Freedom House released its "Freedom of the World Report" this week. The report, surveying political rights and civil liberties around the world, showed that the political uprisings that swept across the Arab world over the past year represent the most significant challenge to authoritarian and totalitarian rule since the collapse of Soviet Communism.
Despite these gains, the report warns of an alarming decline in freedom, democracy and respect for human rights around the world for a sixth consecutive year. Only 45 percent of the world’s 195 countries (or about 88 countries) can be defined as democracies that respect fundamental human rights and freedoms. The rest of the world’s countries are defined as "partly free" or "not free" with 35% of the global population living in non-democratic countries.
Universal human rights are trampled upon in dictatorships like Syria, North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea and China. While the citizens of these countries are in dire need of the international community’s protection, the international human rights discourse has been dominated by Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and the U.S.-led war against international terrorism.
The one-sidedness of the international human rights debate is clearly exemplified in the case of North Korea, one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Pyongyang has established a system of prison camps throughout the country where 200,000 dissidents are subjected to systematic torture and starvation. Forced labor guarantees that no detainees are strong enough to rebel; attempts to escape are punished with torture and execution. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran executed 175 people last year, including women, children and homosexuals by public hanging and stoning.
Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich African country mired in corruption, poverty, and human rights repression under the leadership of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the country’s president for more than 30 years, systematically represses journalists, civil society, and members of the political opposition.
Amnesty describes how the dissident Epifanio Pascual Nguema Alogo was arrested without a warrant while police officers tortured him for four hours, beating him around the kidneys, belly and genitals. He passed blood in his urine for several days and was unable to walk or stand up straight.
Despite Guinea's systematic engagement in torture and arbitrary detention, there has been complete silence on these abuses from the international media and human rights campaigners. The passivity toward one of the world’s most serious human rights abusers is so widespread that most human right's activists will not be able to pinpoint the location of the country on a map.
Likewise, no flotillas have sailed toward Damascus, despite the fact that the Syrian regime now has killed at least more than 5,000 of its own citizens according to the U.N. Very few European or American campaigns are initiated in support of the North Korean people. Few writers and cultural figures condemn the Castro regime, despite the fact that Cuba forced 18 dissident journalists into exile last year.
This selective human rights engagement can be explained by the fact that countries like Equatorial Guinea or North Korea generally do not generate widespread media coverage or political debate. More significantly, the problems do not fit into the dominant international foreign policy discourse, which discriminates between moral principles in the name of biased political agendas.
If flotilla activists from Europe and North America were motivated by altruistic humanism, we would have seen some boats setting sail toward Syria, loaded with medicine and humanitarian aid. Ships with oppositional literature and laptops would have done wonders for the democratic opposition in Havana and Tehran. A universal commitment to the promotion of human rights would have prompted stronger international engagement against the torture in North Korea and Equatorial Guinea.
Whatever the reason, the world seems to have been far more interested in what happens to the Israelis and Palestinians than to the Syrians, North Koreans, Equatorial Guineans, Cubans or Iranians. As long this double-standard is applied, chances are great that the 2,453,231,500 women, children and men who presently live under non-democratic regimes – in dire need of the international community's political, moral and humanitarian attention – will continue to suffer.
Next time self-styled human rights and peace activists in Ireland, Canada, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland or Spain issue declarations in the name of humanism while condemning the only democracy in the Middle East, they should think twice; specifically when these statements are motivated by a questionable commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights in all countries of the world.
Daniel Schatz is a doctoral candidate in political science and writer on international affairs.