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High Commissioner's message

2011 has been an extraordinary year for human rights.

A year when a single word, embodying the thwarted quest of a single impoverished young man in a remote province of Tunisia, struck a chord which swiftly rose to a crescendo.

Within days it had rolled into the capital, Tunis, with such a roar that, in just four weeks it knocked the foundations from under an entrenched and apparently invincible authoritarian regime. This precedent, and its radical revision of the art of the possible, quickly reverberated into the streets and squares of Cairo, followed one after another by towns and cities all across the region, and, ultimately, in different forms, across the world. 

That word, that quest, was for “dignity.”

In Tunis and Cairo, Benghazi and Dara’a, and later on – albeit in a very different context – in Madrid, New York, London, Santiago and elsewhere, millions of people from all walks of life have mobilized to make their own demands for human dignity.   They have dusted off the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and demanded “freedom from fear and freedom from want,” the Declaration’s shorthand for all the civil, political, social economic and cultural rights it contains.  They have reminded governments and international institutions alike that health care, and education and housing, and access to justice, are not commodities for sale to the few, but rather rights, guaranteed to everyone, everywhere, without discrimination.

In 2011, the very idea of “power” shifted.  During the course of this extraordinary year, it was wielded not just by mighty institutions in marble buildings, but increasingly by ordinary men, women, and even children, courageously standing up to demand their rights. In the Middle East and North Africa, many thousands have paid with their lives, and tens of thousands have been injured, besieged, tortured, detained, and threatened, but their newfound determination to demand their rights has meant they are no longer willing to accept injustice.

Although we must mourn the lives of many, including -- just in recent days – during the remorseless assault on various towns and cities in Syria, in renewed excessive use of force in Cairo and in efforts to subvert the elections taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we also have cause to celebrate.

The message of this unexpected global awakening was carried in the first instance not by the satellites of major media conglomerates, or conferences, or other traditional means – although these all played a role -- but by the dynamic and irrepressible surge of social media.
The results have been startling.

By the end of this first year of the global awakening, we have already seen peaceful and successful elections in Tunisia and, earlier this week, in Egypt -- where the turn-out for the first truly democratic elections there for decades has exceeded everybody’s expectations, despite the shocking upsurge in violence in Tahrir Square.

Today, as in the past, editorial and financial factors – as well as access – determine whether or not protests, and repression of protests, are televised or reported in newspapers around the world. But, wherever it happens, you can now guarantee it will be tweeted on Twitter, posted on Facebook, broadcast on Youtube, and uploaded onto the internet. Governments no longer hold the ability to monopolize the dissemination of information and censor what it says.

Instead we are seeing real lives in real struggle, broadcast in real time – and it is in many ways an exhilarating sight.

In sum, in 2011, human rights went viral.

On Human Rights Day 2011, I urge everyone, everywhere to join in the internet and social media campaign my office has launched to help more people know, demand and defend their human rights. It is a campaign that should be maintained so long as human rights abuses continue.

Navi Pillay