The Arab Spring: universal values in action

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Wednesday, 29 June, 2011

"For too long, many authoritarian regimes have falsely claimed that certain values – freedom, justice, human rights – are 'Western'." Mary Robinson argues that the events of the Arab Spring show that people everywhere yearn to be free, and that justice and respect for fundamental human rights are universal values.

It has been fascinating to return to Lebanon in the past few days, with its relatively free press and vibrant civil society. Yet, at the same time, I noticed little change in its political system – one that enables all factions to be represented, often by the descendants of the same families, which has a stultifying effect. What impact will the huge changes and volatility of the region have on this country and its people?

Looking out over a thousand young faces of the graduating class at the American University of Beirut, I was filled with hope. They understand profoundly the events around them and welcome the changes in their region. Their seriousness of purpose was palpable, but so was their enthusiasm for the challenges ahead in this new climate of freedom and human dignity.

It was moving to see so tangibly that they too are inspired by the sacrifices made by their brothers and sisters across the Arab world, who are risking their lives daily to demand justice and respect for fundamental human rights.

The events of the Arab Spring emphasise that people everywhere yearn to be free, to have their voices heard and to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. In particular, they show that these are not 'Western' values, but universal values to which we all aspire.

No more double standards

For too long, many authoritarian regimes have falsely claimed that certain values – freedom, justice, human rights – are 'Western'. And in pursuit of national and regional 'stability', many Western governments, while paying lip service to democratic ideals and human rights, have turned a blind eye to violations committed by leaders and governments with whom they enjoyed good relations. It is clear that this exceptionalism is fundamentally flawed. Citizens are adamant: they will no longer tolerate 'business as usual'.

This January, following six weeks of popular protest, we witnessed what many Tunisians thought they would never see: the departure of President Ben Ali. One month later, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after Egyptians from all walks of life – men and women, rich and poor – took to the streets to demand an end to dictatorship and repression.

These protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa, but have not yet delivered the changes that people want. In Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, the violent response by states to legitimate demands from their citizens have cost many thousands of lives.

Courage and a refusal to be silenced

The refusal of demonstrators to be silenced, in spite of the violent reactions they face, reflects the emergence of an active and increasingly confident citizenry in many Arab countries.

In Egypt, the revolution did not end with the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Young people, unions, journalists and other civil society groups are still struggling to hold the country's interim military rulers to account. In just one example, uproar ensued when a blogger who was critical of military actions was jailed by a military tribunal. Protesters are now pushing for the release of all political prisoners and to know what has happened to over 5,000 Egyptians missing – believed detained without trial by security services – since the unrest began.

The international community can and should help these burgeoning civil society movements. While an interventionist approach may be counterproductive, other countries can help protect the legitimacy of these movements by holding all governments to the universal standards that their citizens expect.

Global solidarity

The popular uprisings in the Arab world have captivated and inspired others to a remarkable degree. Our sister Elder, Aung San Suu Kyi, spoke of the effect of the Arab Spring on the pro-democracy movement in Burma: "Do we envy the people of Egypt and Tunisia? Yes... But more than envy is a sense of solidarity and of renewed commitment to our cause, which is the cause of all women and men who value human dignity and freedom."

In Egypt, the death of a young businessman at the hands of state security forces inspired thousands of Egyptians to protest in his name, saying, "We are all Khaled Said." This spirit of solidarity is multiplied as people around the world watch events in real time and amplify protesters' calls for freedom, democracy and human rights - thanks in no small part to the internet and social media.

These tools not only help people organise civil society movements and share their experiences; they reaffirm the fact that when we demand our basic rights, we are not alone. We are justified in holding our governments to account, and in seeking to build inclusive and free societies that benefit the many, not the privileged few.

Whatever may transpire in the coming months and years across the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring has shown us that universal values are not an abstract concept – they make a real, practical difference to people's lives. Most importantly, the protestors have shown us that these values are truly universal. They belong to each of us to fight for and to treasure.

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