Over the past year, more and more citizens around the world have been standing up for their freedom. Sadly, as chronicled in Amnesty International’s annual State of the World 2012 Report, world leaders have failed to mirror the courage shown by millions of peaceful protesters. Too many nations have placed self-interest and profit ahead of people’s rights – and even their lives. The results have been tragic.
Even the United Nations Security Council, which is supposed to be the bulwark of global peace and security, has failed in its response to these popular uprisings, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. The Security Council’s ramparts have been thinly manned, its response to cries for help too often feeble. Inaction over Syria has left the Council seeming woefully unfit for its primary purpose: maintaining international peace.
In the case of Syria, Russian and Chinese intransigence has put the credibility of the Council at risk; undermining its core function as a guardian of human rights, and rendering accountability for crimes against humanity elusive. President Hafez al-Assad’s regime continues to face down protesters with snipers and tanks, arresting and torturing children as young as ten years old. Yet Russia continues to provide Syria with arms and fails to use its close security relationship – it maintains a naval base at Tartus – to persuade Assad to stop the killing.
China, resolutely opposed to intervention in the internal affairs of other states, except when it suits Beijing, has not exactly been a profile in courage. China appears stubbornly committed to preventing the Council from acting decisively to quell the violence. It blatantly ignores the lessons it should have learned from diplomatic blunders made in Sudan and Burma.
The other three permanent members of the Security Council, the United States, France and the United Kingdom, have not always been principled in their approach. The United States remains far and away the world’s largest arms dealer. As we have witnessed in Bahrain, repression of peaceful dissent apparently still qualifies a U.S. friend to the American arms bazaar.
As Russia and China prefer to maintain their special, profitable relations with repressive governments and as the United States and its allies only selectively champion freedom and democracy, how can one expect the international community to step up its game? It is time to match the courage and authenticity of those standing up for their own rights with resolute, multilateral support.
First, end the hypocrisy. The Security Council should not play favorites, heeding cries for freedom, justice and dignity only when they emanates from “friendlies.” The international community should pressure all abusive governments to rein in their secret police and other security forces and permit citizens to speak, to organize and to redress grievances.
Second, the member states of the United Nations should take their international responsibilities seriously, and not just pursue policies that fill their coffers at the expense of peace and stability. The United States and other members of the Security Council should lead by example.
Third, global community should invest in systems and structures that are based on human rights and the rule of law Leaders should strive to build and maintain a system that protects the powerless and restrains the powerful. Injustice, often fueled by rapacious arms merchants, is the root cause of many of the world’s conflicts.
Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Bahrain. Burma. The past couple of years have made it clearer than ever that the human desire for freedom and justice is universal. It cannot be crushed or contained.
If crises bring about opportunities, then we are living in a world of possibilities.
Now is the time for the world’s leaders to show support for human rights in practice, not just words. Countries cannot long secure their own prosperity while continuing to turn a blind eye to suffering and repression. As President Kennedy reminded the world nearly 50 years ago, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.”