In the words of Kofi Annan, “In a world where globalization has limited the ability of states to control their economies, regulate their financial policies, and isolate themselves from environmental damage and human migration, the last right of states cannot and must not be the right to enslave, persecute, or torture their own citizens.”
As I have discussed in several previous blogs, the largest human rights issues in Tunisia right now revolve around freedom of speech. Women fight for equal footing with men, and men fight to have their voices heard in a newly established democracy. In January 2011, Tunisia became the first MENA country to switch from an autocratic regime through a peaceful popular uprising. The United Nations office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNHCR) agreed to help accompany national efforts towards establishing democracy. A Tunisian office for this UN involvement was established in April 2011. The full mandate to protect and promote human rights focuses on strengthening accountability and the rule of law, combatting inequalities and poverty, increasing engagement with international human rights mechanisms, and monitoring the country’s compliance with its international human rights obligations. The Tunisian office will also provide technical assistance to the Tunisian National Human Rights Institution and will monitor and investigate human rights violations. It will strengthen national protection systems and support the development and monitoring of public policies for the protection of vulnerable groups including women, youth and migrants.
As Americans, it seems that the problems in Tunisia and violations of human rights there might not concern us. I choose to argue. Annan asserts that “sovereignty implies responsibility, not just power.” As citizens of a free nation, I believe we hold the responsibility to protect the freedom of others, no matter how different they are from us. Not only is it morally correct, but it also could serve to keep peace in the world and thus benefit Americans as well; this was the general thought implicit in the founding of the United Nations in the first place.
However, this school of thought is not always easy to come by. Farish Noor examines the follies of eurocentrism and essentialism:
“Despite the fact that the Roman Empire collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and hypocrisy, the Western world continues to think of itself as the centre of not only the world but perhaps even the universe, much like the cultural imperialism of the past… Ethnocentrism (eurocentrism) is the tendency of individuals and cultures to view themselves as well as the environment around them from the perspective of their own culture, values and beliefs.”
This view quickly leads Westerners to favor their own culture above others while perceiving any differences from the norm they create as inferior.
However, Noor offers advice on addressing the problem:
“Concern for liberty and human dignity is common to all cultures and civilizations. Evidence from history and sociology shows that even the most ‘primitive’ societies have a deep-rooted understanding of issues related to power, rights and equity.
If the effort to secure, promote and defend the rights and freedoms of all peoples is to have a serious beginning, then we must accept that the world we are trying to save is a multicultural, multi-religious, and multiracial one. We will need to attempt to understand and appreciate the way different societies and cultures have developed their respective understandings of human dignity and values and to try to identify the specific local traditions and thought systems that should be elaborated to ensure that the goals are achieved.”
I know that human rights in Tunisia are not in the forefront of the minds of most American citizens. If global injustices are not being plastered on the television or across the front page of a national newspaper, chances are that people don’t consider injustices in this way; there is not much direct American aid for the struggles of the Tunisian people as they strive for democracy. Several international charities that involve America, such as Oxfam International, work in Tunisia to elevate freedom of speech and to train and support women in leadership. If Americans continue to support organizations such as these, and simply to consider global inequities and the sovereign individual’s duty to help, I am confident the world will eventually move toward freedom and the abolishment of human rights violations.