12/31/2011 12:58 EST | Updated 02/29/2012 05:12 EST

The Stories That Touched Us in 2011


Charlie Angus/Alamy

Hindsight is 20/20. This is especially true of 24-hour news cycles, where breaking items are updated every moment and "hindsight" kicks in immediately after posting random observations to Twitter.

In the case of our column, we get a bit retrospective post-publication, and the feeling accumulates weekly.

This year, social media manifested as the missing link in human rights evolution -- a movement both epic in scale and condensed over time. The stories we covered in 2011 that continue to pull at our conscience all involve a struggle for rights. With new developments, onslaught or abandonment by media, they're also the stories that changed drastically in retrospect.

These are just a few of the human rights struggles our column championed this year, and stories we'll follow into 2012.

Shannen's dream

In April, we learned of the dire conditions in Attawapiskat. Months before the story galvanized headlines, before news anchors struggled to pronounce Attawapiskat on air, Shannen Koostachin sought to raise attention to her community's struggles.

The 13-year-old forfeited her grade eight class trip to travel to Parliament and petition Ottawa for a "safe, comfy school" to replace the dilapidated portables on her reserve. Shannen valiantly championed the cause, and we used this space to share her story.

Sadly, by the time of our writing, Shannen had passed away in a car accident in the spring of 2010, but her friends had adopted her fight for equitable First Nations education.

Shannen didn't live to see the Canadian Red Cross intervene in Attawapiskat.

It's both utterly shocking and a national embarrassment that the Red Cross has to take donations to mitigate developing-world conditions in Canada. Cultures clash as the small Cree community fights for autonomy, while Ottawa tries to inject themselves further into the rebuilding process -- more bureaucracy or more accountability depending on the viewpoint.

One can only hope that Attawapiskat will be a launching pad to renew connections between Canada's Indigenous people and the federal government.

The scourge of our time

There's still no cure for AIDS. But Canada had a chance to save potentially millions of lives with a single piece of legislation -- and the government blew it. In May, we wrote about Bill C-393, which would streamline the manufacturing process of more affordable, generic drugs for AIDS treatment in developing countries. The bill passed in the House of Commons, but stalled to death in the Senate when Parliament fell in March.

It's not just the disease, but policy and financial ineptitude that are potentially killing people.

Last month, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM) announced that donor countries failed to deliver on US$2.2 billion in promised funding, making it financially impossible for the Fund to offer new treatment grants over the next several years. The AIDS Fund has already saved seven million lives.

Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, publicly accused the foreign donors of murder; the funding cuts will kill millions of people, and the funding cutters know it.

Rain won't save East Africa

Late this summer, we spent six weeks in East Africa, reporting and working in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp as thousands staggered in daily from drought and famine stricken Somalia.

We'll never forget Ibrahim Ali, who arrived clutching his six-year-old son, now an only child. Ali buried his wife and three of his four children in makeshift graves by the roadside during his 21-day journey from southern Somalia to Kenya.

Aid agencies cited a fear of al-Shabaab-controlled aid as one significant factor preventing people in the West from donating to dying Somalis. It's our belief that hunger is always a case of human rights abuse -- it's underscored when war perpetuates famine.

Rain has begun to fall on East Africa. The UN has downgraded the situation from a famine to a so-called "emergency" throughout many of the affected regions in Somalia.

We fear that much of the world viewed the Horn of Africa crisis as a short-term drought, and will ignore the still-fragile region, forgetting the need for sustainable, long-term development.

Racial tensions run high between stateless people and Kenyan nationals; torture trauma is a psychological plague for refugees; the people of Dadaab face malnutrition and disease amid squalid living conditions.

Now, charities and international governments straddle that fine line drawn across all emergency aid projects: To provide a safety net in the form of free food, healthcare and education, while still ensuring that recipients have reason to return home.

"Our sincerest hope is that we are remembered as Women of the Revolution"

In March, we quoted Nawara Belal, who marched along with her Cairo-based feminist group and thousands more fearless women, against Hosni Mubarak's regime. Men and women rallied in Egypt's Tahrir Square, overlooking cultural norms in one of the world's most patriarchal nations to stand in solidarity and even embrace in joy for human rights.

Recent uprisings against Egypt's interim military rule have descended into violence, even death for some 14 protestors. Security forces are accused of targeting women with vengeful, brutal beatings. But the women have garnered international support, with harsh reprimands from the UN and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

We can't forget the successes won with the sacrifices from the women of the revolution.

Mubarak, charged with complicity in the killing of protestors, stands on trial, the first time in modern Arab history that the public is trying its own leader.

In December, Egypt held its first free elections in six decades.

A triumph for women's rights

We end this year's final column reflecting on a news story that makes us smile. Last year, we wrote how Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf graciously welcomed us for breakfast at her home, where she spoke of motherhood, and of raising a nation flattened by civil war. When Sirleaf took power in 2006, she made a public promise to fight corruption, and has since been a fearless (at times fiery dissident) leader.

Sirleaf was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with two female activist peers, for their peaceful fight for women's rights. Since the majority of Nobel Laureates could form an old boys' club, Sirleaf's is a win for women's rights on two accounts, and hopefully a sign of what the future holds.