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Human Rights Day 2011: Signals of Hope

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2011 has been a momentous year for human rights. The Arab Spring alone promises to reshape the human rights landscape for generations to come. Add to that the independence of South Sudan, the apparent opening in Myanmar and, domestically, Occupy Wall Street, with its plea for a new era in economic rights for the 99%, and you have the makings of a watershed year.

Behind these headline developments are a variety of important markers worth noting as we celebrate Human Rights Day on December 10, 2011, because they carry the potential for long-lasting change in the very way we think about human rights.

The emergence of the Arab League, for example, as a broker in the efforts to stop deadly violence in Libya and now Syria signals not just a new-found potency for the League itself. It also reflects an emerging international consensus that sovereignty no longer bestows immunity when it comes to mass atrocities. The fact that the international community, à la the Obama Doctrine on humanitarian intervention, treats different countries differently when it comes to military action, does not mean that the norm -- "Thou shalt not kill your own people" -- is not well on its way to being established.

Or take the growing role that Turkey is claiming for itself in the larger community of Muslim states. It was not too long ago that Turkey would have been included in anyone's list of serious human rights offenders and its treatment of its Kurdish population still leaves much to be desired. But the fact that Turkey, a vibrant democracy with an Islamic ruling party, is seeking to export its model of governance to others in the Islamic world reinforces the fact that Islam need not equate to autocracy when it comes to the use of political power. The vote in Tunisia has already proven that and, though the Islamists may well claim victory in Egypt, they will find, like others before them who have taken the reins of power, that governing requires pragmatism more than purity. That is particularly true in as raucous a society as Egypt's.

Or, finally, consider the little-noticed transfer of Laurent Gbagbo, former Ivory Coast strongman, to The Hague following his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity committed following his refusal to step down after he had lost reelection. Three things make this case far more important than the fate of Gbagbo himself: first, that the failure to honor the results of clean, fair democratic elections prompted outrage sufficient to reverse the theft -- until recent years something all too rare in Africa; second, that Gbagbo, unlike Muammar Qaddaffi, was not killed by his adversaries once they had him in his clutches but turned over to international authorities; and third, that the ICC has established its credibility sufficiently that virtually all parties involved, including the United States, which has pointedly refused to join the Court, saw it as an appropriate vehicle for helping Ivory Coast address its demons.

All this is not to say that China does not continue to defy virtually all standards of civil and political rights or that rape does not continue to plague Congo or that Belarus does not continue to imagine itself still living in Soviet times. There is still plenty about the current state of human rights to cloud even the rosiest-colored glasses. But it is to say that, though the struggle for human rights be long, it is headed in the right direction. And that would make the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified sixty-three years ago on December 10, inordinately proud.

William F. Schulz, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, is President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.