Monday is Human Rights Day, honoring the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this day in 1948 – a day to reflect on where the revolutions of the last few years have brought us, and just how far we have to go.
This year the focus of the day is on the universal right of any person to have their voice heard in public life and government, including freedom of expression, opinion, and assembly. This emphasis recognizes the powerful movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, over the last two years that have originated in public assemblies and demonstrations. Although in the United States we might take such rights for granted, an astounding 23% of the world’s population has no say in how they are governed — according to Freedom house.
Nine countries were given the lowest possible rating in Freedom house’s 2012 report on the ‘Worst of the Worst,’ which rates countries on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free) in the categories of political rights and civil liberties. Those countries were Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The 7,7 score given to these countries means that “Within these entities, political opposition is banned, criticism of the government is met with retribution, and independent organizations are suppressed.” Most of these countries are characterized by ruling regimes with little turnover; in Saudi Arabia, ruled by the royal Saud family, political parties are outlawed, and Uzbekistan and Eritrea have had the same presidents since their independence in 1991 and 1993, respectively, to name a few offenders.
Also included in the ‘Worst of the Worst’ category were seven more countries that scored a 6 in civil liberties and 7 in political rights; Belarus, Burma, Chad, China, Cuba, Laos, and Libya. Strangely, four of the members of the UN Human Rights Council are in the ‘Worst of the Worst’ – Saudi Arabia, China, Libya and Cuba. Such countries do not seem suited to promoting human rights around the world when they cannot enforce them at home.
The Arab Spring led to positive improvements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but these gains were overshadowed by the autocratic crackdowns triggered elsewhere, most notably in Syria, as well as in Bahrain and Yemen. The Freedom House 2012 summary report, which describes the year 2011, noted that 2011 was the sixth consecutive year in which there were more declines than improvements in human rights – a grim statistic indeed. The revolutions in the Middle East, by overturning the established regimes that characterize low-freedom countries, may be turning their trajectories towards freedom, but that change is happening ever so slowly.
Chances are if you are reading this article that you reside in a country with political and civil rights that are almost unimaginable to citizens of the Worst of the Worst. Take today to appreciate them and exercise them – call your representatives, protest for something that needs fixing, make your voice heard on twitter (#VoiceCount), or write a letter to your newspaper. They’re your rights – use them and help others gain them.