The Future of Liberal Democracy with Yang Jianli, Hillel Neuer, Javier El-Hage, Fouzia Elbayed, Subhas Gujadhur, Ladan Boroumand

A panel including co-founder of the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran, Ladan Boroumand; former Chief Legal Officer at the Human Rights Foundation, Javier El-Hage; Moroccan women’s rights advocate and former Member of Parliament, Fouzia Elbayed; Director and Senior Analyst at the Universal Rights Group, Subhas Gujadhur; democracy activist promoting democracy in China, Yang Jianli; and Executive Director of United Nations Watch, Hillel Neuer, discuss about the future of liberal democracy at the  7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full Transcript


Subhas Gujadhur: Well, thank you very much, Hillel, for this invitation. Let me introduce myself. I’m Subhas,  director of Universal Rights Group, which is a think-tank in Geneva, basically focused on the work of the council but UN Human Rights architecture itself. As you mention, we have recently produced a report about an assessment of the output of the Human Rights Council, which was created in 2005, following a decision of head of states during the Tokyo World Outcomes Summit. And eventually the function and the mandate was elaborated in a resolution in 2006, Resolution 62/5/1. So what does the council do and how basically it addresses what we are discussing today. 

So when the head of states eventually gave the mandate to set up the council, the main function was basically, if you look at the world outcome document, was to address cross and systematic violations of human rights. So in this respect, the council [has] several mechanisms. The first mechanism, of course, it is resolution system, which is its main output. 

What is a resolution? A resolution is basically the will of the international community to address an issue of human rights violation or an issue of human rights, in general. Then you have its different mechanism, the special procedures which are independent experts with set up to examine country situation, but also to examine issues of general thematic nature. You have also another mechanism called Universal Periodic Review, which is basically the peer review of member states of the UN in terms of the human rights situation. And then the fourth is also the complaint procedure, which basically is a communications, which if you, for example, have suffered a human right violation, through a communication you can also address your grievance to the international body of the UN so the international community at large is aware of this issue and also then the members of the council will have to address it. 

So our report basically made an assessment. Now, we are reaching the 10 years of the council’s creation, it was created in 2005. So whether the assessment was as a council is really responding to what it was meant to be created to do when it was created. So, in that assessment, basically some of the positive aspects we saw was basically the council has been very good in producing resolutions. So, last year basically they produced 112 resolutions and if you compare that to the number when it was created, there [were] only 43. So it’s a 160% increase. So this means governments and member states have been very active in addressing various human rights issues. The second aspect was with the special procedures mechanism. Basically, now you have 109 member states which have a standing invitation to special procedures. 

Hillel Neuer: Although, not all that – sorry to interrupt you. There are some countries that give a standing invitation to special procedures. But I understand when the special procedures ask if they can visit. These are investigators on country situations, like on Iran – or I don’t know if they have a standing invitation – but there are countries that do, and they don’t respect it. Right?

Subhas Gujadhur: Yes. So this is one of the weaknesses; I was going to come to that. 

You have learned the UPR mechanism, also in terms of participation, all UN member states basically have participated in the mechanism. But I say it’s a peer review, so accommodated to that. The positive side is basically you had 116 member states of the UN, which was represented at ministerial level. So what does this indicate also? It indicates, like at one time when human rights was just being discussed in a closed-door, now more and more countries, in particular many liberal democracies, are putting human rights at the very forefront of their political decision system. So, these are the few points for success. 

When we go deep in the study to look “okay we have 112 resolutions, so what does this resolution do?” And as a council, you have ten issues are discussed under ten agenda items, and what we saw was the majority of these resolutions [end up under] item 3, which is basically general thematic issues, while like seven percent of the council output is about addressing cross and systemic violations. So this is what the question is: whether this was a mandate and a vision which heads of states gave the council. So this is one of the questions which we asked in the report. And now looking also at automatic resolutions, [] the impression we got is [that it’s] operating in a vacuum. You have very good thematic resolution. I think we have discussed here freedom of expression, human rights defenders, freedom of association. But what we saw there was no sort of cross fertilization with other mechanisms, and I think Hilel, you yourself have experienced it when basically you went to the council and basically were talking about freedom of expression of a particular country and you got a point of order and you were interrupted. But this is where we want to make the point. You can’t talk about these issues, which are basic human rights, in a vacuum. Basically it has to be addressing specific valuations specific –

Hillel Neuer: And just to interrupt you. If I remember correctly in your report, you say that there are countries that are very happy to talk about things in the abstract.

Subhas Gujadhur: Exactly 

Hillel: But the moment that you want to actually point to a country and say “there’s a victim here,” you’re not respecting freedom of speech, you’re not respecting freedom of religion, you’re not respecting the rule against arbitrary detention. They don’t want to talk about it. They’ll interrupt speakers, whether it’s me or the victims that we bring. And I think you had a proposal that the abstract resolutions on themes should reference specific cases and turn a spotlight, yes? 

Subhas Gujadhur: So this is what we call hybrid resolutions. Basically like freedom of association should not be – the first two observation we made for example even in the renewal mandate of the special rapporteur, no mention is made about the country visit he did. This is one [] instance of a sort of cross fertilization between the Special Rapporteur and the resolution system setting it up. But, the second also is [there is] nothing [to] prevent the council from discussing specific violation[s] of freedom of expression or freedom of association within a specific region or a specific country. So this is why we made that proposal and this [is] also then [to] redress the imbalance, which we have in the activities of the council. If I take, for example, we did an analysis on the session. [For] 27 days, the council talks about general automatics, and then I mean basically six days on country-specifics. So it’s most [of the] sessions for example you have at least this. But this is not the main purpose of the council. This is what we want to basically–

Hillel Neuer:I agree. Once again, you’re saying according to your study, there’s an enormous focus on thematic, more abstract things. But in terms of specific people, the victims that we heard today, putting a spotlight on them, much less attention. And some members are happy about it. 

Let me –  we don’t have much time and we have to go to our other speakers before we wrap up today. But I do want to ask you on one issue, and I don’t know if it was in your report, but there’s the issue of membership. Kofi Annan when he talked about reform in 2005, he said we have a membership that is selective, that is politicized. Sorry he said the work is selectivity, politicization, casting a shadow. He said the members are joining not to promote and protect human rights, but to shield their own records of abuse. And we heard today from victims of China, we have with us here a great activist, but he’s also a victim of Chinese human rights abuses. We heard from victims of Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, who won our Courage Award. All of these countries are elected members of the Human Rights Council. The European Union, half of the European Union, voted for China and Russia. How do we know that, it’s anonymous. But China and Russia won 176 out of 193 votes last year when they elected UN Rights Council members. That means only 17 countries in the world did not vote for Vladimir Putin on the Human Rights Council. If you assume that of those seventeen it was the US, Canada, and Australia who didn’t vote, you’re left with maybe fourteen EU countries that didn’t vote. But fourteen did vote for Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party for the Human Rights Council. Very quickly on the membership, what are victims of these countries China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan,Venezuela supposed to think when across the street, those regimes that oppress them sit as elected members, some of them with virtually almost the entire United Nations membership, including the EU, voting for them.

Subhas Gujadhur: Well again, you know, like this is an issue about the election, and the election was decided in one of the resolutions. It was basically debated [for a long time]. But eventually the rules are [that] any country can join the council. But the improvement with the council has done also is basically countries on the sanctions–

Hillel Neuer: There’s criteria. The Resolution 60/251 says candidates are supposed to have a record of promoting and protecting human rights. That was debated and put in the resolution, so aren’t we entitled to ask the membership if they’re respecting their own criteria? 

Subhas Gujadhur: Yeah of course. And then you have the issue of voluntary pledge also, which countries are supposed to do, but no one has. This is one of the weakness how to–

Hillel Neuer: They make pledges. Venezuela made wonderful pledges.

Subhas Gujadhur: Yeah, so this is where basically – no, this is a question which is valid and also need to be asked when countries are electing as member states.  One of the bad things we saw last year was a liberal democracy, for example Costa Rica, was not elected as a member of the Council. So, this is another challenge which the council is facing, [] The council will be only best performing at this mandate when its membership also is on that mandate. Having said that, also we should not forget it’s the UN. So the UN, you have all – well, you have 193 countries, which basically have different human rights records. But the whole idea is when the UN itself was created it basically [was] to create a dialogue between all countries. 

Hillel Neuer: I’m just gonna wrap up on that, and just comment. Is that you’re right, the United Nations was created for dialogue, but not only. We’re marking 70 years of the victory of World War II. There were two sides in World War II. There was Hitler, and the anti-Hitler coalition, who during the war, called themselves the United Nations. Then, they founded the organization, 70 years ago, in October 1945, and it was the anti-Hitler coalition that stood for something. And the United Nations Charter is a great liberal international document, it speaks on values and freedoms. And you had to qualify to be a member. And today, it’s considered obvious if you’re a country that if – god forbid – should become a sovereign state, that you know the islamic state, that they would be a member of the UN. Well, countries shouldn’t necessarily be. But on the Human Rights Council, you know we said that countries are supposed to meet criteria. And then we have the criteria on paper. Cuba, China, Russia, Pakistan get elected, they go to their people, they say “look, we’re on the Human Rights Council.” And so I’m wondering, maybe we just scrap the criteria. And I think it’s something that your group – there’s wonderful work and I encourage everyone to read the studies on a universal rights group on their website. It’s  great stuff. But I think something we need to think about. That in 2006, we adopted criteria, and the members – the criteria are ignored, because that’s the nature of the politics. Criteria are ignored, but then these countries have the badge of honor which is false. Maybe scrap the criteria and make it every UN country gets to be there, just like in New York. They’re all on the third committee on human rights. I think it’s something to think about. I want to thank you for your comments, and again, I urge people to read at length the report that you talked about at Universal Rights Group. 

I want to move to our next speaker. We’ve heard from Ladan Boroumand, who chaired one of our panels. She’s a public intellectual, who is an author, 2009 recipient of the Lech Walesa Prize, which she shared with Roya Boroumand. Ladan, we don’t have very much time. But in a few minutes, you were sitting here today. You were listening to the very intense presentations. Should we be pessimistic, depressed, optimistic? What is the future of human rights? What’s the future of liberal democracy? 

Ladan Boroumand: Yes, thank you so much Hillel. The prize we won was a prize for the human rights work we do on Iran. And actually, let me start by the bad news on Iran since Masih Alinejad gave the good news, where you see this Iranian civil society, and specifically women fighting their way towards freedom in a very creative mode and way. But – and this will add to all the testimonies we have heard recently today and yesterday– we have documented, just for February, 72 executions in Iran, more than 160 executions since the beginning of 2015, and there are people on death row for apostasy. They cut limbs for petty theft, whereas you have these huge embezzlements of public funds by the establishment, but I’m telling this –

Hillel Neuer: Let me just interrupt. We had an election a couple years ago for Rouhani, and the headlines in Europe were “he’s a moderate.” So just briefly on what you talked about executions. Did it improve under Rouhani?

Ladan Boroumand: Well, yes, they have. The execution [rate] has increased, but steadily since 2005 in Iran. But Rouhani doesn’t. 

Hillel Neuer: So it’s gotten worse?

Ladan Boroumand: Yeah. 

Hillel Neuer: There’s more executions, not less?

Ladan Boroumand: Last year, we had more than 800 executions.

Hillel Neuer: Under the moderate 

Ladan Boroumand: Yeah, but the moderate is not in church. The Supreme Leader, the judiciary, is independent from the moderate. And I would believe that Rouhani’s group would like to lower the rate, but they have no power on that. They are there to negotiate the nuclear issue, not improve any other issues. But the fact is that with the wide range of people you had here testifying, we could also see it through them and through their testimony, the challenges that liberal democracies – and let me just narrow it down. In French, we would say “l’état du droit,” states that are based on human rights declarations. So that would clarify where all the individual rights are respected, protected, and/or the basis of the institutions in the society are being challenged. And these challenges seemed to be some old but some new. 

We have seen countries like Venezuela and Turkey, seen the reversing trend from democracy towards authoritarian regimes. We have heard about torture in Venezuela, about lack of freedom of expression and the press in Turkey. Russia, of course, is getting more and more authoritarian and aggressive. China is not really changing [on] Tibet. All these countries, North Korea also. All these countries show that there is from the state, a trend towards authoritarianism and a challenge to human rights in these states. But also we have seen from Boko Haram to Isis, there are new forms of challenges that are non-state challenges to human rights that we are facing. And these challenges also come all the way to the heart of Europe, which we heard with Charlie Hebdo. And the problems raised by Charlie Hebdo’s Massacre, is that we realize that the basis of social contract sometimes is not even clear in the mind of people in the democratic societies. By the fear, by thinking and hesitating about the right to blasphemy and freedom of expression and the limits of freedom of expression, we see that there are a lot of challenges that we are facing, and we can’t find the result and the solutions in the books because we are in a new world. 

Nation-states are fading away, new policies, international, supranational institutions are emerging, individuals are becoming actors without the estate. And all these issues that we are facing, we don’t have any analysis, or we don’t have categories that allow us to understand and to fight back. I think one of the major issues that we need and our problems, especially in democratic worlds, is that we need to have the courage of thinking. We need to have the courage of thinking again. We need to – and also in the Muslim world, we have taught about the caricatures about insulting Islam. But which one of us in the Muslim world had the courage or even intelligence of saying whose caricaturing Muhammad the Prophet? Is that Bin Laden who is caricaturing or ‘sharb,’ honestly. Who is taking using the Leninist tactics, the Stalinist tactics the Nazi tactics, and put it in under the name of the Prophet? Who is really caricaturing the Prophet? 

We need to take – to fight back by new concepts and by attacking those who are attacking us, and I think this is very important. Another point that I noticed. Although it was really – you could think everyone came here to complain about the violation of their rights. And it’s violated by petty criminals who have the capacity today to go to a newspaper and massacre 15 people or go to a school and kill Jewish kids only because they were Jewish, someone powerful like Putin. But the very fact that we are here is also a ray of hope. 

The Tibetans are not destroyed. They have created a virtual state, democratic state. They organize elections. They have a state, their foreign minister was here. So basically we are able, civil society is able, to create new forms of legitimacy and to oppose them to the alleged dictatorial legitimacy. And I think this is where we have some hope, and we need to work on. So we need to have the courage of thinking independently and we need to continue our action in favor of civil society and human rights that are really non-negotiable. 

Hillel Neuer: Thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about, and good to end with a note that – of some hope. 

On that same note, we have with us Yang Jianli. I’ve introduced him before, but I’ll say it again. He’s the founder and president of Initiatives for China. He is a former political prisoner who risked everything to speak out for freedom and democracy in China. He’s also a member of the advisory board of UN Watch, and he’s a great friend and supporter of the Geneva Summit and helped us get the wonderful young people from the Hong Kong Umbrella Protest Movement. 

Jianli, we’re here today. We are activists, we are diplomats, journalists. We’re trying to put a focus on human rights. Our tools are words, we don’t have battalions, we have words. You know Stalin famously asked about the Pope and how many divisions does the Pope have, to say that you know “who cares what a moral force will say? It all matters if you have tanks.” We have words. You were sitting in prison in China. As a former political prisoner, do the work that we do, and I mean everyone here, the words that we say at the United Nations, at civil society forums like this, do they matter? Do they make any difference at all?

Yang Jianli: That’s a very good question. Let me begin with my story. I’ll try to keep it very short. I was arrested while helping the labor movement with nonviolent struggle strategies. Returning from the United States in 2002, I was kept in solitary confinement for nearly 15 months. So during this time, I had no information outside whatsoever, no book to read and nobody to talk to except my interrogators. So you can imagine, I almost collapsed. You know I just couldn’t help but think of the worst of things that had already happened to me. What are the worst of things? Number one, friends have already forgotten you. Who cares, you know, where you are and things like that? Number two, the family has already abandoned you. So, you know, there are a lot of regrets, anxiety, and you just collapse in that situation. 

Until a day, when my attorney finally was allowed to see me in prison. I could remember the first visit in prison, and he told me during the past 15 months, there has been outpouring international support behind me. US Congress passed resolutions on me, President Bush reached my case a few times, and the State Department read my case to his or her Chinese counterpart. There had been involved two secretaries, their Chinese counterparts [on] my case. And Amnesty International issued three urgent actions on my behalf, And when I transferred from one prison to another, I received a bed of cards from all over the world. There were about more than 200. So ever since that moment, I stood up. I stood up even in myself, and I began to engage [in] right defending activities while in prison. So I saw the hope. 

You know my case, you know, is true for almost all other cases, I think every case you can imagine around the world. There’s so many dungeons and prisons, so many human rights activists. Probably their only hope is the international support; It’s the voice. So our work here is relevant, is concretely connected to their struggle in their country being in the prison cell. And, you know, oftentimes, the release, the freedom of a particular prisoner may not take place in the timeframe that we wanted, but it worked. It worked in my case. It worked in many other cases. And oftentimes, too often, we hear the world leaders fighting economic, cultural, or historical justifications for [] looking other ways when it comes to the issue of human rights violations. And, you know, they’re [] excuses are too often and too easily rationalized. Once rationalized, the non-confrontational, non-committal policies actually can only wet dictators’ appetites to abuse their own people, and the victims [become] non people in the eyes of the abusers. So the international pressure, in this case, you know, really helps. If you cannot have the prisoners now after prison right way, at least you can help improve the prison situation. 

So ever since the first visitor of my attorney, my prison situation gradually– later rapidly– improved. So I have a lot of information, I have a lot of books to read, and now, I’m a free man. I can speak for others, for my fellow prisoners, because I’m free. So if everybody is in prison, we cannot accomplish anything. So if you want to help a country to democratize, you have to help these prisoners be released from prison. We can do very little if everybody is imprisoned, and we really need world leaders who dare to show solidarity with and to assist the people living in dictatorships. We need world leaders who have such a vision and courage to make it clear we cannot have normal relations with the state that abuses its only citizens. 

So, I want to pay my homage to the human rights heroes whom we have heard from in the past two days. Their voice must be heard by heads of states, policymakers, foreign ministers. Indeed, everyone in the world. Their voice, the actual voice of people, rather than the government, must be heard by the decision-making mechanisms in the United Nations. 

Hillel Neuer: Jianli, thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, you just heard as the final message of the Geneva Summit from one of the world’s most famous former political prisoners: words matter, action matters. Words in action for human rights lifted his spine when he was in prison. It’s a message for us, it’s a call to action, and it’s a source of energy for our own work. 

We’ll conclude on that note. I want to thank everyone for being here today. I’m going to invite all of our speakers, all of our partner NGOs, all of our volunteers, to come up on the stage. We’re gonna move the chairs, we’re gonna take a group photo. Thank you everybody. 

While we’re gathering, I just want to thank our interpreters who do terrific work every year and we’re so honored to have all of you so thank you for the wonderful work that you do. And of course, thanks again to all the volunteers who’ve given of their time and of their effort to be with us.

Speakers and Participants

Ladan Boroumand

Research Director at Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy in Iran

Yang Jianli

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



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