Taking Action: How Activists Can Make a Difference with Yang Jianli, Hillel Neuer, Jacob Mchangama, Mu Sochua

A panel including visiting Chinese dissident and former political prisoner, Dr. Yang Jianli; Danish lawyer and founder of a Copenhagen-based think-tank focussing on freedom of speech and the rule of law, Jacob Mchangama; outspoken activist and opposition politician from Cambodia, Mu Sochua; international lawyer and Executive Director of United Nations Watch, Hillel Neuer, address the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full Transcript


Hillel Neuer: There are some people at the UN who are doing good work like the Special Rapporteur for arbitrary detention or freedom of religion, and they need to be recognized and encouraged. The Rapporteur on Iran is another one of them just to give an example. And, of course, the Commission of Inquiry on North Korea, and there are many others. 

That said, coming back to the things that you said, and the things that I mentioned, there are real problems. The fact that all these dictators were just elected and others the year before; Venezuela is a member of the Human Rights Council. We heard from the aunt of Leopoldo Lopez. These are real problems, and no one is speaking out against them. 

You know, when we launched our campaign today, some of the diplomatic community were very upset and thought what we were doing is wrong and absurd, and that it’s against the purpose of the council. And, frankly, I cannot think of what is more contrary to the purpose of the council than electing those whose whole goal is to undermine the system. Countries that don’t have a blot on the system, countries where the blot is the system. And these are real problems, and people do not sufficiently address them here. And you know, part of the problem is the culture. One EU state had to be elected recently. And in order to be elected, they had to go to the very large non-aligned movement, which includes many notorious human rights abusers. And this EU Foreign Minister in New York pledged on the eve of the election, he said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I believe in cooperation, that the Human Rights Council is about cooperation.” And cooperation is a wonderful word, learned as children, we all should cooperate. But what the word meant to that group, in that context, at that time, was silence in the face of oppression; that you guys, knowing that he was speaking to a room of many human rights abusers, you can do what you want and don’t worry, don’t fret. that we will encourage action, emergency sessions against you, we are going to look the other way. That was the code. That was the veiled message, and they got it too well. So to be elected, you often have to defer to the worst abusers. And these problems need to be addressed. 

A few questions. Yang Jianli, since you didn’t speak for too long and I want to, as I promised, ask you a few questions. The first is if you could say a word about Wang Binjiang. Why don’t you do that and then I have another question. 

Yang Jianli: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share with you the story of Wang Binjiang. Wang Binjiang is one of the founders of the Overseas Chinese Democracy Movement. 

He went back to China, actually, he was on the way to go back to China, through Vietnam when he got kidnapped in Vietnam in 2002, then taken back to China, and later sentenced to life imprisonment.

He is a medical doctor, he received his doctorate from McGill University in Canada. And as we speak, is languishing in solitary confinement in China. He has been in solitary confinement for more than 12 years. 12 years. So just beyond imagination.

So we continue to promote his case and ask, especially those who happen to be, you know, in the post of power, that it requires a high level of engagement, to resolve his issue. So we really urge the officials of various governments and officials of the UN to pay attention to his case, and also to engage with China for his freedom.

Hillel Neuer: Thank you. I want to ask you one more question and then and then ask a panel question. You were a political prisoner. How long were you in prison for?

Yang Jianli: Five years.

Hillel Neuer: Five years. You don’t talk about it very much. And when we ask you to sometimes, it’s not something you’d like to talk about. And maybe that’s personal, maybe it’s cultural. You don’t like to talk about yourself. I know that. But I think it’s very important for people to know that you did go through that horrific experience. And when you speak about Wang Binjiang, maybe you didn’t have the same experience he did, but you know what it is to be a political prisoner. We heard from Professor Cotler at the beginning of the session. You know, here in Geneva at the United Nations, we’re not on the ground, we’re on the ground at the UN, we’re in the business of words. We give speeches, we make statements, we make press communications, we have coalitions, we have conferences, and we try to put a spotlight. Some people say: Why does it matter? You are a political prisoner. Do these things matter? Do things that are said here matter for someone sitting in prison thousands of miles away in an authoritarian regime? How does it matter? What should people do?

Yang Jianli: My case is a very good example of how the international community’s pressure resolves the issue of prisoner of conscience. I went to prison in 2002. I was first detained in solitary confinement for nearly 15 months. During that time, I had no information about what’s going on in the outside world. I almost lost hope. You know, being there, one can easily lose hope, because one cannot help thinking things like “oh, my friends have already forgotten me. All my family has abandoned me.” So I almost collapsed until the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detainment, Illegal Detainment, charged that my case was illegal detention, and made the decision public. And also with the effort of the US Congress; both houses passed the resolution on my case. And a lot of international rights groups worked for my case. And the Harvard community, Berkeley community all worked for my case. And with this pressure, the Chinese government agreed to let my legal counsel come to visit me in prison. I learned the outpouring support I received while I was in solitary confinement. And I was encouraged to stand up, to defend my rights and also defend the rights of my image. And after that, my prison situation improved gradually with the pressure from the international community and I received a sentence of five years in prison, which came as a surprise to everybody. Because without international pressure, I would easily be sentenced to 10 years or 15 years, even life imprisonment as my friend Wang Binjiang. 

And I‘ll just tell you some numbers. My case really required, I think any other case, requires high level engagement. And it depends on how strong the various democracies commit themselves to human rights resolutions, like the one I was involved in. It took President Bush to talk to his Chinese counterpart three times. Secretary Coltan Paul, once he soon left office, Secretary Rice took the office, she read my case to her Chinese counterpart three times. The US Ambassador to China raised my case, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, how many times, guess. Three times? four times? Ten times? More than 60 times.

Hillel Neuer: Were you a US citizen?

Yang Jianli: I’m not a US citizen. 

Hillel Neuer: So he intervened. You have a doctorate from a US university. 

Yang Jianli: So this example just shows you: China, as I said yesterday, is not immune to the pressure about human rights. It may take longer than we want it to. But eventually, everything we do matters here. And everything we do will have some effect in China.

Hillel Neuer: Thank you. And it’s not just if it gets to the level of presidents and secretaries of state and ambassadors. Other things make a difference as well? Things that happen here, NGOs?

Yang Jianli: Exactly. The beauty of a democracy is that the grassroot movement will get the politicians to do something. My case did not begin from [the] top. Actually, it began from grassroots movement. My family, my friends, Ciara Cancer, my classmates at Harvard, spearheaded a global effort on my behalf, published op-eds and press conferences at every critical moment of my imprisonment. This generates pressure on the US government, then the US government, in turn generates pressure on the Chinese government. So that’s the beauty of democracy. So no matter [whether] you’re a government actor or non-government actor, what you do matters.

Hillel Neuer: Thank you. Well, words matter. Words matter. Words are father to deed. 

Perhaps the final question. I don’t think we have much more time. Jacob spoke about the idea of how human rights is sometimes portrayed as a form of cultural imperialism. And we know it’s a phenomenon. We hear it at the United Nations, and probably also in the region, that when people demand human rights, universal human rights, invoke the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, some regimes respond and say: well, you do things your way, we do things our way; we have cultural differences. You live in Asia, you’re in Cambodia, is that a subject that comes up? Is there that tension between universal human rights and governments that have invoked exceptions, cultural exceptions, on why they shouldn’t be held accountable to what we regard as fundamental human rights? And I ask, you’re someone who’s in Cambodia and you’re also part of Liberal International,  and so you belong to the liberal idea.

Mu Sochua: This morning, I was watching TV. And I could not believe it. Because in Uganda this morning, they passed the law on anti-gay marriages for life, you take life. And then the prime minister or president of Uganda said, “Oh, if the West thinks that gay people have rights. That’s for the West, but not for Uganda.” I say, Wow, incredible. 

But this really is always the word of dictators, it’s always the words of leaders who should not lead anymore. And that is why it is important to us to really start working and putting seeds of democracy at the village level. We, as opposition of Cambodia, why do we all of a sudden, in five years time  – now we’ve been fighting for 15 years, almost 18 years. But the last five years were incredible. Because we said: “we can’t take it no more.”  We went and we campaigned and we campaigned that we campaigned. And we now have a Cambodia Spring. It comes from what? It comes from us taking every day, going from door to door, and we call ourselves the Barefoot Politicians. Why? It is important to go to our village people and say, “You know what? Human rights, the rights to have land is fundamental, whether it is in the US, whether it is wherever it is fundamental. And don’t let this dictator tell you that he can take care of your land for him, because he’s the leader. Don’t let this dictator tell you that that is the US; that is in America. Don’t listen to this opposition.” 

And I happen to be an American citizen, I have dual citizenship. But you know, because of that, I say just because of that, I had a chance to be exposed; I had the privilege to be exposed to the fundamental right, the right to speak, the right this think, the right to act, and that must be transferred to the people of Cambodia, to the people of the world. And I will retire soon. Not from politics, but from running again. I want to spend my time mentoring the young generation, this generation of activists, and to think with them to say you don’t have to take 10, 15, 20 years. But we have to start young, at a young age, and to say everything is about human rights. And everything is about politics.

Hillel Neuer: Wow. Well, I think whatever young generation gets to benefit from your mentoring, we’ll be exceedingly lucky to benefit from your knowledge, your commitment and your passion. So with that, we conclude the sixth annual Geneva Summit. I want to thank you all for being here and those who are watching on live webcast around the world. Thank you all for participating. And I hope you’ll take some of the messages you heard and at least commit to some actions on some issues. You can’t do everything on everything but commit to some actions and make a difference. So thank you very much. 

Speakers and Participants

Mu Sochua

Former opposition member of the Cambodian Parliament

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China


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