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Are human rights really in decline? Look how far we've come.

In the face of reported global abuses, it's tempting to bemoan the lack of human rights progress. But even before protesters in Egypt and the Middle East took a historic stand for freedom, human rights has actually made big gains. Here are four key developments from the last decade.

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Shortly before I left my position as head of Amnesty International in 2006, I gave a lecture at Syracuse University on the state of human rights around the world. At a dinner beforehand, the university president asked faculty members whether human rights were better or worse off today than they were 200 years ago. With one exception, the faculty all insisted that human rights were in worse shape.

The one person who demurred from that judgment was David Crane, professor of law and former prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal for Sierra Leone. He pointed out that the notion of bringing perpetrators of war crimes before an international court would have been inconceivable in 1806. I added that, in fact, the notion of universal human rights was not even a recognized concept then.

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I often think of this conversation when listening to people bemoan how little human rights progress the world seems to be making. Of course, it is true that terrible human rights violations continue to occur on a daily basis, and no one would deny the need for far more effective enforcement of human rights laws.

But when I reflect on all that has changed in the first decade of the 21st century alone, I cannot help but agree with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s popular summary of Theodore Parker's idea that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

Middle East unrest a sign of progress

In this new decade, today’s unrest in the Middle East – however complicated with violence and uncertainty – may be another testament to this progress, depending on what comes after each regime. The wave of popular uprisings now threatening autocrats across the Arab world appears to represent an extraordinary step toward greater freedom and improved human rights in the region.

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Just a few months ago, not many would have thought the ouster of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to be possible. In Egypt, even as pro-Mubarak supporters launched a violent crackdown against activists, human rights representatives, journalists, and citizens, anti-government protestors persevered in the message that has already earned unprecedented concessions from the Egyptian regime.

While struggles in the Middle East and other parts of the globe continue, it’s encouraging to take stock of how far the cause of human rights really has come.


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