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


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Progress of the last decade

Consider these four developments from the past 10 years:

The International Criminal Court was born. Before July 1, 2002, those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity knew that, except in the rare event that the international community convened a special tribunal, they need have little fear that their criminal deeds would ever be punished. Though the court has not yet achieved a conviction, the mere specter of possible prosecutions has already brought change to places like Guinea and Uganda.

Use of the death penalty continued to decline. During the last decade, 26 more countries abolished the death penalty. Today the number that employ it (58) is at a historic low. In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled its use unconstitutional in the cases of the mentally retarded (2002) and juveniles (2005). Executions continue to decline, as does the frequency of capital sentences.

The number of human rights groups exploded. A recent study for the US Holocaust Museum identified 115 organizations working on genocide prevention. Of those, the 12 major groups were all founded in the past five to seven years. The same trend is true of national and regional human rights organizations. Virtually every country, even some of the most repressive, can now boast indigenous groups that track violations, report abuses, and try to hold their governments to international standards.

Technology joined the human rights fight. Furthermore, those proliferating groups must no longer rely on 20th-century techniques alone. Twitter-organized protests are now the norm, as we’ve seen in Tunisia and Egypt recently. Sophisticated data analysis applications are mapping evidence of human rights crimes from Guatemala to Liberia. Satellite imaging has identified slave-labor camps in North Korea and protected villages at risk in Darfur, Sudan.

We really have come a long way

The human rights camp still suffers setbacks with some regularity, of course. Freedom House has reported that the number of electoral democracies has reached the lowest level since 1995. But long-term human rights victories depend upon changing global political and cultural norms, and that takes time. And patience.

The 8 worst countries on Transparency International's list

After all, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into existence only 62 years ago, even its most ardent supporters would have scoffed at the notion that its affirmation of "the right to marry and to found a family" would ever be applied to gays and lesbians.

Monumental as the future battles will be, it is important to pause occasionally and savor the satisfying truth that, when it comes to human rights, we really have come a long way, baby.

William F. Schulz is president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization.


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