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Good Reads: Was 2011 a banner year for human rights?

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Scan the headlines and you might feel like the world is going down the tubes. War, famine, power struggles, economic collapse, climate change – none of these problems seem to be going away, and some problems seem to be getting worse by the day.

But in at least one area – human rights – there seems to be some major progress, both because of citizen activism from below and political leadership from above.

Three major dictatorships have fallen across North Africa – in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya – at least partly at the hands of their own people. Citizen protests spread as far away as Bahrain and Yemen, Malawi and Swaziland, and while Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has held onto power through a brutal repression that has killed thousands of Syrians, it has come at the cost of his country’s economic and political isolation.

Numbered are the days, at least in Africa, when leaders could simply grab and hold onto power perpetually through falsified elections. Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo tried that, after losing elections to Alessane Ouattara, and a combination of street protests and pro-Ouattara military might (along with some French military intervention) shut Gbagbo’s power grab down. This week, as the Democratic Republic of Congo enters a dicey period, where two men – President Joseph Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi – claim to have won Nov. 28 elections, the international community will doubtless attempt to find a negotiated settlement, after election observers have declared that voting results “lack credibility.”

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