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2009 Mixed Year for Human Rights: Amid repression and violence, there were signs of hope

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Adam Phillips, New York

From Iran to Myanmar, from Darfur to Guanatanamo, 2009 has been a year of many challenges - and significant progress - for human rights around the world.

Human rights abuses continue in Darfur, Sudan

Tom Malinowski, a seasoned foreign policy expert - and the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, is deeply aware of the human capacity for cruelty and the brute exercise of power. He cites continued human rights abuse in the Darfur region of Sudan as an example. Ethnic cleansing by Arab "jinjaweed" militias and the Sudanese government has diminished from its peak earlier in the decade, but intense, if more sporadic, violence continued there in 2009.

"There have been cases of civilians being bombed from the air by the Sudanese air force, and violence associated with ongoing conflict between the government and rebel groups," Malinowski says.

Large numbers of Darfuris have been "ethnically cleansed" from their home villages and are living in crowded camps of internally displaced persons. "The people in those camps [continue to be] vulnerable when they try to leave to gather food [and] firewood."

There has been some progress in alleviating that crisis. In March, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur, and increasing international pressure is being brought to bear on governments which directly or indirectly support regimes like his.

China is asked take a leading role

Malinowski notes that as China continues to emerge as a major world power, its leaders are being held accountable as never before. "China has long been under pressure for its miserable human rights record at home. But only in the last few years has it felt any pressure with respect to its relationships with other governments that violate human rights."

China has made some interventions with its allies with both Sudan and Myanmar, urging them to at least ease up on the violence and oppression. "Unfortunately," says Malinowski, "China hasn't used a lot of the leverage that it has with these countries in terms of arms sales, [and] economic deals."

2009 was a mixed year for democracy activists

It was a mixed year for democracy activists with continued repression in Cuba, Myanmar [formerly Burma] and North Korea. 2009 also saw the rise of a massive opposition movement in Iran which claimed to have won the national elections in June. Government authorities declared the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to be the winner.

"Protests were put down very violently. There were show trials," notes Malinowski. "We've seen ... the rise of a very oppressive, almost a police military state in Iran. And yet the opposition movement has continued to make its voice heard."

Guantanamo Bay

Many human rights groups criticized former U.S. President George W. Bush, whose second term in office ended in January, for sullying America's reputation as a human rights champion. One of the most controversial charges centered on the aggressive prisoner interrogations - what critics have called government-sanctioned torture - at the U.S. military's detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"The good news is that the Obama Administration categorically decided that that will not happen again," says Malinowski. "President Obama has banned the use of the cruel techniques that were used on al Qaeda prisoners under the Bush Administration [and] he has abolished the use of these secret detention facilities in which the torture took place. There has been a sharp break from the past."

Women in Afghanistan still face challenges

Human rights activists say that women's rights have improved in Afghanistan since late 2001, when the U.S. and its allies forced the repressive Taliban-led government from power. But Malinowski asserts that women in Afghanistan still face many challenges to their rights and freedoms. "In fact, for many girls and women in Afghanistan, the notion of going to school is something that still means a great deal of fear. There is still a tax on girls and women who step out of their homes, who try to get educated, who try to enter the workforce, who try to live normal lives."

Troubled world economy poses indirect threat to migrants' human rights

According to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration, the continuing worldwide economic crisis in 2009 caused greater hardship in the developing world than it did in the developed world because many people were already living economically marginal lives.

For instance, many North Africans once migrated legally to Spain to do menial jobs. But unemployment in Europe was high this past year, and immigrants were far less welcome than before. Women and children have been especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and even slavery, at the hands of smugglers.

The human rights of male migrants within Africa were also at greater risk in 2009. Earlier this year, the IOM issued a report looking especially at how young men from East Africa, the Horn of Africa, were being smuggled to South Africa in search of employment. "Whilst we didn't find any obvious instances of trafficking for purposes of exploitation," says IOM spokesman Jean-Phillipe Chauzy, "we do know that those young migrants are being exploited at some point in their journey and being smuggled at high risk across international borders."

Reasons for both caution and hope in 2010

In spite of these continuing abuses, Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch believes respect for human rights is growing worldwide. "Over a period of the last few decades, human rights issues have become increasingly prominent in international relations." He asserts that "despite many continuing terrible events around the world," more people today enjoy human rights - the right to change their government, the right to speak their minds, and the right to worship freely - than 30 or 40 years ago.

Though hopeful that the human rights situation will improve in 2010, Tom Malinowski and other activists say they will continue to fight for a world where safety, economic security and freedom from fear for all people are assured.