Judging by first appearances, 2011 has been a pretty good year for the gatekeepers of democracy. The Tunisian revolution that erupted a year ago triggered similar uprisings across the Arab world and led to the downfall of Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan dictators. TIME magazine recently named The Protester as their Person of the Year.
David Cameron was quick to support these protesters, leading the NATO mission in Libya and claiming in August that "today the Arab spring is a step further away from oppression and dictatorship and a step closer to freedom and democracy". After Muammar Gadaffi's death, he joked about "celebrating the death of a devil."
Western leaders are always eager to champion democracy - when it suits them. A few days after sending British troops into Iraq, Tony Blair claimed that "brutal states like Iraq" "hate our way of life, our freedom, our democracy." Yet he maintained an amicable relationship with Gadaffi and met him five times in the fourteen months before the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.
During the past few days the media has been pre-occupied with the implications of Kim Jong-il's death. His passing has inevitably provided a news hook for features on North Korea's turbulent history; its poor human rights record; speculation around Kim Jong-un; and trivialising references to both Team America and Kim Jong-Il Looking At Things.
Meanwhile, we have been reminded of how lucky we are to have the freedom to access such information - limited as it may be about North Korea - and to make such jokes. According to Human Rights Watch's 2011 world report:
"There is no organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Arbitrary arrest, detention, lack of due process, and torture and ill-treatment of detainees remain serious and endemic problems. North Korea also practices collective punishment for various anti-state offenses, for which it enslaves hundreds of thousands of citizens in prison camps, including children. The government periodically publicly executes citizens for stealing state property, hoarding food, and other "anti-socialist" crimes."
Disturbing footage of Koreans mourning their former leader indicates how brainwashed they have become. But how much do they know of the regime's evils, and how much is the state-run media trying to amplify their undying loyalty as much as possible to the outside world? Unlike the aftermath of Gadaffi's death, nobody is celebrating; rather, the international community is concerned as to what successor Kim Jong-Un - about whom we know so little - will bring. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed hope that North Korea follow a "path of peace" - one that includes "respecting the rights of its people". It is clear that we haven't seen everything from the Kim dynasty.
Fittingly, Kim Jong-Il's death fell within 24 hours of that of Vaclav Havel, first President of the Czech Republic and for many Eastern Europeans a symbol of resistance against the communist regimes that stifled them for decades. Havel, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has continued to speak out against the dictatorship of Belarus; a former playwright himself, he was a proud supporter of the Belarus Free Theatre which, under the police state, is granted no formal registration.
The last few days have seen communism-v-capitalism wars of words on the internet - with many under the impression that socialism equates the atrocious living conditions of North Korea - and we seem to have revisited a Cold War-era ideology. This represents a significant step at the end of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 - the event that dictated international politics of the past decade - when, cyclically, Osama Bin Laden has been killed and troops have pulled out of Iraq.
But we are outlandishly privileged to even have the freedom to discuss such notions as ideologies, international politics, or human rights. As quickly as the Arab spring escalated, the media has retreated from Libya; similarly, coverage of this year's civil war in the Ivory Coast has been completely dropped by mainstream media. While Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama pat themselves on the back over the liberation of Tripoli, the recent resurgence in Egypt of military brutality is proof that these rebellions are far from over. Ousting a dictator is one thing, but achieving stability is another.
We must remember that we have a long way to go even to reach the first step. Both politicians and mainstream media seems to have glossed over protests throughout other Middle Eastern and Arab states including Morocco, Iraq, Kuwait, as well as intensified revolt in Yemen, Bahrain, and, of course, Syria.
Havel's death indicates the time that has passed since the Cold War politics of West versus East and capitalism versus communism. However, uprisings around the world and the death of Kim Jong-Il remind us that many parts of the world have yet to experience democracy.
Blair's cosiness with Gadaffi, as well as Cameron's reluctance to send troops to Syria - where the UN estimates that 5000 civilians have been killed this year - indicates that perhaps our leaders aren't as committed to achieving this goal as they would have us think.
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