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Richard Falk
Richard Falk
Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.
The best and the worst of 2011
Princeton University professor reviews the Arab Spring, occupy movement, climate change and Palestine's statehood bid.
Last Modified: 06 Jan 2012 17:35
The Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations was one of 2011's most poignant events [GETTY/GALLO]

Santa Barbara, California - The year 2011 was an exciting and pivotal in many respects, although its main outcomes will remain inconclusive for years to come. 

Undoubtedly, the most dramatic moments of the year were associated with the many remarkable happenings that collectively became known as the Arab Spring - a complex, varied, and even contradictory phenomenon that did not occur in a historical vacuum.

There were many antecedent events, as well as prior heroes and victims, known and unknown, and numerous identified and unidentified villains.

Mohamed Bouazizi's extraordinary self-immolation on December 17, 2010 in the interior Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid provided a catalyst that will never be forgotten by those longing for justice and change. His suicide was much more than a personal tragedy, although this sad ending of a young besieged life was itself a most sorrowful occurrence: Bouazizi's death awakened the Tunisian public to an intolerable set of national conditions that pertained to the whole society.

Read Al Jazeera's top ten stories for 2011

With explosive spontaneity, Bouazizi's tragic death led quickly and surprisingly to the fall of the dictatorial and corrupt 23-year-old regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a mere five weeks later, a startling course of events that provided a spark for volcanic action in Egypt and the entire region.

The brave and transformative Egyptian demonstrations of January 2011, centred in Tahrir Square, contributed to the world many images of populist energy and courage associated with a political awakening of vivid and massive proportions. The fall of Mubarak in Egypt inspired people throughout the region and eventually the world.

Along with the surprising developments in Tunisia and Egypt, regimes that had been regarded as ultra-stable by their Western backers, came the exposure of several distortions embedded in prevalent Orientalist teachings that claimed Arabs had a slave mentality.

In effect, these teachings dictated that oppressed Arabs were consigned to their unhappy fates because they lacked the will or capacity to embark upon political undertakings needed to challenge unjust political structures. They were portrayed as reconciled to their subservience, and as lacking the social imagination that insists on the dignity of ordinary people and demands justice for them.

Challenges ahead

In the sharpest contrast, the Tahrir political spectacle exhibited an Arab population ready to risk death and harsh imprisonment in order to achieve freedom, human rights, democracy, and an equitable economic order.

These were inspiring uprisings that achieved unbelievably successful results and toppled tyrants long entrenched at the pinnacles of state power. Many participants and commentators believed that these extraordinary uprisings were accomplishing revolutionary results by overthrowing the old regimes and thereby transforming the political setting.

Unfortunately, such enthusiasm was a disheartening exaggeration, and remains premature.

Tunisia seems to be moving forward toward the realisation of its revolutionary promise, although even-handed progress on its road of political reconstruction is slow, uncertain, and replete with twists and turns. Tunisia has not yet experienced what could be fairly called a revolutionary outcome, although it is so far free from a counter-revolutionary backlash. At this time the overall outlook for Tunisia remains exciting and positive.A revolutionary process implies radically transforming the political, economic, and social structures in order to produce just and democratic societies. Such work has yet to be done anywhere in the Arab world, and it will not be easy or be accomplished without overcoming formidable and desperate resistance from beleaguered governmental, local and international elites that have long benefitted from the old regime and would stand lose from genuine political reform.

The same cannot be said for Egypt, which is gripped by a series of deadly unresolved struggles that leaves its future very much in doubt. It makes us wonder whether 2012 can bring an Egyptian outcome that is, at best, outwardly reformist while remaining inwardly regressive. It would be a mistake to ignore counter-revolutionary manoeuvres and horizons, abetted by external actors that never privately welcomed the Arab Spring and would welcome the restoration of the old regimes if they were given new faces and a political style that was more superficially congenial with democratic procedures.

And yet many Egyptians continue to struggle on behalf of a revolutionary future. Despite the violence of the Cairo regime without Mubarak, they returned in late 2011 to Tahrir Square for a second cycle of demonstrations.


The show of unrestrained state violence and cruelty used to crush this renewal of popular demands for democracy, civilian governance, and justice was a reminder that the overthrow of Mubarak was the beginning rather than the end of a long and difficult struggle to shape the country's political future.

The Egyptian army, which seemed to greet the fall of Mubarak with a sigh of relief, now is showing itself to be intensely anti-democratic and hostile to fundamental social and economic reforms that might threaten their privileges, even though they are desperately needed if Egyptian democracy is to become a reality.

The domestic situation is also complicated by growing tensions between secularists and Islamists as to what sort of role Islam should play in Egypt, which are susceptible to manipulation by malevolent outsiders. Although each country in the region is experiencing the Arab Spring in its own way, the form of the Egyptian unfolding, for better or worse, is the one most likely to exert a significant influence beyond its borders.

It must also be admitted that the Arab Spring has already produced its share of extremely disappointing results: Uprisings generated an escalation of oppression in Bahrain, a despondent resignation in Saudi Arabia and Algeria, a destructive and very violent NATO intervention in Libya,  a situation of unresolved chaos and violence in Yemen, and a series of inconclusive bloody encounters in Syria.

Occupy Movement

Among the most extraordinary of extra-regional impacts of the events in the Arab world was the totally unanticipated Occupy Movement that began on Wall Street and spread with the speed of an uncontrollable wild fire to cities throughout the United States and then the world. The word "Occupy" was given a radically transformed meaning through this movable feast that sought to reclaim political space through nonviolent tactics that confronted the established order, particularly with regards to the excesses of capitalism and financial institutions.

The movement was indistinct in its contours and goals, and seemingly dedicated to the realisation of democratic values on a global scale. But it lacked confidence in the ability of conventional politics, such as elections, political parties, institutional law-making, and governmental policies, to achieve desirable ends.

The creativity of the movement was embodied in its radical reliance on pure democracy to manage its own collective behaviour, giving equality of participation the highest priority.The movement was indistinct in its contours and goals, and seemingly dedicated to the realisation of democratic values on a global scale. But it lacked confidence in the ability of conventional politics, such as elections, political parties, institutional law-making, and governmental policies, to achieve desirable ends.

In-depth coverage of the global movement

So far, the Occupy Movements have lacked a clear agenda of substantive initiatives and demands, remained leaderless, and operated without a programme or even a consistent spokesperson. Rather, the movements deferred to the daily needs and wishes of its militants camped out in dozens of city squares and parks.

Whether this represents the first stage of a new revolutionary politics capable of both challenging the modern capitalist state and of transforming neoliberal globalisation into a robust realisation of global democracy is very uncertain at present, but may become clearer throughout 2012.

At the very least, the political imagination of resisters in the West to injustice has been temporarily lifted from the doldrums of passivity and despair. The idea that popular discontent need not await the outcome of normal politics is again credible. Such politics can move to occupy and maybe - just maybe - stay around long enough to mount a political challenge that shakes the foundations of what was triumphantly dubbed ‘market-oriented constitutionalism' at the end of the Cold War.  

We should begin to ask ourselves whether we are witnessing the birth pangs of what I have called "anarchism without anarchism". Or is this just a political dance that will continue only so long as the music plays?

Palestinian statehood

There were many other important happenings in 2011, some of which were encouraging, foreboding, and at times ambiguous. Only a few can be mentioned.

First, there was the speech given by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the UN General Assembly on September 25, putting forward a clear official argument for the first time for an acceptance of Palestinian statehood and sovereignty by the United Nations. The forcefulness of the language used by President Abbas exceeded expectations, and was especially impressive in light of the intense campaign of intimidation mounted by Israeli officials and their American counterparts to warn the Palestinians of dire consequences if they persisted with this political initiative.

The speech also was political theatre at its best: It displayed the solidarity of most governments with the Palestinian effort to escape the ordeals of occupation, refugee status, and pervasive exploitation. Abbas's words were greeted with explosive applause that no other head of state received at last year's session of the General Assembly.

As might be expected given the varied conditions of deprivation, not every Palestinian welcomed the PA initiative. There were some well-grounded anxieties that any establishment of Palestinian statehood at this time would involve a tacit acceptance of Israeli "facts on the ground", including settlements, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, which would sacrifice inalienable Palestinian rights.

Some Palestinians also worried that such an international acceptance of the PA would inevitable side-line the parent representative body, the PLO, serving as a prelude to bargaining away the rights of Palestinian refugees and exiles. It might thereby exclude Hamas from any representational role, which would effectively deny the people of Gaza any opportunity to participate in the diplomacy designed to control their future.

Encouragingly, in October, the PA followed up Abbas's bold speech by seeking and gaining membership as a state in UNESCO by an overwhelming  vote of 107-14, despite a barrage of punitive threats and responses by Washington and Tel Aviv (US is committed to withholding 22 per cent of the UNESCO budget for the coming year).

Misleading Israeli propaganda hides policies and patterns of governmental conduct that have long been abusive toward the non-Jewish Palestinian minority in Israel that numbers about 1.4 million, or about 20 per cent of the total population.

On December 13 the Palestinian flag was raised at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris as Palestine became the 195th member of the organisation. This play of forces at UNESCO is a microcosm of worldwide political sentiments favourable to the Palestinian struggle.

Despite this victory, it now appears that the PA has again lost its nerve, and is retreating to Ramallah. It seems that the PA will make no further effort to gain recognition as a state by the Security Council or General Assembly, or attempt to be accepted as a member of other UN institutions, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. If this retreat materialises, it will encourage the Palestinian people to believe that only politics from below can achieve emancipatory results.

We must also not lose sight of existential Palestinian hardships and suffering - something that the people living under occupation or confined in Gaza or refugee camps experience every hour of every day.

These miserable conditions experienced by Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza have persisted for decades, and there is no end in sight. Israel continues to expand its settlements in defiance of both international law and world public opinion, and goes on insisting on its acceptance as "a Jewish state" despite its claim of being the only democratic country in the region that treats its citizens on a non-discriminatory basis. This misleading Israeli propaganda hides policies and patterns of governmental conduct that have long been abusive toward the non-Jewish Palestinian minority in Israel that numbers about 1.4 million, or about 20 per cent of the total population.

What the Palestinian people endured in 2011 was mainly experienced as a dismal confirmation of continuity. Perhaps, the Abbas abortive effort at the UN will seem in 2012 to have sounded the death knell of diplomacy from above as the way forward for the Palestinian people. In its place will grow an increasing reliance on various forms of borderless and nonviolent politics from below.

At present, the ever strengthening global solidarity movement encourages such a shift in emphasis. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) is presently the clearest and most encouraging expression of this Palestinian move away from inter-governmental frameworks of conflict solution. And for BDS maybe 2012 will be the year that sanctions come to reinforce the stunning successes already achieved with respect to boycotts and divestment.

Climate change's ticking clock

In 2011, the climate change clock continued to tick. Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising far above safe levels, despite the scientific community's warnings that the failure to regulate emissions causes present harm of a severe sort that threatens to get much worse in the years and decades ahead.

Without adjustments prior to catastrophic events, ecological and civilisational collapse could make a nightmare of the near future for all peoples living on the planet.

By the time such warnings are likely to be heeded, most likely because the damage has become so widespread and manifest, it may well be too late, as the effects of a carbon build-up cannot be reversed after certain thresholds are crossed.

Already extreme weather in the form of storms, tornados, floods, and droughts have brought devastation and suffering to many societies in the world, especially those most vulnerable due to their geography or poverty. The early effects of global warning have been most severely experienced in sub-Saharan Africa, where 33 of the 48 least developed countries are situated.

The annual UN conferences on climate change have run up against a stonewall of geopolitical irresponsibility, led by the US refusal to allow any framework of regulation to come into being that imposes obligations on states, burdens the private sector, and questions the cult of consumerism. The EU seems ready to offer the world a more constructive approach to climate change, but whether it can rally enough political support to impose controls on the principal emitters of carbon dioxide remains doubtful.

 It is crucial that those seeking a just future for humanity do not neglect the challenge of climate change, which is less tangible and immediate in its harmful impact than other concerns but no less deadly. Without adjustments prior to catastrophic events, ecological and civilisational collapse could make a nightmare of the near future for all peoples living on the planet.

Nuclear meltdown in Japan

The meltdown and damage at the Daichi Fukushima nuclear reactor complex initiated by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 are a foreshadowing of what can happen anywhere in the world.

For Japan to experience "a second Hiroshima" both deepens the tragedy and is testimony to a sad irony of history. It also challenges Japan and the world to find safer alternatives to nuclear energy to meet the demands of society, and raises questions about the sustainability of consumer-based modernity with its high per capita energy demand.

For other countries, especially the United States, the unmonitored huge energy requirements needed to maintain 21st century military establishments is a further aggravating circumstance, with many secondary harmful effects, including accident-prone deep sea oil drilling and the attempted conversion of environmentally devastating tar sands into usable forms of energy.

Fukushima exhibited the dire consequences of natural catastrophe abetted by human error and wrongdoing in the form of corporate mendacity relied upon to hide risks from the public and governmental complicity in issuing false reassurances about the extent of the damage and the degree of exposure of the Japanese population to lethal doses of radioactivity in water, food, and air.

The Iranian Question

Equally disturbing were unacceptably belligerent moves by Israel and the United States threatening to wage war against Iran. This appetite for waging war against Muslim countries is making the projected clash of civilisations a self-fulfilling prophesy as it becomes established as an undeniable historical reality.

In the first decade of this century the West has already intervened militarily in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya in addition to gearing up for war against Iran; it is even threatening to use force in Syria and mounting deadly drone attacks in Pakistan. In all these post-9/11 encounters there was no serious claim of self-defence and no UN mandate except in Libya, where a limited protective authority to use force was approved by the UN Security Council and later improperly converted by NATO into an instrument to sway the internal play of forces in an internal struggle within Libya.

These were each unlawful wars that inflicted devastation, heavy casualties, and massive displacement on the target societies. Each was in its essence an imperial war fought far from the imperial homelands, and each represented a strategic failure by the imperial power - a definite signal to the world of imperial decline that was further confirmed by economic troubles at home and the rise of extremist oppositional parties with highly irresponsible agendas. For instance, all of the Republican Party presidential candidates are "climate sceptics" who defy the scientific consensus, which should be understood as a blatant disregard for scientific evidence and a flight from reality.

All in all, 2011 will be remembered as a seminal year, principally due to innovative political uprisings that shook the foundations of established orders. More subtly, 2011 also highlighted a series of challenges that will not be resolved for a long time - challenges that seem to exceed all acceptable forms of addressing them for a world composed of sovereign states.

Two major effects are observable. The first is the adoption of a widespread "politics of denial", used to divert attention from the ticking bombs of worsening conditions associated with these unmet challenges. And the second is the exhilarating realisation that toppling oppressive structures of government in the Arab world has already moved beyond the realm of the possible. It has achieved more than could have been dreamed of in 2010, and has produced some hope that a politics of impossibility may yet lead to an equally unimaginable global dawn.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @rfalk13

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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