12/30/2011 09:38 EST | Updated 02/28/2012 05:12 EST

The Biggest Story of 2011 for Me? The Arab Spring


My choice for the biggest story is one that's not actually over. Indeed, it may only be beginning. It is still unfolding, and the continuing repercussions, related events, and challenges are themselves part of what make it such an important story.

Call it the Arab Spring, the Arab Awakening, or the revolution in the Middle East and North Africa. However people choose to describe it, these are events that will shape (and shake up) a large part of the world of which Canada is a part for a long time to come. There are three key reasons why the Arab Spring is my top story.

The first is the simple but critical fact of people standing up to fear, risking life and limb, and refusing to be oppressed any longer. Watching so many people gathering strength from each other, and overcoming the very fear that allowed the oppression to happen has been, in itself, inspiring to people the world over.

The fact that in several cases the protesters achieved success (at least for now) is wonderful and captivating. It is wrong -- simply, unequivocally, wrong -- for any human to oppress any other, by force, fear, or by any other means that prevent freedom of speech, thought, movement, or opportunity. Unfortunately, it happens far too much all over the world. The fact that people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria have said, and are continuing to say "Enough!" is extraordinary and inspiring to all others who are oppressed in their own countries.

The second reason this story is big for me is because of the shift in the world's approach to international relations. For many, many years, the international world has been governed by a fundamental concept of sovereignty of state -- that each state has a right to tend to its own internal affairs. To a great extent, what happened within one country's borders was its own business.

Indeed, state sovereignty is a founding premise in the UN Charter. But that also meant the rest of the world would not meddle when governments and state authorities, within their own borders, oppressed their own people, or worse, killed them. Events in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Côte D'Ivoire, Sudan and others over time have spurred support for the Canadian-inspired concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) -- but states are generally loath (unless there is a distinct self-benefit) from telling others what to do inside their own borders.

Advances in communications technology and social media make it much harder to hide what goes on behind borders, and in turn, much harder for others around the world to ignore or pretend they don't know. In 2011, the messages and the images of these protests, and the brutal attempts to quash them, were transmitted both locally and around the world in unprecedented ways and volume; they inspired and encouraged more of those oppressed to fight, and this then inspired more people around the world. Much of the rest of the world cheered the protesters on -- and their governments, responding both to domestic and international pressures, were quick to criticize the oppressors.

From an international legal perspective, we have seen an unprecedented involvement by other countries in a coordinated, multilaterally-sanctioned way. Yes, we have seen such coordination in times of open war, responses to cross-border aggression, and need for territorial defence. But this was different. Neither Egypt nor Libya was attacking anyone else -- this time it was what they were doing to their own people that prompted international action.

This was new. For example, the UN Security Council invoked, for the very first time, the concept of R2P to authorize action in Libya. More recently we see the Arab League countries willing to call out Syria, to be openly critical, even imposing sanctions and forcing Syria to allow observers in. These events have, I hope, heralded a new era of collective responsibility -- of involvement that is not purely for self-defence or self-gain; is not to expand territories; is not (primarily) for political advantage, but rather, to protect innocent people and to encourage human rights.

The Arab Spring is still far from over. We hope for the best, but so much continues to evolve. Protest, revolution, even the successful overthrow of tyranny, is not the same as governance. Forcing a dictator out may be good, but it's what fills the remaining vacuum that will be so important, not only for the protesters, but for all of the people living in these places, for regional stability, and the world at large.

Who knows, this may be my top story of 2012 as well. We'll see.