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Time to Abandon the Autocrats and Embrace Rights

The International Response to the Arab Spring

Egyptians celebrate after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011. The announcement, delivered during evening prayers in Cairo, set off a series of celebrations.

© 2011 Ed Ou/The New York Times/Redux

By Kenneth Roth

The sad truth is that the dominant Western policy toward the Arab people traditionally has been one of containment. Today many applaud as the people of the region take to the streets to claim their rights, but until recently Western governments frequently acted as if the Arab people were to be feared, hemmed in, controlled. In other regions, democracy spread, but in the Middle East and North Africa, the West seemed content to back an array of Arab autocrats, so long as they in turn supported Western interests. Elsewhere, governments were expected, at least in principle, to serve their people, but the West looked to the monarchs and strongmen of the Arab world to guarantee “stability,” to keep the lid on popular demands. The world’s promotion of human rights had an Arab exception.

The Arab Spring showed that many people in the region do not share the West’s comfortable complacency with autocratic rule. No longer willing to be the passive subjects of self-serving rulers, they began to insist on becoming full citizens of their countries, the proper agents of their fate. In one country after another, an act of repression sparked popular outrage at a regime that had taken one brutal step too many. This time the much discussed but long quiescent Arab Street arose and upended the old order. In finding its collective voice and power, the region’s people transformed its politics in a way that will not be easy to turn back.

In Tunisia, the catalyst was the self-immolation of fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi after a routine case of humiliation by the police. In Egypt, it was photos of the deformed face of Khaled Said, a young man beaten to death by the police. In Syria, it was the torture of teenagers for scribbling anti-regime graffiti. In Libya, it was the arrest of Fathi Terbil, the lawyer for the victims of the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre. These quotidian examples of abuse, among countless others, sparked what in essence became a series of human rights revolutions—driven by demands for governments that, finally, would be elected by their people, respectful of their rights, and subject to the rule of law.

The West is still adjusting to this historic transformation. While generally opposing the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations, many of the world’s leading democracies remain reluctant partners of the protesters, worried by the consequences of entrusting these pivotal countries to their citizens.

And if Western governments have been hesitant to abandon autocratic friends, many other countries have shown outright hostility to the rebellions. Dictatorial governments have been predictably terrified by the precedent of people ousting authoritarian regimes. China went to extraordinary lengths to prevent “Jasmine rallies” inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. North Korea was so determined to keep its people in the dark about the Arab Spring that it prevented its workers in Libya from returning home. From Zimbabwe to Iran, Sudan to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Russia, Ethiopia to Vietnam, autocrats live in fear of the kind of popular power demonstrated by the Arab Spring.

They are not wrong in their apprehension. The uprisings show that the quest for rights has broad appeal, capable of uniting disparate elements of society and generating a powerful collective force for change. The old tools of repression—the censorship, the arbitrary detention, the torture, the killing—seem only to have emboldened the demonstrators once they gained confidence in their numbers. Rather than instilling fear and grudging acquiescence, the repression showed the autocrats’ true colors and highlighted the righteousness of the protesters’ cause. That sends a chilling warning to regimes long confident in the assumption that their repressive capacity would always eclipse the public’s discontent.

More disappointing in their response to the Arab Spring have been some democratic governments of the global South, such as Brazil, India, and South Africa. They seemed to be guided less by the aspirations of the Arab people than by their commitment to outmoded views of national sovereignty, even when it has meant shielding repressive regimes from urgently needed international pressure. Despite themselves having developed accountable governments and the rule of law, these Southern democracies showed only sporadic interest in helping the people of the Arab world who were struggling to do the same. More often, they pointed to the potential misuse of human rights pressure—the fear that it might serve as a tool of Northern dominance—to justify failing to use their own influence on serious violators of human rights.

This indifference from many quarters to the rights of the region’s people must end. Standing firmly with the people of the Middle East and North Africa when they demand their legitimate rights is the best way to exert pressure on their persecutors to stop the bloodshed. A principled insistence on respect for rights is also the best way to help these popular movements steer clear of the intolerance, lawlessness, and summary revenge that are a risk in any revolution and its aftermath.

The Arab Spring is a transformative moment, an historic opportunity for a long-suppressed people to seize control of its destiny. Yet the transformation will not be easy. The people of the region, like everywhere else, deserve the world’s support for their rights as they embark on this long-awaited venture. It is time for the Arab exception to end.

The West’s Embrace of Arab Autocrats

Western governments allowed the Arab exception because they believed their interests in the region would be better served by authoritarian rulers’ illusory promise of “stability” than by the uncertainties of elected government. Five core reasons explain the West’s past acceptance of these would-be presidents and monarchs-for-life.

The first was containing any threat to Western interests from political Islam. Western governments and their allies have always had a certain ambivalence toward political Islam—promoting it when seen as a useful foil for a more dreaded enemy (the mujahedeen against the Soviets, Hamas against the Palestine Liberation Organization) or when it aligned with Western interests (as in Saudi Arabia). But when political Islam challenged friendly governments, the West has been deeply wary.

A major catalyst for this distrust was a non-Arab nation—Iran, as it emerged after overthrowing the Western-supported Shah. The dread of “another Khomeini”—of Iran’s hostility to the United States, brutality toward its own people, and support for Hezbollah and Hamas—led many Western governments to distrust political Islam when it took the form of an opposition movement challenging an ally.

The nadir of this distrust came in the early 1990s when, after a brief political opening in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Frontappeared to be on the verge of electoral victory. A military coup stopped the electoral process with scant Western protest. Coup supporters argued that the Islamists’ secret agenda was to allow “one man, one vote, one time.”

Many Islamic parties have indeed embraced disturbing positions that would subjugate the rights of women and restrict religious, personal, and political freedoms. But so have many of the autocratic regimes that the West props up. Moreover, Islamic movements are hardly monolithic or implacably opposed to rights. Yet rather than engage with them to demand respect for rights, Western governments have often treated them as untouchable.

That distrust made a mockery of occasional Western support in the region for democracy. For example, in a post-facto attempt to justify his invasion of Iraq as an act of democracy promotion, US President George W. Bush briefly pressed for elections elsewhere in the region as well. But that democracy agenda quickly ended once Hamas prevailed in fair elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, and the Muslim Brotherhood won most of the seats it contested in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 2005.

Despite Western caution, political Islam has gained adherents as it has become a primary mode of expressing discontent with the region’s corrupt and unresponsive rulers. Because the mosque has often been the freest institution in an otherwise suppressed civil society, it has also become a natural gathering point for dissent. Arab leaders typically have had only to dangle the threat of hostile Islamists replacing them in order to lock in Western support for crackdowns and defer demands for elections.

A second reason for Western indulgence of Arab strongmen was the perception that they could help to combat the threat of terrorism. Arab extremists by no means hold a monopoly on terrorism, but Western policymakers viewed certain Arab groups as particularly menacing because they murdered civilians not only in their own countries but also in the West. In the name of protecting their citizens, Western governments were willing to promote Arab autocrats who vowed to fight these terrorists. That these autocrats also tortured or repressed their own people was seen as secondary. That this repression often fueled support for violent extremist groups was ignored.

Third, the West trusted Arab autocrats more than the Arab people to reach a modus vivendi with Israel—a factor that was particularly important in policy toward Egypt, Jordan, and to some extent Syria and Lebanon. Many Arabs were naturally disturbed by Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people, and often protested. The autocrats of the region soon learned that allowing—even encouraging—these protests was a good way to channel discontent away from their own misrule. So long as Arab dictators kept the protests under control, they enjoyed Western support. Those who went further and signed a peace treaty with Israel received massive US aid regardless of their domestic policies.

Fourth, the West saw Arab autocrats as the best way to sustain the flow of oil. Of course, even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iran and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya willingly sold oil to the West. But with markets tight and prices high, revolutionary change, particularly in Saudi Arabia, risked economic turmoil through a disruption of the oil flow. Nor did the West want a hostile Iran to gain control over the vast oil reserves of its neighboring Persian Gulf states. To prevent these scenarios, or any threat to the cozy relationships that developed between Western and Arab business elites, the West preferred the strongmen it knew to the vagaries of popular rule. Meanwhile, often-bountiful oil revenue gave these autocrats the coercive means to retain power without accountability to a tax-paying public.

Finally, the West—particularly the European Union—looked to the region’s authoritarian governments to help stem migration. Northern Africa is both a source of, and an important transit route for, undocumented migration to Europe. The West relied on pliant governments to help curb it—to prevent migrants from departing their shores and to accept their summary return. The EU, in turn, rewarded these governments with various trade and aid agreements.                

The Fallacy of the “Arab Exception”

Despite their self-interested motives, Western governments did not like to admit their preference for Arab authoritarianism. Instead, they proceeded as if the usual convenient mischaracterizations of Arab society were true—that it was politically passive and underdeveloped, that deference to authority was inherent in Arab culture, that some combination of Arab tradition and Islam made the people of the region uninterested in or unsuited for democracy. The uprisings that have shaken the Arab world belie these convenient excuses for accommodating the region’s despots.

Ironically, none of the forces most feared by the West lay behind this last year’s outburst of popular protest. Political Islam was little in evidence as a spark or sustaining force for the uprisings; it emerged mainly later, when the Islamists’ better organization and traditional opposition role gave them a competitive advantage over newer activists and parties. Nor was there any prominent place in the protests for opposition to Israeli policies, support for terrorism, or anti-Western sentiment. The uprisings represented a determination to improve life at home rather than flee to Europe.

The driving force for the rebellions was opposition to autocratic rule itself. Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis, Yemenis, Syrians, and others had had enough of the repression, corruption, cronyism, arbitrary rule, and stagnant societies of the autocrats. These were protests of outrage at an out-of-touch, self-serving elite. Much like the revolutions that upended Eastern Europe in 1989, the Arab upheavals were inspired by a vision of freedom, a desire for a voice in one’s destiny, and a quest for governments that are accountable to the public rather than captured by a ruling elite.

International Ambivalence

Yet Western governments still at times have been ambivalent about these movements and selective in their response, unsure how to reconcile their comfort with the old autocrats and the growing realization that these despots’ days are numbered. The US and EU were most principled and determined in responding to repression by two Arab governments that at various points had been considered antagonists. In Libya, they imposed sanctions and invoked the International Criminal Court (ICC). Several of them forged a rapid military response to what they saw as an impending human rights disaster. In Syria, after some hesitation, they aligned themselves with a peaceful opposition movement and instituted targeted sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Elsewhere, however, the Western approach to the region’s uprisings has been more tentative and uncertain. The US government was reluctant to challenge Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, a perceived bulwark of regional “stability,” until his fate was virtually sealed, and then was hesitant for too long to press Egypt’s ruling military council to subject itself to elected civilian rule. France remained similarly attached to Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali until his reign had largely ended.

Similarly, Western governments imposed no meaningful consequences for killing protesters on the government of Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom they viewed as a defense against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They condemned Bahrain’s suppression of its democracy movement, and urged some reforms, but applied no real pressure on the government out of concern for the fate of the US Fifth Fleet’s base, as well as deference to Saudi Arabia, which worried about Iranian meddling in that Shia-majority country and feared a democratic model off its shore. Even within the US government, policymakers were divided on Bahrain, with the US Congress blocking an arms sale proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration. Meanwhile, Western governments urged reforms in the region’s other monarchies, such as constitutional amendments in Morocco and pledges for change in Jordan, but said little when monarchies have taken anti-democratic actions, such as the adoption of new repressive laws in Saudi Arabia and the imprisonment of five democracy activists in the United Arab Emirates.

Nations outside the West have shown similar inconsistency. Arab League governments historically sought to defend each other from any form of human rights criticism. Now, they have become more constructively engaged, driven to varying degrees by the new post-rebellion governments, regional rivalries (especially with Iran), and an attempt to stay relevant amid the region’s pro-democracy movements. In Libya, the Arab League’s endorsement of pressure on Gaddafi laid the groundwork for action by the United Nations Security Council. In Syria, the Arab League protested the political killings and crafted a plan for ending the violence to which Syria theoretically agreed. When Syria predictably broke its word, the Arab League suspended its membership and announced sanctions.

By contrast, the African Union has been shamefully complacent. Ostensibly founded to promote democracy, it has acted like a dictator’s support club, siding with whichever government happens to be in power regardless of its conduct. As the revolutions proceeded in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the AU was at best irrelevant, at worst unhelpful. Only the AU’s independent African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, in its first substantive case, ordered Gaddafi to end the killing.

Russia and China tolerated international action in Libya only when their political isolation would have made blocking it seem callous. When they had partners in their indifference, as in the case of Syria, they had no qualms about vetoing international action.

Brazil, India, and South Africa—the key Southern democracies on the UN Security Council—endorsed or tolerated international action on Libya, but then cited NATO’s alleged overstepping of its protection mandate there as a justification for not endorsing even symbolic Security Council pressure on Syria.

This international ambivalence comes at a time when the Arab Spring revolutions are anything but complete. Idealistic revolutionaries face serious countervailing pressures with no guarantee of victory. Moreover, the revolutionaries themselves have at times violated rights, as in Libyan militias’ apparent summary execution of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Muatassim and their persecution of black African migrant workers. The international community could play an important role in countering these threats to the emergence of rights-respecting democracies—from both the old powers and the new revolutionary forces.

Three Groups of Countries in the Region

In considering the region, it is useful to think in terms of three broad groups of countries.

The first, comprising Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, has overthrown long-time autocrats (though in the case of Egypt, not entrenched military rule) and at this writing is in the difficult process of building a new governmental order. The task is not simple. It is easier to tear down autocratic institutions than to replace them with democratic ones, to build consensus on the need to oust the despot than to forge a common vision of what should replace him. And unlike in Eastern Europe in 1989, there is no lure of prospective European Union membership to encourage the new governments to respect rights (although the EU does have other carrots to offer, such as trade preferences and visa liberalization). Nor are repressive regimes crumbling as quickly as in 1989 or opponents of those regimes as united. Rather, the cautionary tale comes from the dictatorships of post-Soviet Central Asia, where anti-democratic forces prevailed and substituted new repressive regimes for their Communist predecessors.

Fortunately, the countries in this first group are relatively unburdened by the sectarian strife that so poisoned Iraq’s post-Saddam Hussein nation building and continues to rear its head in Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. However, these countries have their own divides at risk of being inflamed—tribal in Libya, Copt-Muslim in Egypt, coastal-interior in Tunisia. Particularly in times of uncertainty, people are more susceptible to the fear-mongering and provocation that encourage resort to communal identities, and there are always beneficiaries of the old order who are willing to stoke those fears. Moreover, if hard economic times continue, the danger grows of people forsaking democratic ideals for uglier, less tolerant, politics.

At the moment, Tunisia seems best placed to move forward. Old laws restricting association, assembly, speech and political parties have been reformed. After elections for a constituent assembly that were widely seen as free and fair, the Islamic party al Nahda (“The Awakening”) gained a plurality of the vote, and its leaders made encouraging pledges about building a broad governing coalition and respecting the rights of all Tunisians. This is a promising beginning, but the pledges, of course, remain to be tested.

In Libya, the transitional authorities repeatedly vowed to respect citizens’ rights, to establish control over all militias, and to subject themselves to the rule of law. But fulfilling these pledges will be difficult, particularly in a country that Gaddafi deliberately left bereft of developed government institutions. So far, the new authorities have failed to gain control over the many militias that have power and substantial arms. And despite stated plans to try Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the former leader’s son wanted by the ICC, they have not built a criminal justice system capable of meeting ICC requirements for a fair trial.

Egypt, the region’s largest country and long-time leader, must still overcome intense internal divisions among three broad groupings: the military which despite great popular discontent remained in power after replacing Mubarak, the largely secular leftists and liberals who were so prominent during the Tahrir Square uprising, and the Islamists who at key moments joined the demonstrations in large numbers and have emerged as the dominant political force. At various points each group cautiously has seen the others as both potential allies and adversaries.

The military, under pressure to give up power, at times saw the Islamists with their social orientation as less likely than the liberals to impede its autonomy or to scrutinize its massive budget and business interests. The liberals looked (illiberally) to the military to enforce limits on political Islam, while joining with the Islamists in an effort to oust the military. The Islamists, distrustful of the military after decades of suppression, hoped the liberals would help to secure a democratic transition, yet potentially differed from the liberals on a range of social freedoms. And to further complicate matters, the Islamists were divided in their interpretation of Islamic law and the role they see for Islam in governing the country. It remains far from clear how this complicated tug-of-war will be resolved.

The second group of Arab countries—Syria, Yemen and Bahrain—is enmeshed in struggles between abusive governments and oppositions calling for democratic rule. Syrians have shown remarkable bravery, repeatedly taking to the streets despite the omnipresence of security forces that frequently respond with lethal force. Yemen’s overwhelmingly peaceful protests have been gradually overshadowed by armed clashes among rival elite factions, and it is too soon to tell whether an exit pact signed by President Saleh is a step toward genuine reform. Bahrain’s rulers, backed by security forces led by neighboring Saudi Arabia, have used a panoply of repressive tools—lethal force against peaceful protesters, torture and ill-treatment, unfair trials, abrupt dismissal of workers from jobs and students from universities—but have succeeded only in creating a divided population with many seemingly counting the days until the next opportunity to rise up. The success of the protest movements in these countries remains very much in play.

Finally, there are the region’s monarchies which, apart from Bahrain, have largely avoided large-scale uprisings. They enjoy the advantage of being able to diffuse popular discontent by sacking the government—Jordan in particular has seen a revolving door of prime ministers—without jeopardizing the monarchy. Some monarchs—in Morocco, Kuwait, and Qatar—have experimented with granting limited powers to elected parliaments while retaining control over the most important levers of power. Some in the Persian Gulf have tried to buy social peace by showering salary increases and subsidies on disgruntled populations. These tactics, at times coupled with a heavy dose of repression, have mostly diffused large-scale protests.

Yet that social peace may be short-lived. Saudi Arabia, for example, has elements for its own springtime movement: an aging leadership and a young and disenchanted population. (The same can be said of non-monarchial Algeria, which suppressed the limited protests it experienced in 2011.) The Saudi royal family has been savvy so far about preserving its rule—whether by disbursing oil money or whipping up sectarian fears—but that is only buying time.

The Proper Role of the International Community

How should the international community respond to this complex and varied landscape? Before taking up prescriptions, a degree of humility is in order. The revolutions of the Arab Spring have been internally driven—the achievement foremost of those countries’ citizens. External forces have had influence, but in most places only around the margins.

That said, the response of external actors can be important, and sometimes decisive. The Arab League’s abandonment of Gaddafi as his forces opened fire on protesters in Tripoli and he threatened a massacre in Benghazi laid the groundwork for UN Security Council action to protect civilians. US pressure, reinforced by the leverage of large-scale aid, helped to convince Egypt’s military early in the revolution to protect the Tahrir Square demonstrators from attacks by police and Mubarak supporters. Targeted economic sanctions on the Syrian elite provide one of the best chances of convincing its members to part with Assad’s brutal strategy of repression.

Looking forward, to promote democratic, rights-respecting governments, the international community should adopt a more principled approach to the region than in the past. That would involve, foremost, clearly siding with democratic reformers even at the expense of abandoning autocratic friends. There is no excuse for any government to tolerate Assad’s lethal repression, to close its eyes to Bahrain’s systematic crackdown, or to exempt other monarchs from pressure to reform. All autocrats should be dissuaded from using repression to defend their power and privileges.

Such principled support for protesters can also positively influence the outlook of the new governments they seek to form. Revolution can be a heady experience, opening previously unthought-of possibilities for the majority to take control of its fate. But the revolutionaries must also accept the constraints on majoritarian rule that rights require, especially when it comes to the rights of minorities, whether political, religious, ethnic or social.

Revolutionary zeal can lead to summary revenge or a new imposed orthodoxy. Continuing economic hardship can lead to scapegoating and intolerance. International affirmation of the importance of respecting the rights of all citizens can help to ensure the emergence of genuine democracies. Conditioning economic assistance on respect for those rights, just as the EU conditioned accession for Eastern European states, can help to steer new governments in rights-respecting directions.

By the same token, the international community must also come to terms with political Islam when it represents a majority preference. Islamist parties are genuinely popular in much of the Arab world, in part because many Arabs have come to see political Islam as the antithesis of autocratic rule, in part because Islamist parties generally did a good job of distinguishing themselves through social service programs from the corrupt and self-serving state, in part because Islamists enjoyed organizational advantages that long-repressed secular counterparts did not share, and in part because political Islam reflects the conservative and religious ethos of many people in the region. Ignoring that popularity would violate democratic principles.

Rather, wherever Islam-inspired governments emerge, the international community should focus on encouraging, and if need be pressuring, them to respect basic rights—just as the Christian-labeled parties and governments of Europe are expected to do. Embracing political Islam need not mean rejecting human rights, as illustrated by the wide gulf between the restrictive views of some Salafists and the more progressive interpretation of Islam that leaders such as Rashid Ghannouchi, head of Tunisia’s Nahdha Party, espouse. It is important to nurture the rights-respecting elements of political Islam while standing firm against repression in its name. So long as freely elected governments respect basic rights, they merit presumptive international support, regardless of their political or religious complexion.

The Quest for Freedom of Expression

The right to freedom of expression also requires consistent defense. The Arab revolutions became possible only as civil society was able to organize itself and, using the internet, build public outrage by circumventing the state’s monopoly over the public dissemination of information. Satellite television, represented foremost by Al Jazeera, also played an essential role in galvanizing outrage to the brutal repression that it regularly beamed throughout the region. Just as civil society must continue to be nurtured, so this key medium of communication needs a strong defense, even when its message may be seen as “anti-Western.”

The newest frontier for the battle over free expression is social media. Though limited to a wired elite, and surpassed in importance by more prosaic technology such as satellite TV and mobile telephones, social media played an early and important role, allowing seemingly leaderless movements to build momentum gradually, with participants standing up to be counted (for example, by signaling support on Facebook) without necessarily taking to the streets until there was a sufficient sense of safety in numbers. Social media such as Twitter also helped protesters to communicate with each other and the world about police repression and ways to outfox it. Activists used YouTube to post mobile-phone videos recording military and police brutality.

But social media can also be a tool for monitoring and repressing the opposition. That was President Assad’s calculation when he invited Facebook and YouTube into Syria at the height of Egypt’s revolution. His bet that his secret police could stay a step ahead of proliferating users turned out to be misplaced, but other countries both in the region and beyond are still trying to limit the political threat that social media poses, often using Western technology.

The winner of this cat-and-mouse game between censor and user, the repressive monitor and the freedom-seeking protester, remains in doubt. Strong global standards are needed to better protect the freedom and privacy of internet users. And international companies should be prevented from selling equipment or know-how to governments, in the Arab world or elsewhere, that allows them to spy on or repress ordinary citizens.

Complicity in Torture

Even the tightest controls cannot prevent some whiff of freedom from entering public consciousness, and the region’s security forces have all too often responded with torture. In principle, the international community firmly opposes torture, as reflected in numerous treaties outlawing it without exception. Yet the fight against terrorism and political Islam led to growing international tolerance of, and sometimes active complicity in, torture. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks the Bush administration not only used torture itself but, aided by various allies, also sent terrorist suspects for interrogation by the region’s security forces despite their pervasive use of torture. That inexcusable complicity set a terrible precedent, reinforcing regional security forces’ worst habits, while weakening the credibility of occasional protests from the West.

The Obama administration ordered an end to this complicity in torture but has refused to investigate, let alone prosecute, the US officials who were responsible. The short-term political calculation behind that dereliction of duty risks dangerous long-term consequences by signaling that torture is a policy option rather than a crime. The United Kingdom government has at least authorized an investigation into British complicity in torture overseas, but so far under rules of secrecy and unilateral inquiry that bode poorly for an honest examination.

Western hypocrisy toward torture in the region is best illustrated by the use of “memoranda of understanding,” or “diplomatic assurances,” to justify sending terrorism suspects to security services that are likely to torture them. CIA documents that Human Rights Watch found in a Libyan intelligence office show how these worked. The US and UK cooperated in sending suspects captured abroad for interrogation by Libyan intelligence services despite their notorious torture record. Yet the CIA dutifully sought assurances from the Libyans that suspects would not be mistreated. These assurances were no more than a fig leaf. Given that the Libyan government was already flouting its legally binding treaty obligations not to torture, as the US government itself regularly reported, there was no reason to expect it to respect a quiet promise between diplomats or intelligence agencies. It would make an enormous contribution to ending torture in the Arab world if the West were to come clean about its own complicity, punish those responsible for the crime of ordering or facilitating torture, and explicitly end use of diplomatic assurances to justify sending suspects to countries where they risk torture.

The Need to End Impunity

Revolutionary movements need help building the governing institutions that the autocrats deliberately left weak and underdeveloped, above all national institutions of justice for holding all representatives of the state subject to the rule of law. Until security forces and government officials have a reasonable expectation that their misconduct will land them in court, the temptation to resort to the former regimes’ corruption and abuse will be hard to resist.

Yet at least when it comes to international justice, the international community still sometimes acts as if democratic transitions are best advanced by sweeping past abuses under the rug. As the Arab upheavals have shown, a precedent of impunity is not easily forgotten, increasing the likelihood that bad habits persist. And prosecution is not the impediment to democratic change that is so often assumed.

When the ICC issued arrest warrants for Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam, and his intelligence chief Abdullah Sanussi, some argued that this act of justice would discourage Gaddafi from relinquishing power. Yet in common with most dictators, Gaddafi had already made clear even before the ICC warrants that he intended to stay in power until the bitter end, with his son Saif vowing that they would fight on “to the last man.” If anything, the arrest warrants hastened Gaddafi’s downfall by signaling to his coterie that they had no political future with him and were better off defecting.

But Gaddafi was a tyrant who was easy to abandon and hold to account. The international community was less principled in the case of Yemen’s Saleh. In an initiative launched by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with no clear disapproval from the UN Security Council, Saleh and other senior officials were offered blanket immunity from prosecution in exchange for stepping down. The perverse effect was that Saleh’s government was given a green light to continue killing demonstrators without consequence. Even when Saleh agreed to resign as president, his supporters continued to kill, knowing that if they succeeded in clinging to power, they obviously would not prosecute themselves, and confident that if they failed, the GCC had said they would not face prosecution either.

The international community was no more principled in its approach to justice elsewhere in the region. Russia, China, Brazil, India, and South Africa all refused to support authorizing ICC involvement in Syria, despite levels of killing that far exceeded Libya’s at the time of its referral to the ICC. And the West persisted in its usual exemption of Israel from the demands of justice, most recently insisting that if the Palestinian Authority is accepted as a UN observer state it must not seek access to the ICC. The US even opposed a proposed UN Human Rights Council request that the Security Council refer Syria to the ICC for fear that it would set a precedent that might be used against Israel.

The Role of Brazil, India, and South Africa

The international response to the Arab rebellions illustrates the importance of building broad coalitions in defense of human rights. Multilateral pressure for reform reaffirms that the values in question are universal rather than the narrow agenda of a particular region. Quite apart from the much-contested military intervention in Libya, the international community was strongest in putting pressure on Gaddafi when it acted in unison. That Brazil, India, and South Africa, backed by the Arab League, joined the major Western powers in referring Libya to the ICC made it difficult for China or Russia to stand isolated in opposition. The result was historic—unanimous UN Security Council action—sending Gaddafi a powerful message he ignored at his peril.

Sadly, when it came to defending the Syrian people, Brazil, India, and South Africa reverted to their reflexive opposition to human rights pressure and refused to support Security Council action even as the Assad government killed thousands of protesters. Only in the less powerful UN General Assembly did Brazil support a critical resolution on Syria, while India and South Africa abstained. As noted, their main excuse for not supporting Security Council action was NATO’s alleged overreaching in Libya—when, they contended, NATO moved beyond the authorized protection of civilians and adopted an agenda of regime change. But no one could have interpreted the mildly worded draft Security Council resolution on Syria that they refused to support as authorizing military force. Instead, they effectively asked the people of Syria to pay the price for NATO’s alleged misconduct in Libya. That indifference to Syrians’ plight is particularly disappointing coming from countries that enjoy strong democratic governance, and in the past have suffered the indifference of other countries to their own struggle for freedom.

The Role of Turkey

Perhaps the most interesting new presence in the region is Turkey. Despite its distinct history, it remains a powerful example of a country with a religiously conservative elected government that has not used Islam as a pretext to undermine basic rights. Turkey has capitalized on its growing stature by entering the political fray of the Arab world. More vigorously than its Arab neighbors, Turkey denounced the political killing in Syria, championed democratic change in Egypt, and opposed Israel’s punitive blockade of Gaza.

Yet Turkey faces several challenges if it is to live up to its enormous potential in the human rights realm. Will it use its growing influence in multilateral arenas to oppose the outdated view of India, Brazil, and South Africa that it is somehow imperialistic to stand with people who are risking their lives to protest repression by their governments? Will Turkey press for democratic change not only among the uprisings of the Arab world but also in Iran, which crushed its Green Revolution in 2009, and the stultified and repressive countries of post-Soviet Central Asia? And will Turkey clean up its worsening human rights record at home–including persistent restrictions on freedom of speech and association, a flawed criminal justice system, and long-term mistreatment of its Kurdish minority—so it can be a less compromised proponent of human rights abroad? Turkey can make a positive difference on human rights in the region—if its leaders take the bold decisions at home and abroad needed to advance this cause.

A Global Responsibility

The past year has seen revolutions in the Arab world that few would have imagined. These uprisings present extraordinary opportunities to heed the pleas of people who so far have benefited little from global human rights advances of the last half-century. Yet given the violent forces resisting progress, it is wrong to leave the fate of the Arab world solely in the hands of the people facing the guns. The international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region.

So far, that role has been played only equivocally. Short-term parochial interests are still too often allowed to stand in the way of a more principled and helpful response. Ultimately, the international community must decide what it stands for—whether it values the rights and aspirations of the individual over the spoils and promises of the tyrant. As we pass the first anniversary of the initial Arab Spring rebellions, the international community will help to determine whether violent governments prevail over protesters seeking a better life, and whether the protesters’ vision includes respect not only for their own rights but also for those of all their fellow citizens. It is a global responsibility to help see a positive conclusion to the Arab people’s brave efforts to demand their rights, and to ensure that the toppling of one autocratic regime does not lead to its replacement by another.