from Asia Unbound

Looking Back: Human Rights in 2009

January 26, 2010

Blog Post

More on:





United States

Although it was buried amidst the past month’s news of the global financial crisis and Barack Obama’s struggles to maintain any political momentum, the global monitoring group Freedom House released its annual Freedom in the World outlook, which assesses the state of political and civil liberties in each country. For the fourth year in a row, global freedom declined, which Freedom House said was the longest continuous decline in the nearly forty years it has been producing the report. (Disclosure: I participated in some of the Freedom House assessments of countries in Southeast Asia.) Indeed, 2009 was one of the worst years in recent memory for human rights activists, with crackdowns on prominent figures from Liu Xiaobo to Shirin Ebadi, whose Nobel Peace Prize was seized by the Iranian government. (Talk about spite!)

They were just the most noticeable crackdowns – Vietnam has reversed gains in political freedoms and gone on the offensive against democracy activists and bloggers, Thailand has stepped up its use of the lese majeste law to put a chill into online discussion, China has imposed increasingly harsh sentences on human rights lawyers and activists, and Iran’s regime is nearing all-out war against the Green movement.

This decline can’t be pinned on one factor, and in some cases the reasons are unique to each country, of course. But clearly several important factors have put democrats on the back foot globally:

1. The Financial Crisis

When Western leaders are spending most of their time figuring out how to keep their economies from going the way of Lehman Brothers, they don’t have nearly as much energy for focusing on global human rights. (See: Obama’s trip to China.)

2. China

For several years, commentators, including myself, have warned of China’s pernicious effect on global human rights. Probably, those warnings were overstated – at the time. The past year, Beijing has become much more confident and aggressive in combating human rights advocacy, probably because it feels more secure in the wake of the global financial crisis and after the successful 2008 Olympics. (See: Chinese pressure on Cambodia to deport Uighurs, China’s pushback against Google, China’s uncompromising Xinjiang strategy.)

3. The Middle Class

Used to be, the middle class was assumed to be the key to democratization. Well, not so fast. In places like Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and many others, the middle class, repulsed by elected leaders who either display autocratic behaviors and/or fail to produce economic growth, actually have pushed back against democracy, which has then resulted in a rollback of freedoms. (See: Thailand since the 2006 coup, Russia under Putin/Medvedev.)

4. No One Stepping Up to the Plate

Even as major Western democracies downplay human rights to focus on the global financial crisis, no one has stepped into their stead. India, a burgeoning power and the world’s largest democracy, often acts just like China on the world stage, abetting all manner of autocratic regime. South Africa has hardly become the beacon of global human rights advocacy some hoped after the end of apartheid. Japan is in domestic crisis. Brazil still has nowhere near the global clout to make an impact on rights, even if it wanted to. (See: South Africa’s support for Burma at the UN Security Council, India’s Burma policy.)