2015: Isis spread terror, but 2015 was the year the world became more tolerant

Forget fear and loathing: here are 15 reasons to be cheerful when reflecting on 2015

Ian Birrell
Sunday 27 December 2015 19:14 GMT
A couple kiss after early results suggest an overwhelming majority in favour of the referendum on same-sex marriage, in Dublin, Ireland, 23 May 2015
A couple kiss after early results suggest an overwhelming majority in favour of the referendum on same-sex marriage, in Dublin, Ireland, 23 May 2015 (EPA)

Who will mourn the passing of 2015? It seems such a grim year filled with terrible tales of atrocities, extremism and terrorism. Mass murders in America, bigots unleashing bloody hell in Europe and that sickening mayhem in the Middle East makes the world seem daily more disturbing. It feels as if the past 12 months were dominated by death and destruction, even ending with reports of the Taliban ascendant again in Afghanistan.

But think again. Not just because it is important to remember that rabies kills many more people than terrorism, while liver cancer alone causes more deaths than murder and war combined. Nor because mankind is slowly pushing back extreme poverty, defeating preventable diseases and extending life expectancy around the planet. But because for all the gloom, there was much good to celebrate around the world last year.

So forget fear and loathing: here are 15 reasons to be cheerful when reflecting on 2015. Let us start this world tour in China, where one of the most repressive and morally revolting measures in recent history began to be loosened with termination of the one-child policy after 36 years. State control of child-bearing has not ended, since couples may still only have two children. But even this should lead to diminution of the forced sterilisations, infanticide and abortion of female foetuses that accompanied this cruel diktat.

In July we saw two cold wars start to thaw when America first oversaw a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, then days later quietly restored diplomatic ties with Cuba after 54 years. Both were significant breakthroughs given the depth of enmities, while the agreement with Tehran has potential to redefine strategies across the Middle East. It will form an important part of Barack Obama’s rather tattered foreign policy legacy.

Even in that conflict-ridden region, we should note the extraordinary numbers of refugees from Iraq and Syria absorbed by neighbouring states. More than one million Syrians alone are now in Lebanon, a nation of just 4.5m people riven with its own fissures, while another 633,000 are in Jordan and 2.2 million in Turkey. Such generosity underlines a pathetic response from many richer countries in Europe, including Britain – although Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s doors, and defiance in the face of criticism, also deserves praise.

Europe’s failure to tackle the refugee crisis in a humane manner was one of the key stories of 2015, exploited by far-right populists from Sweden to Greece. Yet despite this shameful political failure and consequent surge in xenophobia, voters in France ultimately thwarted the Front National in regional elections with tactical voting encouraged by mainstream politicians. This was a relief, not least given the terrorist traumas endured there this year.

Among the year’s most heartening events was much-maligned Nigeria joining Africa’s club of nations that have seen leaders ousted through the ballot box. Goodluck Jonathan’s gracious acceptance of defeat by Muhammadu Buhari in April’s election was a big moment for this nation corroded by corruption and Islamic terror. And it is worth pointing out to pessimists that the continent also saw a peaceful transfer of power in Burkina Faso.

Perhaps most amazing was seeing the streets of Rangoon turn red as supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her party winning 79 per cent of contested seats in November’s election. She is banned from the presidency and major challenges lie ahead. But it is only five years since the Nobel Prize-winner was in detention and the signs seem promising as Burma moves from military dictatorship towards democracy. Saudi Arabia also allowed women to vote in local elections, a tiny advance for this abhorrent regime (although they remain barred from driving, among continuing restrictions on their liberty).

There were also encouraging elections in South America as the “pink tide” turned against governments that have crippled their countries’ economies. In November the conservative businessman Mauricio Macri became President of Argentina, beating the Peronists who have bullied media, suppressed dissent and threatened the judiciary. Then the opposition coalition in Venezuela won a clear majority of National Assembly seats, bringing hopes the destructive Hugo Chavez-initiated era of 21st century Socialism is coming to an end.

Even more potentially transformative are talks in Colombia between the government and Farc rebels, with prospects of peace after a conflict that has lasted five decades, killed 220,000 people and displaced many more. Following three years of tense negotiations, a formula for peace has been reached with expectations of a formal deal by March. As the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says, this accord highlights how headlines distort perceptions since violence is in global decline.

There was also a significant step forward in tackling climate change in Paris this month. It is easy to be cynical about the lack of binding agreement and limited nature of the deal, but the United Nations conference revealed genuine resolve to work together to confront the planet’s biggest long-term problem. It delivered a framework to ensure countries keep promises, alongside commitments to spend more on development of renewable energies.

And finally, for all the hatred displayed by religious fundamentalists, the world is becoming more tolerant. Gay marriage became law in the United States and, almost as importantly, in Ireland (a nation joining the ranks of progressive nations on drug reform too). Among other countries moving forward on this front was Mozambique, which legalised same-sex adult relationships and bucked a nasty trend seen in some other parts of Africa. There are 17 fewer countries than 10 years ago outlawing such relationships. And in another healthy advance, transgender rights are moving up the agenda.

There is no doubt 2015 has seen its share of grim events. There is too much bloodshed and conflict, too much greed and corruption, too many despots destroying lives and devastating communities, too many racial and religious divisions, and too little humanity in the darkest corners of the world. So yes, there is cause for despair, but there was also much to cheer as we reflect on the year that passes this week.

Twitter: @ianbirrell

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