Facebook and other social media services have created opportunities for dissidents and revolutionaries to organise and voice their opposition. But those in power have discovered that they, too, can use the internet, in their case to stifle freedom of speech. The dream of all dictators is to know as much about you as Google does, says Jacob Mchangama, a Danish human-rights lawyer.
Authoritarian states have also learned how to use the language of human rights to legitimise their oppressive tactics, for instance by claiming to defend religious groups. But their tools of abuse—violence, torture and censorship—remain depressingly familiar. The grand tradition of making opponents “disappear,” perfected by the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s, is still flourishing today. In Bahrain doctors and nurses who treated protesters injured by security forces have vanished. Also in Bahrain, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the former head of the Centre for Human Rights and a fierce critic of the regime, was seized by armed men in the middle of the night. A month later he reappeared, tortured and is now facing trial.
Post-revolutionary leaders can find it all too easy to slip into the abusive habits of their predecessors. In Oslo Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger, talked of her fear that the transitional government will use the methods of the ousted regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. When fresh demonstrations broke out in Tunisia in early May, police used tear gas and live ammunition. Journalists were beaten and had their equipment seized.
Nor do governments have a monopoly on violence. From Jamaica to South Africa, gays and lesbians continue to be the victims of vicious intolerance. Lesbians are raped in an effort to “correct” their sexuality. At the Oslo conference the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays, the first group of its kind on the Caribbean island, said it was remarkable that only one of its founders had been murdered in the past decade, such is the violence typically directed at its people.
Yet there was also brighter news in Oslo. As those in power become more inventive in their clampdowns, so do their opponents. Some have started to help victims make their experiences public. In Malawi children who have been raped or forced into marriage are encouraged to write letters to Radio Timweni, a national news programme, which then interviews them. In the age of Facebook and Google, the truth remains the most powerful weapon of all.
Excerpt, Human-rights abuses: Nothing new under the sun, Economist, May 14, 2011, at 76