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Historic change

May 13, 2011

Human rights activists are using new tools to challenge repression, says Amnesty International in its annual report. But the world community has to ensure lasting improvements on the threshold of historic change.

Amnesty international logo
Amnesty International is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year

On the eve of its 50th anniversary, Amnesty International (AI) has applauded the growing demands for freedom and justice across the Middle East and North Africa. In the organization's annual report "The State of the World's Human Rights," released Friday, AI said the protests highlighted people's deep desire for freedom from fear and want.

"People are rejecting fear," said AI's Secretary General Salil Shetty. "Courageous people, led largely by youth, are standing up and speaking out in the face of bullets, beatings, tear gas and tanks."

Yet despite these developments, freedom of expression was still under attack across the world. The governments in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen have shown how far they are willing to go in order to stay in power by beating, maiming or killing peaceful protestors, AI said.

In addition, human rights violations are continuing out of the international spotlight. AI said thousands of human rights defenders were threatened, imprisoned, tortured and killed around the world, including in Afghanistan, Angola, Brazil, Burma, China, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

However, AI said 2010 also had "iconic moments": Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in Burma and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The role of new media

Shetty said 2010 marked a change in the fight for human rights. The use of the Internet and social media in opposing repressive governments showed that information was a source of power, he said.

facebook page showing tunisian flag
Facebook played a key role in Tunisia's revolutionImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"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," Shetty said.

A battle is now underway for control of this access to information, AI said. Governments are struggling to control the means of communication and networking technology that is fueling this new activism.

"Governments are scrambling to regain the initiative or to use this technology against activists," AI said.

The international community's responsibility

Even in countries undergoing political change, there are still human rights problems. In Egypt, for example, freedom of speech is still threatened following the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak. In mid-April, a law came into force which criminalized peaceful protests and strikes.

"Germany, the EU and the US have to call on the Egyptian interim government and military council to take consistent concrete steps to improve the protection of human rights," said Wolfgang Grenz, Amnesty International's deputy secretary general for Germany.

Nonetheless, Shetty said the changes in the Arab world have started a ball rolling which cannot be stopped.

"Not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power," he said. Human rights had become a universal demand.

"The genie is out of the bottle and the forces of repression cannot put it back," Shetty said. He said it was crucial that the international community ensure lasting change.

"We cannot allow the sacrifices of the thousands of people in the last few months to end up being a false dawn for the people of the Middle East and North Africa and indeed for the world."

Author: Sabina Casagrande
Editor: Rob Mudge