LOS ANGELES – The death of revered South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela has spurred reflection on the global state of human rights in the years since his transformation from political prisoner to president and elder statesman.
Those striving to build on Mandela’s vision of equality and mutual respect see a world that is profoundly more free, fair and accountable than the one that existed when he walked out of prison in 1990 to wage the final battle in the war on apartheid.
Human rights horror stories persist in many places around the world, most disturbingly in Syria, where nearly three years of civil war have left more than 100,000 dead and devastated the home lives and livelihoods of millions. Even countries like Myanmar, where military dictatorship has given way in the past few years to pluralism and social reform, the progress has been uneven, rights advocates say.
But Mandela’s inspiring leadership of South Africa from institutionalized racism to one of the continent’s most prosperous and established democracies has coincided with the end of authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe, worldwide growth in the number and clout of human rights groups and dramatic technological advances that prevent despots from doing their worst without the outside world’s notice.
“There are 500,000 videos on YouTube from the Syrian conflict. We now find out in minutes what is going on in different parts of the world,” said Iain Levine, deputy executive program director for Human Rights Watch.
He pointed out that as he spoke, a colleague was live-blogging from Central African Republic, where United Nations peacekeepers have been deployed to quell deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in the impoverished and restive state.
With cellphones in the hands of people in even the poorest countries, images of abuses are instantly flashed around the world via Twitter, Facebook, text messages and shared photos, Levine said.
The availability of documented evidence accelerates the international community’s ability to bring pressure on perpetrators or get global bodies, like the United Nations, deployed to prevent or at least identify abuses, he said.
Success in defeating injustice also has an infectious quality that puts dictators on notice that their power to repress may not be endless, Levine said. He pointed to the Arab Spring uprisings that deposed longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen as having inspired nascent opposition movements in even seemingly unreformable nations like Zimbabwe.
Angola, Somalia and Sudan remain largely impervious to the encroachment of democratic values and respect for human rights, analysts say. But the rise of South Africa and other nations from racism, colonial repression, civil war and dictatorship has helped foster what are seen as moves in the right direction.
Myanmar, also known as Burma from its colonial era, has witnessed notable advances in respect for human rights over the past three years with the rise to power of President Sein Thein and his ending of house arrest for opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since Sein distanced himself from the military dictatorship in March 2011, opposition activists have won seats in parliament, and political and economic reforms have widened. The country is still taken to task by rights advocates, however, for continuing to jail political prisoners and for mistreatment of ethnic and religious minorities, in particular the stateless Rohingya Muslims.
U.S. rights groups have credited Mandela with having “inspired us to be our best selves” in working toward economic equality and fighting injustice.
“Although it seems unthinkable to imagine a world without Nelson Mandela, we must,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Our dedication to protecting freedoms for everyone – no matter what their race, gender, religion or whom they choose to love – is the precious legacy he has passed on to us.”