Amnesty International says in its latest annual report that recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa show that freedom of expression lies at the heart of human rights.
2010 ended with a public uprising in Tunisia that forced that country’s longtime leader from power. Then in the new year, similar public demonstrations prompted Egypt's autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down.
The rights group says in its annual report that freedom of expression is a powerful tool for change.
Amnesty Middle East expert Philip Luther says the events in Egypt and Tunisia show the power of the people, whatever their background.
“The people who have been taking to the streets have been a wide variety of people from across different divides. They have included some of the most marginalized in society. They have included women and they have included people of very different and varied political persuasions,” Luthar said.
More uprisings followed the events in Egypt and Tunisia, but not with the same outcomes.
In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi still rules, despite open rebellion in parts of the country and NATO air strikes against his forces.
Erwin van der Borght is Amnesty's International Propgram Director. To hear his interview with VOA's Joe De Capua on human rights in Africa, click below.
In China, authorities cracked down hard against possible unrest inspired by the uprisings in the Middle East.
Amnesty International's Tawanda Hondora says it is the same story in a number of sub-Saharan African countries.
"We see for example the situation in Uganda where the opposition is trying to demonstrate and orchestrate uprisings that are similar to what is happening in North Africa. We also see similar situations happening in countries like Swaziland where there have been demonstrations, as well as Zimbabwe where there were demonstrations, but those were brutally suppressed as they were in Uganda," Hondora said.
Hondora says civil and political rights are under threat.
In Ivory Coast, violence after that country's disputed presidential election in November left hundreds dead and displaced an estimate one-million people. The violence stemmed from former President Laurent Gbagbo's refusal to cede power to election winner Alassane Ouattara.
Elsewhere in Africa, a Nigerian civil rights group says at least 500 people died in election violence last month between Muslims and Christians.
Hondora says politicians are not doing enough to rein in their supporters. "The major problem in sub-Saharan Africa is that many governments are brutally suppressing protests that are being undertaken by the citizens and this is a violation of the constitution, it is also in violation of the African charter on Human and People’s Rights, where people have a right to demonstrate, where they have a right to express their views," Hondora said.
Amnesty says 2010 was not all bad news.
The group says authorities in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya halted forced evictions after a public outcry. And in Europe, Amnesty cites progress in bringing to justice those responsible for crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Amnesty also notes the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. The Nobel Peace Prize winner spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest. But Amnesty says thousands of other political prisoners are still held there.
Luther says freedom of expression is the key to solving injustice. “There has been no clearer signal of the importance of freedom of expression than in the Middle East and North Africa where people have been rising up at the end of 2010 and then very much into 2011 to demand the right to freedom of expression, which is such a cornerstone right and which allows people to access all other rights because it allows them to demand them,” Luther said.
When free speech is respected, says Luther, people can bring about social and economic change as well as political revolution.
Amnesty’s annual report says there are unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression in 89 countries around the world.
It says torture and other ill-treatment were used in 98 countries in 2010 and the organization investigated unfair trials in 54 countries.
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