The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power and, in so doing, pushed for greater respect for human rights. It is also the year when repressive governments faced the real possibility that their days were numbered.
Information is a source of power, and for those challenging the abuse of power by states and other institutions, it is an exciting time. Since Amnesty International’s inception half a century ago, we have seen and shaped similar major shifts in the power struggle between those perpetrating abuses and the courageous and inventive individuals who expose their wrongdoing. As a movement dedicated to focusing global outrage in defence of beleaguered individuals, we are committed to supporting activists who imagine a world in which information is truly free and in which they can exercise their right to express dissent peacefully, beyond the control of the authorities.
For 50 years, Amnesty International has explored frontier technologies that can give voice to the powerless and abused. From teleprinters, photocopiers and fax machines through to radio, television, satellite communications, phones, emails and the internet, we have harnessed them all in support of mass mobilization. They have been tools that have aided the struggle for human rights, despite sophisticated government efforts to restrict the flow of information and censor communication.
This year Wikileaks, a website dedicated to posting documents received from a wide variety of sources, began publishing the first of hundreds of thousands of documents which were allegedly downloaded by a 22-year-old US Army intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, who is currently in pre-trial detention and faces the possibility of more than 50 years in prison if convicted of espionage and other charges.
Wikileaks created an easily accessible dumping ground for whistleblowers around the world and showed the power of this platform by disseminating and publishing classified and confidential government documents. Early on, Amnesty International recognized Wikileaks’ contribution to human rights activism when Wikileaks posted information related to violations in Kenya in 2009.
But it took old-fashioned newspaper reporters and political analysts to trawl through the raw data, analyze it, and identify evidence of crimes and violations contained in those documents. Leveraging this information, political activists used other new communications tools now easily available on mobile phones and on social networking sites to bring people to the streets to demand accountability.
A compelling and tragic example of the power of individual action when amplified through the new tools of the virtual world is the story of Mohamed Bouazizi. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor living in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, set himself on fire outside the City Hall to protest police harassment, humiliation, economic hardship and the sense of powerlessness felt by young people like himself in Tunisia.
As word of his act of despair and defiance spread around Tunisia via mobile phones and the internet, it galvanized the long-simmering dissent against the country’s oppressive government with unforeseen ramifications. Mohamed Bouazizi died from his burns, but his anger lived on in the form of street protests throughout the country. Activists in Tunisia – a group comprised of trade unionists, members of the political opposition, and youth – some of whom did their organizing via social networking sites – took to the streets to demonstrate their support for Mohamed Bouazizi’s grievances. Experienced hands joined with young protesters in using new tools to challenge a repressive government.
The Tunisian government sought to enforce a tight media blackout and shut down individual access to the internet but news quickly spread thanks to new technologies. The protesters made it clear that their anger was about both the government’s brutal repression of those who dared to challenge its authoritarianism as well as the lack of economic opportunity caused in part by government corruption.
In January, less than a month after Mohamed Bouazizi’s desperate act, the government of President Zine El ‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali collapsed and he fled the country, seeking refuge in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The people of Tunisia celebrated the end of 20 plus years of unaccountable rule, setting the stage for the restoration of a participatory and rights-respecting government to be elected.
The fall of Ben ‘Ali’s government reverberated throughout the region and the world. Governments which rely on torture and repression to suppress dissent and which grow rich through corruption and economic exploitation were looking over their shoulders. The local elite and foreign governments which propped up these illegitimate regimes while pontificating on democracy and human rights, were also nervous.
In no time the upheaval in Tunisia triggered tremors in other countries. People took to the streets in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Yemen.
The tools in 2010 were new but the grievances were the same: the quest for a life lived with dignity, with the full range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Activists around the world who have too long endured the threat and reality of imprisonment, torture and other brutality because of their political opinion and beliefs or identity, imagined a world of possibilities including freedom from fear and meaningful political participation. What was clearly shown by the postings is that the lack of economic opportunity experienced by many in the region resonated deeply with those who were supporting the activists in Tunisia.
The frustration of people living under repressive governments is never far beneath the surface. For example, in Egypt, Khaled Said died following an assault by two police officers in an internet cafe in Alexandria in June 2010. His death provoked a public outcry – what in hindsight appears to be an early harbinger of the massive demonstrations in 2011. The police officers were charged with unlawfully arresting and torturing him, but not charged with direct responsibility for his death. In Iran, government officials restricted access to outside sources of information such as the internet as the discontent following the disputed election in 2009 continued and the wounds created by a brutal crackdown on protesters festered.
In China, the government attempted to bury the story of a young man who, when stopped by police after killing one woman and injuring another while driving drunk, dismissed them by proclaiming his relationship to a senior police official. The cry, “My father is Li Gang” became shorthand for lack of accountability and the story behind the line was posted and reposted on the internet throughout China even as the authorities struggled for control.
For those politicians who argue the primacy of civil and political rights over economic, social and cultural rights – or vice versa – the clarity with which activists have defined their frustration as related to the lack of political and economic opportunities demonstrates that this is a false dichotomy that ignores the experiences of millions, if not billions, of people throughout the world living without both.
Amnesty International, which began as an organization dedicated to the rights of prisoners of conscience, has long understood that it is just as important to point out the underlying violations that spur activists to write and to take to the streets as it is to ensure an end to detention and abuse of the activists. Social networking sites may be new, but they are important because they are a powerful tool that can facilitate camaraderie and support between disaffected critics living under similarly abusive governments around the world.
Leaks and Revelations
In July, Wikileaks and several major newspapers began publishing nearly 100,000 documents related to the war in Afghanistan. Controversy regarding the content, the legality and the consequences of the leak erupted. The documents provided valuable corroboration of human rights violations documented by human rights activists and journalists – violations that the Afghan and NATO governments had denied. But human rights organizations were also alarmed when the Taleban announced that they were going through the documents on Wikileaks and would punish Afghans who had co-operated with the Afghan government or its international supporters. New technology, like all tools, presents risks as well as benefits; Wikileaks took steps to ensure that future document releases would incorporate the long-standing principle of ”do no harm”, a bedrock of Amnesty International’s work over the past 50 years.
In response, the governments implicated in the abuses invoked the age-old excuse of claiming that the leaked documents highlighting government violations and failures were a threat to national security and therefore illegal. By and large they simply ignored the revelation of evidence of crimes under international law and their failure to investigate these crimes and prosecute those responsible.
In October, Wikileaks released nearly 400,000 documents related to the war in Iraq. Again, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations pointed out that even as the implicated governments cried national security, they were failing to meet their responsibility to investigate and prosecute those responsible for war crimes and other crimes under international law. The documents also confirmed that even as these governments were dismissing the reports of these violations by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, they were in possession of documents that clearly verified the accuracy of these reports.
But these leaks were dwarfed by the final chapter in 2010 when Wikileaks and five major newspapers started to simultaneously publish the first 220 of 251,287 leaked confidential – but not top secret – diplomatic cables from 274 US embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world, dated from 28 December 1966 to 28 February 2010. The newly available information, analysed by veteran newspaper reporters as well as new but passionate bloggers, fed into existing movements and inspired new actors.
Tremors around the World
There are differing perspectives on the Wikileaks drama, with some commentators describing it as operating in “a moral void” while others see it as the modern equivalent of the release of the Pentagon Papers. What is clear, however, is the impact that the leaks have had.
While the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia would not have happened without the long struggle of brave human rights defenders over the last two decades, support for activists from outside the country may have been strengthened as people scrutinized the Wikileaks documents on Tunisia and understood the roots of the anger. In particular, some of the documents made clear that countries around the world were aware of both the political repression and the lack of economic opportunity, but for the most part were not taking action to urge change. One leaked cable showed that the then Canadian envoy, the US ambassador and the UK ambassador all acknowledged that the Tunisian security forces torture detainees; that diplomatic assurances that the government will not torture detainees sent back to Tunisia are “of value” but unreliable; and that the ICRC does not have access to detention facilities run by the Ministry of Interior.
In another leaked cable, the US ambassador detailed how the Tunisian economy was in shreds due to the pervasiveness of corruption, ranging from shakedowns by the police to the long arm of “the Family” – that is members of President Ben ‘Ali’s immediate and extended family who used their power to amass wealth.
Which brings us back to Mohamed Bouazizi and so many other Tunisians who appear to have felt that all hope was lost in the face of torture, economic deprivation, government corruption, police brutality and the unrelenting repression of political opposition and any others who voiced dissent. He had no political avenue for demanding economic opportunities and when he tried to create his own by selling fruits and vegetables from a cart on the street, the police confiscated his goods. When he went to the political authorities to complain of police abuse, they declined to accept or investigate his complaint.
Mohamed Bouazizi’s complaints were hardly unique. But his act of self-immolation happened around the same time as Wikileaks published documents showing that Western governments which had allied themselves with Ben ‘Ali’s government were aware of all these issues but apparently unwilling to exert external pressure on the government to respect human rights. The combination of these two events seems to have triggered widespread support for protesters in Tunisia. People from neighbouring countries were particularly supportive – some of whom face the same obstacles to enjoying their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.
A Telling Response
Confronted with the situation in Tunisia and Egypt, the response of Western governments is instructive. The USA severed their long relationship with President Ben ‘Ali of Tunisia. The French Minister of Foreign Affairs initially proposed helping the Ben ‘Ali government to handle the protest, but outrage at such a position erupted in France and after Ben ‘Ali fled Tunisia the French finally came out in support of the protesters. Faced with similar protests in Egypt, the USA and many European governments appeared caught off guard and unwilling to support the protesters’ initial call for President Mohammad Hosni Mubarak to leave power.
The USA in particular has invested heavily in the stability of the Mubarak government despite ample evidence of its brutality over the last 30 years. In fact throughout the world, many governments that proclaim to value human rights and democracy explicitly supported political leaders, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben ‘Ali in Tunisia, whom they knew were corrupt, repressive and indifferent to the rights of their own citizens. In fact, the first extraordinary renditions (outsourcing of torture) happened under the Bill Clinton administration which sent detainees to Egypt – a place well known for its systematic use of torture. The evidence of this hypocrisy – reinforced by the many diplomatic cables available through Wikileaks – exposes these governments and casts doubt on their commitments to human rights. In the end, the courage of peaceful protestors riskng their lives on the streets of Cairo and other cities proved too much for President Mubarak and his allies.
In the wake of the leaked diplomatic cables, governments have been scrambling to figure out what crimes may have been committed by Wikileaks (and Bradley Manning). There are troubling aspects to this response. The US government, which has been most vehement in attacking Wikileaks, had a different view when it was supporting new advances in disseminating information about other countries. In January 2010, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech aimed at encouraging governments around the world to ensure that their residents had access to the internet, comparing internet censorship to the Berlin Wall. “Information has never been so free”, declared Hillary Clinton. “Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”
She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November 2009, President Barack Obama had “defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.”
But the USA is not alone in wanting a well-behaved internet or in its willingness to use cyber technology to violate the right to privacy. The internet further exposes governments’ desire to control access to information, as they seek to censor those using the internet when the content is perceived by those in power to be a threat even as they add hacking and surveillance to their own arsenals.
It is, however, clear that governments are not necessarily in the driver’s seat, however much they might wish to be. In China, the so-called “Great Firewall” has played an important and damaging role in seeking to smother free discussion on the internet. Those who have overstepped the rules have been harassed or jailed. For example, in July 2010, Hairat Niyaz, a Uighur journalist and web editor, was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for “endangering state security”. As evidence, the court cited interviews he had given to overseas media as well as his online translation of an overseas Uighur organization calling for protests against the government’s handling of an incident in which at least two Uighur were killed when Han Chinese workers attacked Uighur workers in Shaoguan, Guangdong province, southern China. Again and again, however, despite the most sophisticated technology, the Chinese authorities have found themselves unsettled or outwitted by internet users – a wild colt that cannot be tamed, in the words of Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.
Take Liu Xiaobo, the scholar and co-author of the dissident document Charter ‘08. He was inspired by the activity of Eastern European intellectuals fighting against Communist authoritarianism in the 1970s and 1980s. They too benefited from new technologies – copying machines and faxes – to disseminate their ideas and challenge, and ultimately topple, abusive governments.
Liu Xiaobo was little known to most ordinary Chinese even after he was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment on Christmas Day 2009. And yet, when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in October 2010 online activists around the world went into overdrive in seeking to acknowledge his role.
Chinese authorities were eager to shut the discussion down. Caught off balance by widespread support for the man they had officially described as a “traitor”, they blocked searches for the phrase “empty chair” – a term many Chinese had begun to use in reference to the way that Liu Xiaobo was honoured at the prize-giving ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
Until Wikileaks, it appeared that governments believed they retained the upper hand. But when the companies that were necessary for Wikileaks to function withdrew their support – and it remains unclear whether this was as a result of direct government pressure – the companies and the governments that were condemning Wikileaks came under attack from hackers around the world.
This increased action by hackers and the continued dissemination of documents despite threats and outrage by various governments show how Wikileaks has changed the nature of the game with regard to who controls information. It also demonstrated a “take no prisoners” attitude among some hackers that threatened the privacy and security of individuals.
Getting the Right Balance – a Word of Caution
As we have seen before, the desire to publicize information, if not balanced against individual rights, can lead to problems of its own. In August, two women filed criminal complaints against Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, under the Swedish sexual offences act. Hackers published the names and identities of the women who had been vilified in the media as stooges of the US and Swedish governments. This demonstrates that in the new virtual universe women continue to be treated as pawns – or even worse – as acceptable collateral damage. To be clear, the women deserve to have their complaints fully investigated and if there is sufficient evidence, to see the alleged perpetrator prosecuted. Julian Assange must be accorded the presumption of innocence and given due process protections and a fair trial.
Human rights law is clear on this issue. Governments must be transparent and may only curtail freedom of expression (and the right to receive and impart information) to promote respect for the rights or reputations of others and to protect national security, public order and public health or morals. The claims by governments that national security is a carte blanche to restrict information is never justified – especially when the restriction appears to be covering up human rights and humanitarian law violations. But government hypocrisy and deception equally does not justify hacking into the prosecutor’s office and violating the privacy of the women plaintiffs.
A Digital Future for Human Rights
There is nothing magical or deterministic about the internet and other communications technologies. Technology neither respects nor undermines human rights. It is and will continue to be a tool used by both those who want to challenge injustices around the world and those who want to control access to information and suppress dissenting voices. Arguably, FM Radio and mobile phones have done more to promote and protect human rights in Africa than most other conventional methods. Innovative use of crowdsourcing by the Ushahidi.com website in Kenya has opened up a whole new set of possibilities for conflict prevention.
Technology will serve the purposes of those who control it – whether their goal is the promotion of rights or the undermining of rights. We must be mindful that in a world of asymmetric power, the ability of governments and other institutional actors to abuse and exploit technology will always be superior to the grass-roots activists, the beleaguered human rights advocate, the intrepid whistleblower and the individual whose sense
of justice demands that they be able to seek information or describe and document an injustice through these technologies.
In the debate surrounding Wikileaks, the dissemination of documents with apparent insufficient concern regarding the security of those exposed and the controversy surrounding the sexual offences case against Julian Assange made moral clarity difficult. It is not a case that allows for the moral clarity that – at least in retrospect – we associate with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. For those who find Wikileaks amoral, it is important to note that when those who should be speaking truth to power fail, those who live with the daily abuses of power may understandably celebrate Wikileaks. Their last hope for accountability is disclosure – however messy, embarrassing and apparently counter-productive it may be.
Nonetheless, these are amazing times for Amnesty International and other human rights activists who see the possibilities offered by technology for revealing the truth and holding debates that may evade state censorship and connect us across borders. We imagine the promise of living in a truly flat world in which all people have access to information in a meaningful way, in which all people can participate fully in decisions affecting their lives and in which no injustice goes unchallenged.
In 2011, Amnesty International celebrates its 50th anniversary. Described by a contemporary critic as “one of the larger lunacies of our time”, the movement was ignited by a simple call to action from British lawyer Peter Benenson, asking society to remember “The Forgotten Prisoner”. His passion was inspired when he learned of two Portuguese youths who had been imprisoned for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom.
Fortunately, for thousands of forgotten prisoners since, such “lunacy” not only prevailed, but continues, and we and our allies remain determined to promote the right to information and freedom of expression. Together we have successfully campaigned for the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience – some of whom, such as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf – are today heads of states. Together we helped bring about the November 2010 release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, demonstrating yet again how unrelenting persistence can bring positive change. Together we have saved countless lives – most recently two activists challenging security forces of a mining operation who were about to stage a confrontation in order to rid themselves of activists who were willing to risk their lives by speaking truth to power.
Fifty years on the world has changed dramatically, but the imperative for individuals to stand together to fight injustice and protect the rights of human beings, wherever they may be, has not.
This anniversary is a moment to imagine how much individuals working together can achieve. If each of Amnesty International’s members, more than 3 million people, reached out to just one more person to join our work for justice, we would double our impact. As we have seen in the Middle East and North Africa, the collective actions of individuals united in their quest for fundamental fairness can have the power to bring down repressive governments.
The need for individuals who value rights and freedoms to work in concert within and across borders remains great as governments persist in persecuting those who challenge abuse of power. While brave and determined individuals claim their rights and freedoms, governments, armed groups, corporations, and international institutions seek to evade scrutiny and accountability.
We draw inspiration from the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, the courage of Liu Xiaobo, the resilience of thousands of prisoners of conscience, the courage of countless human rights defenders and the tenacity, against all the odds, of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Tunisians who, confronted with the tragic story of Mohamed Bouazizi, determined to ensure his legacy through organizing against the abuse of power that led to his death. At Amnesty International, we commit ourselves to redouble our efforts to strengthen the global human rights movement and struggle to make sure no one else ever feels so alone in his or her despair as to see no way out.