Conclusion with John Suarez

John Suarez, Executive Director at the Center for a Free Cuba, adresses the 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


John Suarez: Thank you Hillel and I just want to say thanks to UN Watch for making this possible as well [for having] Rosa Maria Paya and Reggie Iglesias and so many other Cuban dissidents over the years to talk about the Cuban reality here in Geneva. I wanted to conclude, and I think this being the fifth time that we’re gathered, it’s an opportunity to reflect a bit on what’s been going on and some of the longer trends and how it fits in with what we’ve discussed today.

Unfortunately the human rights situation around the world has not improved over the past five years and in many instances, has worsened. The obvious question is why?

Cuban democratic opposition activist Oswaldo Paia Sardinez when awarded the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought on December 17th of 2002 made an important observation. That was that “the cause of human rights is a single cause. Just as the people of the world are a single people. The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized.” I believe that the past decade has demonstrated the truth that he was right about that statement. 

Freedom House in its 2013 report “Freedom in the World” documents the seventh consecutive year in which there have been more declines than gains in freedom worldwide. Worse still, the report demonstrates that there is a stepped-up campaign of persecution by dictators that specifically targeted civil society organizations and independent media. These have been years of challenge for human rights and democracy activists around the world. Listening to the testimony today in 2013 from journalists, human rights activists, and victims of rights violations in Cuba, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Mauritania, Morocco, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, and Tibet should shock the conscience of any reasonable person.

Elie Weisel’s aphorism for the dead and the living, we must bear witness, has been put into practice over the course of these five summits and especially today. Genocide, slavery, concentration camps, extrajudicial killings, brutalization of women, rape as a military weapon, and the silencing of dissenting voices is something that’s taking place today, not just a sad bizarre chapter of our past. At the same time, despite the horrors, there is cause for hope. 

During the first session this morning “woman’s rights the struggle for human dignity,” I was struck by what Marina Nemat said, a former prisoner of conscience in Iran who had been repeatedly tortured and raped. She made an observation that went to the heart of the challenge for human rights when she remarked that “victimhood is not a perpetual state; a victim can become a torturer and a torturer can become a victim. The tables can be turned.” And then she went on and added “they will turn for me, one day they will place the cable in my hands and I will put it down because justice and revenge are two very different concepts.” 

Too many people believe that immoral and unjust means can lead to moral and just ends. This is the key idea that, combined with the impulse for revenge, can lead a victim to become a torturer in a cycle that generates greater levels of barbarism and inhumanity. Breaking the cycle of bloodshed and revenge involves pursuing justice and accountability. In other words, ending impunity. To do this the right for victims and their loved ones to know the truth is a fundamental concern to end impunity. This is a theme that has been heard throughout the day, and especially from Marina Nemat, Colet Brachman, Mukesh Kapila, Regis Iglesias, Rosa Maria Paya, and others. But in addition to that, I was also struck by Mukhtar Mai, the first speaker this morning from Pakistan, who outlined her harrowing account of overcoming great horrors, including being sentenced to gang rape, and managed to build a school to educate hundreds of women. And she continues her struggle for justice, not revenge, stating “if a woman’s life is in danger, we can help them out. I want to make a change and this will happen with education.” This is part of what activists for non-violence call a constructive program. 

The other common point heard throughout the day is that military solutions are not real solutions. Syrian activist Rhonda Cassis explained that in Syria, a military solution is not a real solution; there is only one real solution and that is a political solution. Marina Nemat repeated several times that the primary problem in Iran was not the nuclear program but the systematic violation of human rights and that she was against military action in Iran. Former Cuban prisoner of conscience Regis Iglacias explained that he did not hate the dictatorship in Cuba but at the same time that he did not fear it and was seeking change using non-violent means. Rosa maria Paya, whose father Roswaldo Paya Sardinius died under very suspicious circumstances along with Harold Seperro on July 22nd of 2012, recognized the commonality between the different activists who had spoken earlier in the day in favor of non-violent change. During her presentation, she quoted her father from his Strasbourg address to the European Parliament in December of 2002 in which he stated “the first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence, we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: you are my brother, I do not hate you. But you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together.” 

Another important theme during this summit is the importance of citizenry, to be active and vigilant. Marina Nemat explained the importance of holding politicians accountable: “if you don’t maintain democracy it’s going to die. It’s up to every single one of us to pressure politicians to do the right thing,” quote unquote.Dicki Chhoyang of the Central Tibetan Administration called on free peoples to have the courage to stand and be the change we want to see happen. This leads inevitably to the need for freedom of expression and critical voices to expose injustice and hold the politicians accountable. The Moroccan blogger that we just heard, Kacem El-Ghazzali, outlined the importance of freedom of expression and of religion within the Islamic world and the challenges still faced in Morocco. Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of Nadezhda Tolokonikova – apologies if I got it wrong – one of the jailed pussy riot musicians also spoke about the madness of Putin’s Russia and the absence of freedom of expression in Russia, and the linkage of the orthodox church with the Russian authoritarian regime, and the need to break that relationship.

Marina Nemet is right, “silence is a weapon of mass destruction as is indifference to injustice.” However, the opposite is also true. Making noise and denouncing injustice using non-violent means and not succumbing to hate is a weapon of mass construction. However, throughout the day, we have heard from speakers of different parts of the world and of different religious traditions or even non-religious traditions that injustice and human rights violations need to be confronted by non-violent means without succumbing to hating one’s adversary. 

Therefore, I want to conclude, joining with Regis and Rosa Maria, and invite you to sign a petition that they have on hand demanding an independent and transparent investigation into the deaths of Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante on July 22nd of 2012. The document is available in draft form for your signature.

Thank you very much.

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