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The Day After

A mother and son anguished over the loss of her other two sons, killed by a mortar attack launched by the Syrian army. Homs province, February 20, 2012. © 2012 Alessio Romenzi

© 2012 Alessio Romenzi


Two years into the Arab Spring, euphoria seems a thing of the past. The heady days of protest and triumph have been replaced by outrage at the atrocities in Syria, frustration that the region’s monarchs remain largely immune to pressure for reform, fear that the uprisings’ biggest winners are Islamists who might limit the rights of women, minorities, and dissidents, and disappointment that even in countries that have experienced a change of regime, fundamental change has been slow and unsteady. Difficult as it is to end abusive rule, the hardest part may well be the day after. 


It should be no surprise that building a rights-respecting democracy on a legacy of repression is not easy. The transitions from communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union yielded many democracies, but also many dictatorships. Latin America’s democratic evolution over the past two decades has been anything but linear. Progress in Asia and Africa has been uneven and sporadic. Even the European Union, which has successfully made democratic reform and respect for human rights conditions of membership, has had a harder time curbing authoritarian impulses once countries—most recently Hungary and Romania—became members.  

Moreover, those who excelled at overthrowing the autocrat are often not best placed to build a governing majority. The art of protest does not necessarily match the skills needed for governing. And allies in ousting a despot are sometimes not the best partners for replacing despotism.

But those who pine for the familiar days of dictatorship should remember that the uncertainties of freedom are no reason to revert to the enforced predictability of authoritarian rule. The path ahead may be treacherous, but the unthinkable alternative is to consign entire peoples to a grim future of oppression.  

Building a rights-respecting state may not be as exhilarating as toppling an abusive regime. It can be painstaking work to construct effective institutions of governance, establish independent courts, create professional police units, and train public officials to uphold human rights and the rule of law. But these tasks are essential if revolution is not to become a byway to repression by another name. 

The past year offers some key lessons for success in this venture—as valid globally as they are for the states at the heart of the Arab Spring. There are lessons for both the nations undergoing revolutionary change and the international community. Here are a few.

Avoid Majoritarian Hubris

Any revolution risks excesses, and a revolution in the name of democracy is no exception. It is no surprise that a revolution’s victors, long repressed by the old regime, do not want to hear about new restraints once they have finally found their way to power. But a rights-respecting democracy is different from unrestrained majority rule. Frustrating as it can be, majority preferences in any democracy worthy of its name must be constrained by respect for the rights of individuals and the rule of law. Majoritarian hubris can be the greatest risk to the emergence of true democracy. 

As the region’s fledgling governments set about drafting new constitutions, no major political actor is proposing to jettison rights altogether. But unlike, say, Bosnia, Kenya, South Sudan, and many Latin American states, none of the region’s constitutions simply incorporates international human rights treaties—the surest way to resist back-sliding because it avoids watered-down formulations and helps to insulate the interpretation of rights from the perceived exigencies of the moment. Many of the region’s constitutions continue to make at least some allusion to Sharia (Islamic law)—a reference that need not substantially conflict with international human rights law but often is interpreted in a manner that threatens the rights of women and religious or sexual minorities.

For example, the controversial new constitution of the region’s most influential nation, Egypt—which was being put to a national referendum at this writing—seems a study in ambiguity, affirming rights in general terms as it introduces clauses or procedures that might compromise them. It has some positive elements, including clear prohibitions on torture and arbitrary detention—abuses that, perhaps not coincidentally, members of the governing Muslim Brotherhood regularly suffered under the ousted government of former President Hosni Mubarak. In article 2, it affirms the “principles” of Sharia, a clause copied from Egypt’s prior constitution, which is broadly understood to correspond with basic notions of justice, rather than the proposed alternative “rulings” of Sharia, which would impose strict rules and leave no room for progressive interpretation. 

However, the new document contains dangerous loopholes that could cause problems down the line. All rights are conditioned on the requirement that they not undermine “ethics and morals and public order”—elastic caveats that are found in rights treaties but are susceptible to interpretations that compromise rights. The principles of Sharia are to be interpreted in consultation with religious scholars and in accordance with a certain school of Islam, potentially opening the door to interpretations that run afoul of international human rights law. The right to freedom of expression is qualified by a proscription against undefined “insults” to “the individual person” or the Prophet Muhammad. Freedom of religion is limited to the Abrahamic religions, which would appear to exclude those who practice other religions, such as the Baha’i, or no religion at all. Military trials of civilians appear to be allowed for “crimes that harm the armed forces,” which leaves intact the military’s broad discretion to try civilians. Gender discrimination is not explicitly prohibited, and the state is asked to “balance between a women’s obligations toward the family and public work”—a possible invitation for future restrictions on women’s liberties. A proposed ban on human trafficking was rejected because some drafters feared it would block the shipment of Egyptian children to the Persian Gulf for early marriage. And efforts to exert civilian control over the interests of the military, whether its impunity, budget, or businesses, appear to have been abandoned.

So for the foreseeable future, rights in Egypt will remain precarious. That would have been true even if even a less qualified document emerged, since every constitution requires interpretation and implementation. But it is all the more risky because of this constitution’s limits on many rights. 

Despite these disappointments, it is essential that electoral losers not give up on democracy. That is a dangerous tactic, premised on the view that Islamists, once having taken power by electoral victory, can never be trusted to cede it by electoral loss. When Algeria’s military acted on that rationale by halting elections that Islamists were poised to win, the result was not democracy but a decade of civil war with massive loss of life. It is a perspective that undervalues the potent combination of domestic protest and international pressure that would coalesce to challenge new attempts to monopolize power. Its proponents have a high burden to meet before they can convincingly contend that the prognosis for elected government under an Islamic party is so bleak that a return to the dark days of the past is warranted. 

By the same token, electoral victors must resist the temptation to impose whatever restrictions on rights a majority of legislators will support. That is important as a matter of principle: unbridled majority rule is not democracy. It is important for reasons of pragmatism: today’s electoral victor can be tomorrow’s loser. And it is important for reasons of compassion: even those unable to conceive electoral loss should have sufficient empathy to recognize the defeated as deserving of their own freedom and aspirations. 

Defend Women’s Rights

As the Islamist-dominated governments of the Arab Spring take root, perhaps no issue will define their records more than their treatment of women. International human rights law prohibits the subordination of people on the basis of not only race, ethnicity, religion, and political views, but also gender. That is, it prohibits forcing women to assume a submissive, secondary status, and similarly rejects a “complementary” role for women as a substitute for gender equality. As noted, the Egyptian constitution contains troubling language on this subject, and while Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court has historically interpreted the “principles of Sharia” progressively, many fear that more conservative interpretations may now prevail. 

Some opponents of women’s rights portray them as a Western imposition, at odds with Muslim religion or Arab culture. But rights do not prevent women from leading a conservative lifestyle if they choose. Rather, the imposition involved is when national or local authorities—inevitably dominated by men—insist that women who want equality and autonomy cannot have it. Calling such rights a Western imposition does nothing to disguise the domestic oppression involved when women are compelled to assume a subservient role. 

The need for vigilance is highlighted by the Middle Eastern government that is most notorious for subordinating women in the name of Islam: Saudi Arabia. Once discrimination is entrenched in law, progress becomes extraordinarily difficult, as demonstrated in 2012 by the kingdom’s grudging progress toward recognizing women’s rights by allowing (under pressure) two women to compete on its Olympic team, even though  women and girls may not participate in most sports at home. Saudi Arabia did announce that for the first time, it would allow women to obtain licenses to practice law and represent clients in court, as well as the right to work in four new industries, but it did so in the context of a male guardianship system that forbids women from traveling abroad, studying at university, seeking a job, operating a business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without a male guardian’s consent. Strict gender segregation prevails in all educational institutions and most offices, restaurants, and public buildings, and women still may not drive.

A small group of Saudi women have made clear in social media that they see these restrictions as unwelcome impositions by male authorities. The Saudi and other governments should recognize that a desire for autonomy, fairness, and equality is shared by many women in all parts of the world—including their own countries—and that the invocation of culture, tradition, and religion cannot justify denying them these rights. 

Protect Freedom of Speech

Electoral majorities are also tempted to restrict others’ rights when speech is seen to transgress certain bounds, such as by criticizing government leaders, disparaging ethnic or racial groups, or offending religious sentiments. Some restrictions on speech are, of course, justified: for example, speech that incites violence should be suppressed through the justice system. Hate speech should also be challenged through rebuttal and education. Politicians especially should refrain from language that fosters intolerance.

The line between speech that incites violence and speech that is merely controversial varies with local conditions, such as the degree of risk that speech will lead people to violence and the ability of the police to prevent a violent turn. But it is also important to distinguish between those who incite violence, and those who oppose free speech and use violence to suppress or punish it. And while international law permits restrictions on speech that incites hatred and hostility, they must be enshrined in law, strictly necessary for reasons of national security or public order, and proportionate.

Those who seek to suppress controversial speech typically claim the moral high ground by suggesting they are guarding cherished values or preventing national discord. But that is not how such restrictions tend to play out because it is usually the strong who repress the speech of the weak. When Pakistani authorities charged a 12-year-old Christian girl with a mental disability with blasphemy, the values of the Quran that she was (falsely) accused of desecrating were never in jeopardy, but the girl was a conveniently weak figure for unscrupulous adherents of the dominant religion to exploit. When Indonesian officials prosecuted members of the minority Ahmadiyah religious community for blasphemy, the country’s dominant religion was never at risk, but a Muslim sect that many Islamic countries declare to be deviant was persecuted. The same could be said of the Saudi youth facing the death penalty for apostasy because of a Tweet questioning his own faith. 

Governments sometimes justify prosecuting a contentious speaker by arguing that he or she “provoked” a violent reaction. That is a dangerous concept. It is easy to imagine governments seeking to suppress dissenters by suggesting they provoked a violent response from government forces or their allies. Security forces in Bahrain, for example, attacked and rounded up peaceful activists on the grounds that they were disturbing public order. Even the early Tahrir Square demonstrations in Egypt might have been shut down under such a robust concept of provocation. When people react violently to non-violent speech because they object to its content, they—not the speaker–are the offender. The state has a duty to stop their violence, not give them an effective veto over the speech by censoring it. 

Respect Minority Rights: The Case of Burma

The problem of unbridled majority rule is not limited to the Arab world. In the past year, the most vivid demonstration of the problem could be found in Burma, a long-entrenched military dictatorship that is giving way at a surprising pace to at least signs of limited democracy. Many of the outstanding issues concern the military: Will it give up its constitutionally guaranteed quarter of the seats in parliament? Will it countenance civilian oversight of its conduct and business interests? Will it release all political prisoners still languishing in prison and permit unfettered competition in the 2015 elections? The leading opposition political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, is understandably preoccupied with these questions of power and political rights.

But the NLD has been disappointing in its reluctance to look beyond a quest for power to secure the rights of less popular, more marginal ethnic groups. For example, it has not pressed the military to curtail, let alone prosecute, war crimes being committed against the ethnic Kachin population as part of continuing counterinsurgency operations in the north. Most dramatically, the NLD has refused to speak out against severe and violent persecution of the Muslim Rohingya in the west, many of whom are stateless as a result of a discriminatory nationality law, despite coming from families who have lived in Burma for generations. Suu Kyi has disappointed an otherwise admiring global audience by failing to stand up for a minority against whom many Burmese harbor deep prejudice. 

Western sanctions played a key role in convincing the Burmese military that, without reform, it would never match the economic development of its Association of Southeast Asian (ASEAN) neighbors (let alone escape economic dependence on China). However, European nations and the United States rushed to suspend sanctions and to undertake high-profile visits to Burma before genuine reforms—including protections for persecuted minorities—were implemented, losing considerable leverage in the process to protect minority and other rights.

Bolster Weak States that Lack the Rule of Law: The Case of Libya

As much as strong states can be dangerous when unrestrained by basic rights protections, so are weak and disintegrating ones. Paradoxically, the state can not only be a threat to human rights, but is also a necessity for their realization. To avoid the plight of Afghanistan or Somalia, the alternative to a repressive state should be a reformed, not a dismantled, one. 

Among the Arab Spring states, Libya best illustrates the problem of a weak state. No longer plagued by the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi and its repressive grip, Libya suffers foremost from a lack of government—one that is dedicated to respecting rights and capable of enforcing them. 

That void is partly Gaddafi’s design: he deliberately kept governmental institutions weak to reduce threats to his reign. But it is also due in part to the NATO powers’ eagerness, having overthrown Gaddafi, to declare victory and move on, rather than commit serious effort and resources to the less dramatic but essential work of institution building. 

The problem is particularly acute with respect to the rule of law. The Libyan government still does not have anywhere near a monopoly on the use of force. Militias operating autonomously continue to dominate many parts of the country and in some places commit serious abuses with impunity, such as widespread torture, occasionally resulting in death. Thousands remain in detention, including many accused Gaddafi supporters—held sometimes by the government, sometimes by militias—with little immediate prospect of being charged, let alone of confronting in court whatever evidence exists against them. The problem is illustrated by the case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the late dictator’s son. Libya resists surrendering him to the International Criminal Court (ICC), promising instead to provide a fair trial itself, but the government cannot even secure custody of him from the militia that is holding him.

Address the Atrocities in Syria

Syrians do not yet have the luxury of erecting a rights-respecting democracy. At this writing, opposition forces are fighting the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad, and the world has been at once preoccupied with stopping the slaughter of civilians by Assad’s forces and ineffective at doing so. Tens of thousands have been killed. The leading Western countries and several Arab states imposed sanctions in an effort to curb the government’s atrocities, but Russia and China have blocked a unified international response with their multiple vetoes in the United Nations Security Council. 

Russia and China deserve blame for their obstructionism, yet other governments have not put enough pressure on them to make them end their indifference to countless atrocities. For example, the United Kingdom and France allowed Rosoboronexport, the principal Russian arms exporter that has been a major supplier to Syria, to continue to display its wares at sales exhibitions outside London and Paris. For much of 2012, the US continued to purchase helicopters from Rosoboronexport for service in Afghanistan. 

The UN Security Council’s referral of Syria to the ICC would have provided a measure of justice for the victims and helped to deter further atrocities. But even though many Western governments said they supported such action, they have not exerted the kind of strong, sustained, public pressure that could have moved Russia and China to allow the referral to go forward in the Security Council. For example, only in December 2012 did the EU adopt a formal common position on the matter; at this writing, it was unclear if that would yield a strong diplomatic effort to build a global coalition in favor of referral. So far, Switzerland has been left to spearhead such an effort. 

The Arab League, for its part, announced various sanctions against Syria but appeared unable to build a consensus among its member states to implement them, or even to stop its member Iraq from enabling the transfer of weapons to Syria from Iran. 

The leading powers of the Global South were also disappointingly complacent. Many have been preoccupied with their belief that NATO went beyond protecting civilians in Libya to deliver regime change—a belief facilitated by NATO’s refusal to debate its actions. Seemingly determined to avoid this overreach in Syria, leading members of the UN Security Council from the Global South, such as Brazil, India, Pakistan, and South Africa, never used their positions to press for an end to atrocities in that nation. All abstained on at least one of the key Security Council votes, providing political cover for the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Rather than also press the world to uphold its responsibility to protect people facing crimes against humanity, Brazil devoted its energies to promoting the important but distinct concept of “responsibility while protecting,” which focuses on the actions and duties of forces assigned the task of protecting.  

The experience of Libya shows that, even while armed conflict continues, it is not too early to work toward a new government that upholds rights. The international community can start by pressing the Syrian rebels to respect rights now—to refrain from torturing or executing prisoners, or fomenting sectarian strife. Yet the principal arms suppliers to the rebels—Qatar and Saudi Arabia—handed out weapons without any apparent effort to exclude forces that violate the laws of war. 

The international community should be particularly attentive to atrocities and actions that exacerbate sectarian tensions—the greatest threat of sustained violence after the Assad government. Rebel groups should be urged to promote a vision for their country that has a place for all Syrians and to subscribe to and promote codes of conduct that reinforce their forces’ obligations under the laws of armed conflict. And when ICC member states press to bring Syria’s atrocities before the international court, they should remind rebel leaders that the court would look at atrocities committed by both sides. 

Prescriptions for the International Community

The transition from revolution to rights-respecting democracy is foremost a task for the people of the country undergoing change. But the international community can and should exert significant influence to ensure its success. Too often, however, global powers sell their influence short—or settle for less than they should—because of competing priorities. For example, the US and European governments, as noted, in their eagerness to wrest Burma from China’s influence have been tempted to embrace the new government before genuine reforms are adopted. A similar temptation exists for Washington to downplay domestic threats to rights in Egypt so long as Cairo supports US policy toward Israel. A more constructive international response would include the following:

Be principled

Fortunately, we have come a long way since the Western powers abandoned democracy promotion in the region once Islamists did unexpectedly well in elections in Egypt and Gaza. This time around, the international reaction to the victory of Islamic parties has been more principled: accepting their electoral triumphs while encouraging them to uphold internationally recognized rights. That is as it should be, since elections are an essential, if insufficient, part of democracy.

However, Western support for human rights and democracy throughout the region has been inconsistent. It was easy for the West to support popular aspirations for reform in the case of governments that were traditionally adversaries, such as Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria. Western support for protest movements in countries led by friendly autocrats, such as Egypt and Tunisia, was belated but, in the end, principled. Yet Western support for democratic change has fallen short when interests in oil, military bases, or Israel are at stake. 

For example, the West gave only lukewarm support to Bahraini protesters facing killings, detention, and torture amid worries that the US Fifth Fleet naval base in Bahrain was at risk, and Saudi fears about the emergence of a democracy so close to its own shores, especially given the Shia majorities in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia’s own oil-producing Eastern Province. There has been virtually no international pressure to reform the other monarchies of the region. At this writing, the United Arab Emirates held more than 60 peaceful Islamist activists in arbitrary detention with nary a peep of international protest. There is much hand-wringing about the dangers to women and minorities from newly elected Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia, but Saudi Arabia’s institutional oppression of women and discrimination against religious minorities warrant at most a shrug. Much is made of Morocco’s modest reforms rather than pressing its monarchy to do more. The message sent is that the West is willing to tolerate Arab autocrats who support Western interests and will jump on the reform bandwagon only when it is about to arrive at its destination. 

That lack of principle is noticed. The Arab uprisings have created a new solidarity among the people of the Middle East and North Africa that is more genuine than the worn rhetoric of Arab nationalism sometimes invoked by the Mubaraks and Gaddafis of the region. Double standards are sniffed out and resented, more readily. 

Don’t forget justice

New governments must subject officials to the rule of law if they are to break from the impunity that fueled their predecessors’ abuses. Yet international support for that effort has been uneven, fueling protests against selective justice from many repressive governments. And by reducing the certainty of justice being done, inconsistency undermines its deterrent value. 

For example, the UN Security Council accepted an impunity deal for former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. It seemed to lose interest in justice in Libya once Gaddafi fell, failing to condemn an amnesty for abuses committed by Libyans in the course of toppling the dictatorship. As the UN General Assembly prepared to grant Palestine observer-state status, the United Kingdom pressed Palestinian leaders to promise not to access the ICC, evidently fearful that it might be used against Israeli settlements on the West Bank or war crimes in Gaza (even though it might also address Hamas’ rocket attacks on Israeli civilians). 

Elsewhere, the US and the EU provided financial and political backing to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a notable success. But the UN Security Council still has not launched a commission of inquiry to examine war crimes by Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers that resulted in up to 40,000 civilian deaths in the final months of the armed conflict in 2008 and 2009. There was little international concern expressed about the ICC’s sole focus to date on atrocities committed by forces allied with ousted Côte d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo, which left the impression that the world was ignoring abuses of forces loyal to sitting President Alassane Ouattara. The US went out of its way to prevent the UN Security Council from naming Rwanda as the main military supporter of the abusive M23 rebel movement in eastern Congo, let alone imposing sanctions against Rwandan officials complicit in the rebel group’s war crimes or encouraging their prosecution (the way former Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted for aiding and abetting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone). Western governments (particularly the US) backed President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to suppress a report by Afghanistan’s independent human rights commission on past atrocities by warlords, many of whom are now Karzai’s allies or in his government. 

Speak to the people

An important lesson of the Arab Spring is that a mobilized public can be an agent of positive change. Yet many governments in their foreign policies still frequently prefer quiet diplomacy and backroom dialogue to the exclusion of public commentary that all can hear. Social media has proven a powerful new tool, giving each individual the potential to report repression and mobilize against it. To enlist this newly empowered public in reform efforts, the international community must speak to it. Talking privately with governments about reform has its place, but it is no substitute for engaging the public. 

Respect rights yourself

It is difficult to preach what one does not practice, yet the rights records of the major powers have fallen short in areas of relevance to Arab Spring states, reducing their influence. The US, for example, remains handicapped in efforts to bring torturers to justice—a major issue in Egypt, for example—because President Barack Obama refuses to allow investigation of officials in former president George W. Bush’s administration who are implicated in torture. The US government’s failure to prosecute or release most detainees at Guantanamo hamstrings its ability to oppose detention without trial. And US efforts to rein in the arbitrary use of deadly force bump up against its deployment of aerial drones to target individuals abroad without articulating clear limits to their use under the laws of war and law-enforcement standards, and a process beyond the executive branch’s unilateral determinations to guard against misuse.

The problem is not only the US. No UK official has been held accountable for helping to send Gaddafi’s opponents to endure torture in Libya, and the UK has yet to convene a credible inquiry into wider allegations of its complicity in overseas torture. Europe’s efforts to oppose sectarian tensions are hurt by its own difficulties securing Roma, immigrant, and minority rights. Its laws on insulting religion and Holocaust denial undermine its attempts to promote free speech. Some European states’ restrictions on religious dress that target women, and on building mosques and minarets impede their promotion of religious freedom.

Turkey’s ability to serve as a model for blending democracy with an Islamic governing party, as many people wish, is marred by its persecution of journalists, continuing restrictions on its Kurdish minority, prolonged imprisonment of Kurdish political activists, and serious concerns about unfair trials and the lack of judicial independence. 

Similarly, Indonesia, a country often cited as successfully blending democracy and Islam, has a rights record plagued by discrimination against religious minorities and impunity for military abuses. Its constitution protects freedom of religion, but regulations against blasphemy and proselytizing are routinely used to prosecute atheists, Baha’is, Christians, Shiites, and Ahmadiyah. Some 150 regulations restrict the rights of religious minorities. More than 500 Christian churches have been closed since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004. The government has cracked down on Jemaah Islamiyah, the al Qaeda affiliate that has bombed hotels, bars, and embassies, but because the governing coalition includes intolerant Islamist political parties, the government has not intervened to stop other Islamist militants who regularly commit less publicized crimes against religious minorities. Meanwhile, there is no civilian jurisdiction over soldiers who commit serious human rights abuses, leaving only military tribunals that rarely convene, lack transparency, and often treat major crimes as mere disciplinary measures.  

Help springtime wherever it takes root

Russia and China do not pretend to set a democratic example. Rather, they are preoccupied with preventing the inspiration of the Arab Spring from catching on at home. Despite their power, the international community should regularly speak out against their repression, both for the sake of the Russian and Chinese people, and because these highly visible examples of repression embolden authoritarian leaders worldwide who seek to resist the same currents in their own countries.

The Kremlin was clearly alarmed when large numbers of Russians began protesting in late 2011 against alleged fraud in parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin’s decision to seek a new term as president. The protests at the time sparked hope for change and greater space for free expression, but Putin’s return to the presidency has sent the country into a steep authoritarian backslide. The result is a spate of repressive laws and practices designed to induce fear—to discourage public dissent and continuing protests. Participants in protests face massive new fines; human rights groups that receive foreign funding are now required to wear the demonizing label of “foreign agent;” criminal penalties for defamation have been restored; and the crime of treason has been amended so broadly that it now could easily be used to ensnare human rights activists engaged in international advocacy. 

As China underwent a highly controlled leadership transition to the presidency of Xi Jinping, it responded to threats of a “Jasmine Spring” and a growing dissident movement with its own crackdown. It has paid particular attention to social media, to which the Chinese people have taken in enormous numbers—an estimated 80 to 90 percent of China’s 500 million internet users. Beijing’s notorious “Great Firewall” is of little use to this effort, because the source of dissident ideas is not foreign websites, but the Chinese people’s own thoughts. The government is devoting massive resources to preventing discussion of issues that it deems sensitive, but many people in China have come to excel at using circumlocutions to evade the censor. That social media users are winning this cat-and-mouse game is suggested by the government’s need to climb down from several controversial actions because they had become the subject of mass critical commentary. 

Even China, with its extensive resources, depends on private internet companies to hold the frontline in censorship efforts. In the Arab world, governments have used powerful internet surveillance technologies sold by Western companies to target human rights defenders and suspected dissidents. The absence of enforceable standards against corporate complicity in such censorship and surveillance efforts makes them more likely to succeed, undermining the potential of online technologies to facilitate political reform. 


The Arab Spring continues to give rise to hope for an improved human rights environment in one of the regions of the world that has been most resistant to democratic change. Yet it also spotlights the tension between majority rule and respect for rights. It is of enormous importance to the people of the region–and the world–that this tension be resolved with respect for international standards. A positive resolution will require acts of great statesmanship among the region’s new leaders. But it will also require consistent, principled support from the most influential outsiders. No one pretends it will be easy to get this right. But no one can doubt the importance of doing so. 

The Arab Spring has inspired people the world over, encouraging many to stand up to their own autocratic rulers. As its leaders act at home, they also set an example for the world. Much is riding on making this precedent positive—one that succeeds in building elected governments that live by the constraints of rights and the rule of law. 

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch