Men take to the streets to protest the government during the uprising in Egypt. Photo by: Rowan El Shimi / CC BY-NC-SA

The past year has seen ordinary people lead peaceful uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to demand change in their countries’ oppressive regimes and repressive environments. And in more ways than one, social media played a huge role in mobilizing these movements and making the protesters’ voices heard around the world.

That is why on Human Rights Day 2011, the United Nations is celebrating what has been “an extraordinary year for human rights” and how social media has helped create human rights defenders out of ordinary citizens.

“Millions of people decided the time had come to claim their rights. They took to the streets and squares, and demanded change,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a video message for Human Rights Day 2011. “Many found their voices through social media — they used the Internet and instant messaging to inform, inspire and mobilize supporters to seek the basic human rights to which we are all entitled.”

As part of events lined up for this year’s celebration, UNHCR has launched a social media campaign around the theme “Celebrate Human Rights.” The agency has produced videos available on various social media and networking sites, and launched an interactive microsite CelebrateHumanRights.org.

Pillay is also set to take questions from social media users at 9:30 a.m. EST on Dec. 9, while Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kang Kyung-wha will moderate an event in Geneva, Switzerland, on social medial and human rights. The public can join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #CelebrateRights and through the UNHCHR’s Facebook page.

But Human Rights Day 2011 is not only about celebrations. As Pillay has noted, it is also a day to mourn and honor human rights defenders who risked their lives in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and other countries.

Various donor governments, meanwhile, are marking the day with commitments to support the advancement and protection of human rights in the developing world.

Australia said it is providing 3.7 million Australian dollars ($3.7 million) to fund 41 organizations promoting and protecting human rights in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. U.S. President Barack Obama, for his part, has elevated the protection of gay rights abroad as part of U.S. foreign policy.

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About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.