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Book Review: Human Rights Watch World Report, 2012

Human Rights Watch World Report, Events of 2011

Seven Stories Press, 2012

The wave of protests, demonstrations, and actual civil revolutions that swept through the Arab world in 2011 was unprecedented. Crowds assembled, rulers were toppled, entire power structures were re-arranged – Libya, Syria, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia – the list of affected countries stretches on and on, and many of the upheavals are continuing in 2012. Spurred by oppression, want, and the burgeoning Internet social network, great crowds (of both men and women) took to the streets to demand change; it was a human rights triumph of a scope and fervor such as few people in the world had ever seen.

Little wonder then that the 2012 “World Report” of the Human Rights Watch should be a historically significant volume. This is the 22nd annual report, covering a broad range of human rights issues in over 90 countries from January to November of 2011 – and as Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of the Human Rights Watch, puts it in his stimulating Introduction, the list could have been longer – the omission of a country from consideration in this present volume should not be taken as a sign that such omitted countries are havens of human rights; it just means the HRW didn’t have the manpower to go everywhere and see everything.

Still, it’s a prodigious volume, and they saw a great deal. The book starts off with an Introduction by Roth that pulls no punches on its various subjects, including one of some sensitivity to Americans, the George W. Bush administration’s green-lighting of torture, both directly by US military forces and covertly by shipping prisoners to countries where torture is routine:

The Obama administration ordered an end to this complicity in torture but has refused to investigate, let alone prosecute, the US officials who were responsible. The short-term political calculation behind that dereliction of duty risks dangerous long-term consequences by signalling that torture is a policy option rather than a crime.

Indeed, there’s no scrap of American exceptionalism – let alone triumphalism – in the report; the United States is simply included along with all the other examined nations, meted out some praise for its progress and rapped on the knuckles for its many persistent human rights problems (rampant gun violence, for instance, and the country’s knee-jerk propensity to imprison its minorities) – no doubt the recent disgraceful U.S. Supreme Court ruling that correctional facilities have the right to strip-search detainees without cause or even suspicion of cause will feature in next year’s report.

Following Roth, there are five general essays and a collection of color photos from the world’s turbulent year. Shantha Rau Barriga writes movingly of the ongoing struggles of people with disabilities to carve out for themselves some decent treatment, especially in societies that consider them virtually inhuman. And Rachel Denber turns in an insightful essay on post-Soviet Russia, making many a deeper point with economical grace:

International actors should also learn from the post-Soviet experience that viewing human rights and security interests as tradeoffs is exactly the false choice repressive leaders want them to make, and that bargaining with dictators over human rights concerns will not lead to a good outcome, almost by definition.

And after this opening section, the book is broken down into geographical and political regions of the world, taking each country in turn and analyzing its progress – or lack thereof – on a wide range of human rights issues, from environmental protection to treatment of workers to consideration for women, minorities, gays, the elderly, the incarcerated, and many others. Governmental, judicial, and police corruption is excoriated wherever found (Canada gets no entry of its own, although rumors persist of its troubles with unruly academics).

Ultimately, it’s an only faintly reassuring report card for the human race – but that makes the book all the more indispensable. And as Roth points out at the beginning of these proceedings, no amount of retrogression can prevent whiffs of hope from sneaking through, sometimes in the most unlikely places.