Why 2011 Was a Banner Year for Human Rights

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The world is making important strides in basic freedoms and rights

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The UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva / Reuters

2011 was an extraordinary year for human rights. Millions of people staked new claims to human rights in the Arab Spring, the ruling junta of Myanmar suddenly freed political prisoners and hosted the U.S. Secretary of State, and three women shared the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting for women's empowerment. This Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council will commemorate Human Rights Day 2011, on the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--which has earned the honor of being the most universal document in the world after being translated into 380 languages.

However, human rights principles remain notoriously difficult to enforce and remain a huge source of controversy in world politics. Many governments resist their application, and U.S. officials themselves struggle to integrate these concerns into broader foreign policy objectives.

To shed light on what citizens (as opposed to leaders) around the world actually think about human rights, the IIGG program and worldpublicopinion.org (WPO) have just released the third installment of our updated digests of Public Opinion on Global Issues. The results show dramatic international consensus backing fundamental human rights.

Majorities in all nations polled, including those with authoritarian governments, support:

  • free elections with universal suffrage to select leaders, and consider that the will of the people should be the basis for the authority of government
  • the right to demonstrate peacefully and to express opinions freely, including criticism of the government
  • media freedom from government censorship
  • equal treatment for people, irrespective of religion, gender, race or ethnicity
  • government responsibility to provide citizens with basic food, healthcare and education.

Such unanimity testifies to a universal hunger among all peoples for fundamental rights. Below are some particularly relevant findings:

Women's Rights

As the international community maps a strategy for Afghanistan's future amid concern that women's rights there are being swept aside, the digest reveals surprisingly progressive attitudes about women's rights in the Islamic world.  A 2011 Pew poll, for example, asked six majority-Muslim nations whether it was important that "women have the same rights as men." An average of 88 percent said it was "very important" or "important."

The need to protect and promote the rights of women is not limited to predominantly Muslim populations, of course. A 2008 WPO poll asked whether it was important for "women to have full equality of rights compared to men." Among the five countries with the lowest levels of support for this proposition, only one, Egypt (31 percent), was majority-Muslim. Support was also low in  Russia (35 percent), Hong Kong (41 percent), India (41 percent) and South Korea (43 percent). Interestingly, more respondents considered women's equality very important in Muslim-majority Turkey (80 percent), than in the  United States (77 percent). Globally, large majorities believe that the United Nations should actively promote women's rights throughout the world.

Freedom of Expression and Religion

Global support for freedom of expression and religion is also robust. With just a few exceptions, majorities say the government should not have the right to limit access to the internet. In a 2011 Pew poll, some 92 percent of populations in six majority-Muslim countries supported freedom of expression, including the right to criticize government and religious leaders. This finding would imply wide public support for the Human Rights Council's redirection away from resolutions against the defamation of religion towards more robust protection of freedom of religion.

Indeed, another 2011 Pew poll found that 61 percent of respondents in twenty-three nations agreed that "followers of any religion should be allowed to assemble and practice." The highest levels of support were recorded in Turkey (80 percent) followed by Poland and Nigeria, both at 77 percent. (Ironically, despite the U.S. Bill of Rights, only two thirds of Americans--67 percent--supported this proposition).

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Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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