The optimism prompted by the Arab awakening should not blind us to the resilience of authoritarian regimes and the intimidating, precarious circumstances in which democracy advocates and human rights defenders continue to work. Just as democrats worldwide are drawing inspiration from the Arab spring, autocratic regimes are also taking note.
“Authoritarian governments … have already started acting preemptively in the hope of avoiding similar mass-scale protests,” according to a new report from Front Line, the watchdog for human rights defenders. A case in point is Zimbabwe, where dozens of activists have been rounded up, some for the ‘crime’ of watching TV footage of the Arab unrest.
“Elections are often a moment of increased vulnerability” for human rights defenders and journalists, the report notes, citing deteriorating conditions following recent elections in Bahrain, Belarus, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Ukraine.
While 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of independence for many African States, “the official rhetoric and festive climate were in stark contrast to the morale of civil society” in much of Africa, Frontline notes, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which lost Floribert Chebeya (above), one of the continent’s most prominent human rights defenders.
Harassment was on the increase in Zimbabwe, particularly in the first half of 2010, as several NGOs saw their members harassed, intimidated, detained, and prosecuted.
Farai Maguwu (left) from the Mutare Centre for Research and Development was put on trial for documenting the military’s collusion in illegal mining operations. The persecution of activists continued despite the presence of the Movement for Democratic Change in the coalition government.
“So long as political prisoners remain incarcerated and security service chiefs openly disdain the Prime Minister, the government of national unity remains one in name only,” Tyanai Masiya, chairman of the Mutare-based CRD, told the National Endowment for Democracy.
“LGBTI rights continued to be a risky endeavor in many countries, including DRC, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe,” the report notes, citing the murder of David Kato, a prominent human rights defender in Uganda.
In Latin America, labor union leaders, indigenous and afrodescendents, campesinos, community leaders, judges and lawyers, journalists and women activists are “particularly exposed to great risk,” the report notes.
China experienced an “unprecedented” crackdown in the wake of the Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo, as scores of human rights defenders were disappeared, placed under house arrest, prevented from leaving the country or heavily monitored.
Eastern Europe and Central Asia also witnessed a deteriorating situation in 2010, marked by “direct targeting” of human rights defenders in a number of countries, including Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. Evgeniy Zhovtis, a leading figure in the region’s human rights movement and director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, remains in jail despite international pressure for his release.
Several of the activists and groups cited in the report, including Floribert Chebeya’s Voix des sans Voix human rights group, Evgeniy Zhovtis’s Kazakhstan International Bureau and the Mutare Centre for Research and Development are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.