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khymer rouge

Scene from the second Khymer Rouge trial.

Hope and Change: The Arab Spring Dominated the Headlines, But 2011 Saw Other Landmark Human Rights Victories

There’s little doubt that 2011 will be remembered as the year of the Arab Spring, and rightly so. While it’s too early to predict the ultimate fate of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other Middle Eastern countries, the popular uprisings in these nations represented nothing less than an epic battle for basic human rights.

The world saw a number of other significant human rights victories this past year. These advances, though understandably overshadowed by state-sponsored persecution in far too many places across the globe, have far-reaching implications for the rule of law.

So, as the international community prepares to mark the 61st annual Human Rights Day on December 10, here is a short list of some of the best human rights developments of 2011 outside the Middle East.

California Passes First-Ever State Bill on Congo Conflict Minerals

What if one of the world’s largest economies took a stand against the lethal use of mineral wealth to fund egregious human rights violations? That’s what happened in September when the California Assembly approved legislation that bars state agencies from doing business with companies that violate federal rules designed to shut off commerce to military groups in eastern Congo. The bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, making California the first state to pass such a law.

Resolution to Support Torture Victims

The Golden State’s Legislature also distinguished itself by passing a resolution declaring June 26, 2011 to be a Day in Support of Victims of Torture in California. The resolution also seeks to buttress the Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998 to ensure adequate funding for torture survivor programs.

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Recognition of Pinochet Victims

Adding yet another coda to the ugly story of former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, a commission identified 9,800 additional victims of political imprisonment and torture during Pinochet’s rule. The recognition, which brings the total to more than 40,000, is not merely a validation of past suffering -- each of the victims will receive a lifetime pension.

Arrest of Former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo

Marking a momentous first, the International Criminal Court arrested the former president of Ivory Coast on charges of murder, rape, persecution and inhuman acts. No former head of state had ever been taken into custody by the ICC, lending Gbagbo a dubious distinction in the annals of international justice.

The Second Khmer Rouge Trial

The bloody reign of Pol Pot took center stage again this year with the second Khmer Rouge trial in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Three of the regime’s top leaders are being prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and other charges. While the old adage “justice delayed is justice denied” generally holds true, these historic trials are an essential step in Cambodia’s long journey back from the abyss.

U.N. Investigator on Iran

Responding to Iran’s miserable record of human rights violation, a special body of the United Nations approved the appointment of an investigator to document the regime’s abuses. The investigator’s report, issued this fall, cited practices such as torture, cruel or degrading treatment of detainees, and the imposition of the death penalty without proper safeguards, among others. Not surprisingly, the Iranian regime blasted the report, alleging Western bias.

Obama Sends U.S. Troops to Combat LRA in Uganda

The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, has ravaged the regions of Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan for over two decades, killing thousands of people, brutally turning children into soldiers and slaves and displacing thousands of people from their homes. But in a groundbreaking development after repeated demands for action from human rights groups, the Obama administration approved the deployment of 100 U.S troops to Uganda to help capture Kony and senior leaders of the LRA.

julie gutman

Indigenous People’s Recognition in Peru

In a part of the world where the rights of indigenous people have often been trampled in the name of progress, it was big news when the Peruvian government signed a binding agreement giving those populations some say over how their land and resources are used. The devil will be in the details, of course, but this was seen as a breakthrough that could influence relations between indigenous peoples and governments across the region.

Julie Gutman

Julie Gutman is executive director of the Program for Torture Victims, a Los Angeles-based human rights organization that has helped thousands of torture survivors rebuild their lives.