Freedom House published its Best and Worst of Human Rights in 2012.
Many of these items got little press coverage — all to the bad in terms of understanding the rest of the world. And many need regular updates. Here are my suggestions of follow ups:
LGBTI Victories in the Western Hemisphere
Some of the highlights as noted by Freedom House:
- President Obama voiced public support for gay marriage for the first time
- Three states—Washington, Maryland, and Maine—passed laws allowing same-sex marriage.
- The first openly gay woman was elected to the U.S. Senate.
- In Argentina 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.
- Chile passed an antidiscrimination 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 legal in Canada and some parts of Mexico.
And add that the LGBTI community in Honduras has been getting more vocal and demanding more protection from acts of violence. The community is getting support from a number of government with embassies in Honduras, but the leading force is the U.S. embassy.
Follow up is needed to ensure that newly enacted or proposed laws banning discrimination based on sexual identity or preference are followed. (The law is a fungible commodity in too many countries in the Western Hemisphere.)
The reason the protection of the LGBTI community is of importance to American readers is because how a country treats any minority group — such as this one — tells a lot about the morals and standards of that country and its people. It also tells a lot about how well received tourists from different groups will be received in that country.
Passage of the Magnitsky Act
The U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail after exposing a multimillion-dollar fraud by Russian officials. The law places visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. 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.
Reporting on how well this act — and others like it — are enforced is vital to keeping the issue of human rights (including press freedom) in the forefront. How well the law is enforced will also tell a lot about how the U.S. government bureaucracy deals with the thorny issue of human rights.
Survival of the Tunisian Revolution
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. 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.
The best way to send a message to the anti-democracy people in Tunisia is to make sure reporting continues. Journalists need to show where progress is being made and where it is being hindered — and by whom.
And this is important to the United States — beyond humanitarian and human rights reasons — because of Tunisia’s location and the natural resources that are vital to us and our European partners.
Civil War in Syria
Anyone exposed to even the slightest bit of news knows that the civil war in Syria is the worst human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in the world today. The estimated death toll is at 42,000, with no end in sight. The Committee to Protect Journalists report an alarming 32 reporters have been killed while covering the conflict.
Continued coverage is necessary to keep pressure on the rest of the world to do something to end the tragedy.
For U.S. readers, the issue is not just human rights but also the instability this war causes in an area vital to U.S. and global geo-political interests.
Devastation in Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries on the African continent. And yet it 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 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.
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. There are widespread reports of rape and forced marriage, as well as the recruitment of child soldiers.
Paying attention to Congo and Mali may seem outside the usual assignment areas for U.S. media. Yet, the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. These are potential trading partners for America, if we can help the individual countries stabilize and develop viable middle classes.
The natural resources from Africa are badly needed by industrialized countries and industrializing countries. That means to keep out industries growing, the United States needs these items. It also means that other countries less friendly to us — i.e. China — also need these raw materials.
In the end it comes down to a competition of ideals and principles. China is willing to dump billions of dollars into a country with no strings attached other than being given access to its raw materials. The United States, on the other hand demands transparency and civil rights from aid recipients. It is no wonder that the war lords and thugs prefer doing business with China. It is also no wonder that the people of these war-torn countries prefer U.S. aid
It is vital for U.S. citizens to know how and why the U.S. government spends money on development programs. It is also important to put that expenditure in perspective: Less than one-half of 1% of the federal budget is spent on ALL development programs — that includes the salaries of ALL USAID employees in the United States and around the world. Not the 25% most Americans think.
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. The government has enacted numerous pieces of legislation that 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. The government re-criminalized 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.
Russia is a major power and sits on some of the greatest reserves of precious metals and rare earth in the world. It is a player that needs to be explained to the American people. It is not the Soviet Union and it is not THE major geo-political threat to the United States. But it is a great power that is not using that power to the betterment of its people.
There were expectations after the fall of communism that a strong Russian middle class would grow and the democratic instincts of the people would be fulfilled. After years of failed leadership, Putin has returned as a strongman to take away democratic hopes and aspirations. In the process he is also taking away the incentive for a viable middle class to grow and prosper.
Bottom line: Any country that has thousands of missiles aimed at us is one that news organizations should be looking at more closely.
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. 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. Journalists and human rights groups, including Freedom House, have been repeatedly denied entry to the country to report on these abuses. (Most recently Nicholas Kristof was seized and deported from Bahrain.) Sadly, Bahrain is not the only Gulf state in decline. A ban on “unlicensed” peaceful demonstrations was passed in Kuwait. And Oman has jailed dozens of people for making critical comments about the regime.
But why worry about repressive actions that only affect the people of those countries? Violent police action against demonstrators leads to more violence by demonstrators which leads to more repressive actions which leads to more violence and societal disruption and so on. The problem is that too few reports from the region make the connection between the violence in a country or region with Main Street USA.
Anything that takes place in the volatile Arab/Persian Gulf should be of interest to the America people. Besides the meme that we need the oil from the region — actually we don’t get that much, but our trading partners do — there is also the fertilizer that comes out of the area. Without Qatari, Kuwaiti, Saudi or Omani urea and ammonia, most of the American crops would fail. And THAT is something worth worrying about.
I would think the fertilizer angle is just one that could be put to better use by people trying to tell the story of repressive regimes in the Gulf region.
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 have a chilling effect on free expression and are often used to justify violence, repress religious minorities, and settle personal grudges rather than combat intolerance. A Freedom House special report shows 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.
This is not the sharia law so feared by the U.S. Tea Party. This is worse because any government dominated by one religion can use laws against bad mouthing the dominate religion to shut down freedom of speech, press and assembly.
Singapore has several examples of how laws to prevent “callous and reckless remarks on racial or religious subjects” can be used to shut down any discussions the government wants shut down. The Vatican has gone to court to fight images that it considered “offensive.” One case involved a German satirical magazine that published a photo-shopped image of the pope’s vestments stained with urine.
So far the U.S. and its democratic allies have been able to hold off a full-court press by Islamic countries to have the United Nations endorse blasphemy laws. What is critical for the American people to know is that this is not just an Islamic/Third-World thing. There are too many religious fanatics around — including in the United States — that would be quite happy with blasphemy laws but only for the protection of their version of their religion.