The Arab Spring and Human Rights
At the Annual General Meeting of Stratford’s Amnesty International Group held on Wednesday, 14th March, the guest speaker was Hugh Sandeman, Amnesty’s Co-ordinator for Algeria. In an excellent, highly informative talk, Hugh reflected on the ‘Arab Spring’, the name given to popular demands for human and civil rights, as experienced in 5 North African countries. On 17 December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Bouazzi set himself on fire in a public protest against government corruption, unemployment and the lack of basic freedoms in what was a police state ruled over by the dictator Ben Ali. The impact of this event was extraordinary with hundreds of thousands of people suddenly emboldened to demonstrate and demand civil rights. The government responded with violence and hundreds of protesters were killed. However, the demonstrations continued to grow in strength, and after 23 years in power, Ben Ali was forced to flee into exile. The first free elections in the history of Tunisia took place in November 2011. The new constituent assembly ensured that all the many thousands of political prisoners were released and that all international human rights legislation was endorsed. As Hugh reminded us, Amnesty had campaigned for years against Ben Ali’s suppression of human rights and the torture of political prisoners. In less than a year there was a complete and extraordinary transformation and there are no longer any Tunisians on Amnesty’s ‘at risk’ registers.
Events in Tunisia proved an inspiration to millions of people throughout North Africa with mass demonstrations calling for liberation from oppressive regimes. And there have been successes. In February 2011 the Egyptian dictator Mubarak was ousted and is currently on trial for abuse of power and in November elections were held and a new parliament formed. However, demonstrations continue because of the Army’s reluctance to hand over power to the civil authorities. And abuses of the people continue. One widely reported case is that of a doctor who subjected female demonstrators to ‘virginity tests’. He has been acquitted of wrong-doing by a military tribunal.
Demonstrations in Libya led to civil war and the death of the dictator Gaddaffi. There is now a National Transitional Council in which claims a commitment to freedom of speech and assembly. This a welcome advance following 40 years of Gaddaffi’s tyranny. And yet a recent Amnesty Report documents human rights abuses by both sides during a conflict which is yet to be fully resolved. In February, mass demonstrations in Morocco led to the King announcing reforms including the holding of elections in which Islamist parties would be allowed to campaign for the first time. But people are still being jailed for demanding further reforms. There has been no change in Algeria. There is a ban on demonstrations, and when 300 people were brave enough to defy the law, they were confronted by no less than 30,000 police.
Hugh concluded that, Tunisia apart, the ‘Arab Spring’ has not meant a decisive break with the past, there remains much for the Arab people to do before their human rights are secured, and much for Amnesty supporters to continue to do in campaigning on their behalf.
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