The Day After

World Report 2013

World Report 2013

by Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Excerpt from the introduction to Human Rights Watch’s twenty-third annual World Report. The complete introduction is available at http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/essays/day-after

Two years into the Arab Spring, euphoria seems a thing of the past. The heady days of protest and triumph have been replaced by outrage at the atrocities in Syria, frustration that the region’s monarchs remain largely immune to pressure for reform, fear that the uprisings’ biggest winners are Islamists who might limit the rights of women, minorities, and dissidents, and disappointment that even in countries that have experienced a change of regime, fundamental change has been slow and unsteady. Difficult as it is to end abusive rule, the hardest part may well be the day after.

It should be no surprise that building a rights-respecting democracy on a legacy of repression is not easy. The transitions from communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union yielded many democracies, but also many dictatorships. Latin America’s democratic evolution over the past two decades has been anything but linear. Progress in Asia and Africa has been uneven and sporadic. Even the European Union, which has successfully made democratic reform and respect for human rights conditions of membership, has had a harder time curbing authoritarian impulses once countries—most recently Hungary and Romania—became members.

Moreover, those who excelled at overthrowing the autocrat are often not best placed to build a governing majority. The art of protest does not necessarily match the skills needed for governing. And allies in ousting a despot are sometimes not the best partners for replacing despotism.

But those who pine for the familiar days of dictatorship should remember that the uncertainties of freedom are no reason to revert to the enforced predictability of authoritarian rule. The path ahead may be treacherous, but the unthinkable alternative is to consign entire peoples to a grim future of oppression.

Building a rights-respecting state may not be as exhilarating as toppling an abusive regime. It can be painstaking work to construct effective institutions of governance, establish independent courts, create professional police units, and train public officials to uphold human rights and the rule of law. But these tasks are essential if revolution is not to become a byway to repression by another name.

The past year offers some key lessons for success in this venture—as valid globally as they are for the states at the heart of the Arab Spring. There are lessons for both the nations undergoing revolutionary change and the international community.

[…]

The Arab Spring continues to give rise to hope for an improved human rights environment in one of the regions of the world that has been most resistant to democratic change. Yet it also spotlights the tension between majority rule and respect for rights. It is of enormous importance to the people of the region–and the world–that this tension be resolved with respect for international standards. A positive resolution will require acts of great statesmanship among the region’s new leaders. But it will also require consistent, principled support from the most influential outsiders. No one pretends it will be easy to get this right. But no one can doubt the importance of doing so.

The Arab Spring has inspired people the world over, encouraging many to stand up to their own autocratic rulers. As its leaders act at home, they also set an example for the world. Much is riding on making this precedent positive—one that succeeds in building elected governments that live by the constraints of rights and the rule of law.

World Report 2013 is now available to buy from www.policypress.co.uk

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