Amnesty International hails WikiLeaks and Guardian as Arab spring ‘catalysts’ | World news | The Guardian
The world faces a watershed moment in human rights with tyrants and despots coming under increasing pressure from the internet, social networking sites and the activities of WikiLeaks, Amnesty International says in its annual roundup.
The rights group singles out WikiLeaks and the newspapers that pored over its previously confidential government files, among them the Guardian, as a catalyst in a series of uprisings against repressive regimes, notably the overthrow of Tunisia’s long-serving president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
"The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power and, in so doing, pushed for greater respect for human rights," Amnesty’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, says in an introduction to the document. "It is also the year when repressive governments faced the real possibility that their days were numbered."
But, Shetty adds, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, and elsewhere, remains unpredictable: “There is a serious fightback from the forces of repression. The international community must seize the opportunity for change and ensure that 2011 is not a false dawn for human rights.”
The 432-page report reviews 156 countries and territories, of which at least 89 were found to restrict free speech, 98 carried out torture or other ill-treatment and 48 had documented prisoners of conscience.
The report covers only to the end of 2010, and thus only the very beginnings of the so-called Arab spring – Ben Ali was not deposed until mid-January. However, subsequent uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, many spread via mobile phones and social networking, reinforce Amnesty’s message about the importance of technology and communication.
A key element had been the work of WikiLeaks in first publishing information about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then a massive trove of US diplomatic papers, disclosures carried out with newspapers worldwide.
"It took old-fashioned newspaper reporters and political analysts to trawl through the raw data, analyse it, and identify evidence of crimes and violations contained in those documents," Shetty said.
"Leveraging this information, political activists used other new communications tools now easily available on mobile phones and on social networking sites to bring people to the streets to demand accountability."
One example highlighted by Shetty was Tunisia, where WikiLeaks revelations about Ben Ali’s corrupt regime combined with rapidly-spreading news of the self-immolation of a disillusioned young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, to spark major protests.
The report also highlights the importance of new technology elsewhere, for example China, where “My father is Li Gang” – the cry of a senior policeman’s son after he killed a young woman while drunk driving – became a euphemism on China’s tightly controlled internet space for rife nepotism. Similarly, “empty chair” took the place of Liu Xiaobo’s name on Chinese web forums after such a chair took the place of the jailed rights activist at the Nobel peace prize ceremony.
Shetty said: “Not since the end of the Cold War have so many repressive governments faced such a challenge to their stranglehold on power. The demand for political and economic rights spreading across the Middle East and North Africa is dramatic proof that all rights are equally important and a universal demand.
"In the 50 years since Amnesty International was born to protect the rights of people detained for their peaceful opinions, there has been a human rights revolution. The call for justice, freedom and dignity has evolved into a global demand that grows stronger every day. The genie is out of the bottle and the forces of repression cannot put it back.”