of tanks to shell the city of Homs demonstrated a complete disregard for the lives of local residents. Members of the Syrian army who have defected and fled the country report being ordered to kill people who were engaged in peaceful protests or in some cases, just walking down the street. The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict reported in February 2012 that hundreds of children have been killed during the uprising and children as young as 10 years old have been arrested, detained and tortured. 

The international community has a crucial role to play in establishing justice and security for people of the region. Yet, to date, international action has been largely inadequate.

POWER, RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

The international community has struggled to respond effectively. Fear, opportunity, hypocrisy and good intentions all featured in the debate. 

In 2011, the Arab League was thrust into the limelight as it sought to resolve issues in several countries in the region. Their support for the UN Security Council resolution on Libya was crucial in ensuring that none of the five permanent members exercised their veto. But, undoubtedly at odds with some of its members’ concern that the protests would spread to their countries, the Arab League failed to bring an end to repression and brutality.

As the situation in Syria deteriorated, the Arab League arranged for a monitoring mission to travel to the country. But the legitimacy of the mission was immediately called into question when the Arab League named General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, former head of Sudan’s military intelligence, to head the mission. Under al-Dabi’s watch, the military intelligence was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture of numerous people in Sudan. The mission suspended its activities in late January 2012 because the violence made it impossible for the monitors to fulfil their role. A later attempt to introduce peacekeepers also failed. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was appointed as the joint UN-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis in late February. 

When the Arab League called on the UN Security Council to fulfil its role of maintaining international peace and security, Russia and China, citing the principle of state sovereignty, vetoed a resolution that called for an end to the violence and for President al-Assad to step down. Russia also justified its veto by criticizing the NATO intervention in Libya for overstepping its mandate to protect civilians. 

There is nothing new about veto power being used to subvert international peace and security. Russia (and earlier the USSR) and the USA have cast more than 200 vetoes between them - many with obvious political ramifications. Failure of the UN Security Council to act effectively on Syria, following hard on the heels of its failure to intervene in the case of Sri Lanka, raises serious questions about whether it has the political will to safeguard international peace and security. It also serves to remind those who seek the UN’s protection that the international system of governance is utterly devoid of accountability. It seems that the permanent members of the UN Security Council defend state sovereignty when it shields their own behaviour from scrutiny, or helps maintain their special (and profitable) relationships with repressive governments. 

Russia’s veto of the UN Security Council resolution was followed by reports of continuing arms sales by Russia’s state arms trader, Rosoboronexport, to the Syrian government, including a deal to sell combat jets. A former Syrian Minister of Defence auditor who defected in January 2012 reported that the sale of Russian arms to Syria  had increased sharply since the uprising began.

It is perhaps not surprising that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are also the world’s largest conventional arms trading countries. Together they accounted for at least 70 per cent of all major weapon exports in 2010: the USA (30 per cent), Russia (23 per cent), France (8 per cent), the United Kingdom (4 per cent) and China (3 per cent). Throughout the world, the irresponsible flow of arms from these five countries has led to countless civilian deaths as well as other serious violations of human rights and the laws of war.

Amnesty International documented how Western European governments, the USA and Russia authorized the supply of munitions, military hardware and police weapons to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen in the years of brutal repression leading up to the popular uprisings. These exports could have been prevented if those supplier states had lived up to their declared policy of avoiding arms exports that could contribute to serious human rights violations.

The question remains, can the very countries that are able to veto any Security Council resolution be trusted to pursue international peace and security when they also are the largest profiteers from the global arms trade? As long as their veto power is absolute and as long as there is no strong Arms Trade Treaty that could prevent them from selling arms to governments that violate human rights, their role as the guardians of peace and security seems doomed to failure.

FAILED LEADERSHIP GOES GLOBAL 

The failure of leadership that sparked and fuelled the popular protests in the Middle East and North Africa is not restricted to the UN Security Council or one region.  

Anti-government protests filtered down from northern Africa into other parts of the continent. In Uganda, despite a government ban on all public protest in February 2011, people took to the streets in cities around the country to protest against the rising cost  of fuel and other essential commodities. The police responded with force. Similarly, in Zimbabwe and Swaziland authorities attempted to quash protest by using excessive force. Showing the lengths some governments are prepared to go to in order to hold on to power, live ammunition has been used against protesters in countries such as Burkina Faso, Malawi and Senegal.

In Latin America too, people raised their voices. In Bolivia, social tensions are on  the increase amid recurring protests over economic issues and Indigenous rights.  When hundreds of people took part in a 360-mile protest march from Trinidad, Beni Department, to La Paz in mid-2011, President Evo Morales was forced to cancel plans  to build a road through the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park.  The plans were in breach of constitutional guarantees on prior consultation and environmental preservation laws. Scores of people were injured during the protests when security forces used tear gas and truncheons to break up a makeshift camp en route. In Mexico, protesters repeatedly took to the streets to demand an end to violence, impunity and the militarization of the war on drugs, amid mounting civilian casualties.

In Russia, protest has been fuelled by frustrations over corruption, cronyism and sham democratic processes that are denying people the opportunity to use their votes and push through change. Opposition voices in the political arena have been systematically undermined and denied access to mainstream media ensuring that Vladimir Putin faced no real opposition in the presidential elections. Adding insult to injury, Putin referred to protesters as “Banderlog” after the lawless monkeys in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Jungle Book, and likening their protest symbol, a white ribbon, to a condom. However, the protests herald a new era in Russia and mark a fresh set of challenges for Putin and those around him. They will have to find ways of addressing these demands now that political reform and respect for human rights have been put firmly on the agenda. 

The Chinese authorities demonstrated their fear of the type of public uprisings seen in Tunisia by quickly moving to forestall protests. In February, Chinese security forces took to the streets in large numbers intent on preventing any small group from growing into a crowd in Shanghai. Despite China’s tight controls on digital communications and the flow of information, official sources reported thousands of demonstrations throughout the country. Forced evictions in both rural and urban settings were a major focus for protesters in China. In Tibet, where controls are even tighter, more than a dozen monks protested by setting themselves on fire and security forces shot and killed several protesters in January 2012.

Authorities in Myanmar, too, showed their concern about the possibility of widespread public unrest as they moved to re-cast themselves as new and reform-oriented. The government permitted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to register for bi-elections. Some exiles returned home.

By mid-January 2012, 600 political prisoners had been released, many of them resuming their opposition activities. However, hundreds remain behind bars, although exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. The government’s stated commitment to permitting peaceful political opposition is encouraging, but much remains to be seen. 

DEMOCRACY AND DISEMPOWERMENT 

When protests flared in the Middle East and North Africa and other countries where freedom of expression and freedom of assembly were typically repressed, most democratic governments appeared confident that the civil unrest would remain “over there”.

In fact, protests occurred around the world and served to highlight the limitations of democratic governments in promoting and fulfilling human rights. 
The clear lines that politicians draw to try to distinguish good governments from bad governments have always been oversimplified. The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa exposed the self-serving and hypocritical foreign policies of states’ that claim to respect human rights. But in these same countries, domestic policies that led to the continuing economic crisis and a high tolerance for ever-growing inequalities exposed their failure to promote human rights at home as well. Xenophobia has swept across Europe and the USA as migrants are scapegoated. Roma, who have long suffered persecution and marginalization in Europe, and other victims of urban regeneration face forced evictions and violence.  

The US government’s response to the economic crisis was to bail out financial institutions that were “too big to fail”. But they did so without imposing any conditions on how the bailout would work. People who were unemployed, unable to secure health insurance and facing foreclosure and possibly homelessness felt betrayed. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote, “The banks got their bailout. Some of the money went to bonuses. Little of it went to lending. In the end, bank managers looked out for themselves and did what they are accustomed to doing.” 

What the economic crisis revealed was that the social contract between the government and the governed was broken. Governments were at best indifferent to  the concerns of the people and at worst only interested in protecting those in power. Statistics demonstrating increasing inequalities of incomes and assets were evidence  of governments’ failure to fulfil their obligation to ensure the progressive realization of economic and social rights. 

As the economic crisis in many European countries deepened, people took to the streets in anti-austerity demonstrations. In Greece, video footage, pictures, press reports and witness testimonies pointed to the repeated use of excessive force by police in demonstrations in Athens in June, including the extensive use of chemicals, against largely peaceful protesters. In Spain, police used excessive force to stop demonstrations in which people were demanding political, economic and social policy changes.

The ongoing protests throughout Europe and North America showed that people had lost their faith in governments that time and again disregard accountability, justice and the promotion of equality. 

BRAVING THE BACKLASH

While protesters in Europe and North America faced violations of their freedom of assembly and, in some cases, illegitimate use of force by the police using water cannons and tear gas, in other parts of the world the stakes were even higher. In Tunisia and Egypt, in Yemen and Syria, protesters faced the risk of death, enforced disappearance and torture to demand freedom. In Homs, protesters braved tanks, snipers, shelling, arrest and torture. 

Modern technology imposed some restraints on police who were repeatedly reminded that people can use mobile phones to record incidents of police brutality and upload them to social networking sites in an instant. As it was, the police did their best to restrict media scrutiny, intimidate protesters, use tear gas, pepper spray and batons. In a particularly innovative move in the USA, the authorities dusted off an 18th century law against wearing face masks in New York in order to crack down on largely peaceful protesters. 

Whether in Tahrir Square, Zucotti Park or Manezhnaya Square, a common strand linking these demonstrations was how quick governments were to prevent peaceful protest and restrict the right to freedom of expression and association.

CORPORATE POWER RISING

Few scenarios illustrate lack of leadership more than governments’ failure to regulate large business, particularly multinational corporations that often profit at the expense of local communities. From Shell in the Niger Delta, Nigeria, to Vedanta Resources in Orissa, India, governments are failing to ensure that corporate actors, at a minimum, respect human rights. In many countries, hundreds of thousands of people face forced evictions as mining companies move in to claim natural resources. 

Digital and communications companies are coming under greater scrutiny as they face governments’ demands to comply with patently illegal laws that violate human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, information and privacy. There is evidence that businesses ostensibly dedicated (and benefiting) from expression and sharing of opinion, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Vodaphone and Yahoo are collaborating in some of these violations.  

Threats to freedom of expression on the internet being highlighted in the context  of human rights revolutions is not new. Amnesty International has long documented the failures of governments, such as those of China, Cuba and Iran to respect freedom of expression and related rights on the internet. Recently introduced laws in the US Congress and in the European Union also threaten internet freedom.  

The failure of governments to demand any level of accountability of these corporations and institutions highlights yet again how governments work to support those in power rather than to empower those who are disempowered. 

LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP 

What emerged during a year of unrest, transition and conflict was the singular failure  of leadership at the national and international level. Officials of repressive governments who dismiss the concept of the universality of human rights and argue that human rights are western values being imposed on them have had their arguments laid bare. Other governments which bought the line that people in some countries are “not ready for democracy and human rights” had their beliefs equally exposed.

So, how do governments reclaim their role as legitimate leaders?

First, the hypocrisy must end. No state can legitimately claim that the people it governs are not ready for human rights and a participatory system of government. And those states that claim to defend human rights must stop shoring up dictatorial leaders because they are allies. The cry for freedom, justice and dignity being heard around the world must be honoured. The first step in doing so is for all states to respect freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.

Second, states must take their responsibilities as international actors seriously – particularly those charged with guaranteeing international peace and security. One example of such a commitment would be to adopt a strong Arms Trade Treaty.

In July 2012, UN member states meet to agree a final text for the Treaty. A strong Treaty would prevent the international transfer of all types of conventional arms,  including small arms, light weapons, ammunition and key components, to countries  in which there is a significant risk that these will be used to commit serious violations  of human rights and humanitarian law. To achieve this, the Treaty would require governments to conduct rigorous assessments of the risk to human rights before issuing arms export licences. This would demonstrate that governments value human rights and international peace and security over political expediency and the profits of the arms trade. A strong Arms Trade Treaty is only so close to becoming a reality because activists, human rights defenders and individuals at the grassroots, national,  regional and international level who recognize the incredible toll taken by the irresponsible trade in arms have demanded that governments address this human  rights problem.

In addition, greater oversight, especially of financial institutions, needs to be put in place to prevent the type of economic crises that continues to drive many around the world deeper into poverty. Weak oversight and deregulation allowed banks and mortgage companies to gamble away people’s savings and homes. 

Leaders must understand the imperative to build and maintain a system that protects the powerless and restrains the powerful – a system based on the rule of law that ensures an end to impunity and adherence to international standards of due process, fair trial and independence of the judiciary, a system where leaders remember they are here to serve the best interests of their citizens. Creating an environment that provides everyone with genuine access to participation in political life, where there is strong institutional support for the engagement of civil society, is a clear way to make this vision take root. 

The Amnesty International movement is built on the understanding that freedom of expression and the ability to challenge governments and demand that they respect, protect and fulfil human rights is essential in order to build a world in which all people live free and equal in dignity and rights. Protesters have thrown down the gauntlet demanding that governments show leadership by promoting human rights, justice, equality and dignity. The world has shown that leaders who don’t meet these expectations will no longer be accepted. 

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