Fighting Oppression, Defending Human Rights with Chito Gascon, Taghi Rahmani, Antonietta Ledezma, Jared Genser

Full Transcript 

Jared Genser:

Thank you so much to all three of you for bringing to life the struggles that each of you are undertaking in your own countries, to restore democracy and achieve fundamental human rights for your families, for your country, and for your people. I’m going to speak for just a few minutes about my own experience that relates to the kinds of topics that we have been discussing already. And then I have a number of questions for the panelists as well. I am an international human rights lawyer and, when I went to law school, I thought that learning about international law and human rights would be of some relevance to what I might actually do for a living. When, in fact, in virtually all of the countries that I have gone up against, there is no rule of law in any meaningful sense of that term, and much of what one has to do is to use the tools that are provided by international law, and combine one’s efforts with substantial political and public relations advocacy in order to enforce the rule of law in those countries. 

What is very interesting is that in the 20th century, we saw a dramatic advance of international law, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and then a series of international treaties that, in the 20th century, were signed by many, many countries in the world. So for example, we have been talking a lot about civil and political rights during this session; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now has more than 170 state parties across 193 countries on Earth that cover 92% of the world’s population. It is actually not the case as you often hear governments argue that there are religious or cultural or geographic reasons why how one interprets freedom of expression should be viewed differently, because of course, when countries sign on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, they’re agreeing to a single standard for what is freedom of expression, what is freedom of religion, what are the rights of due process, and not a culturally relative interpretation of those laws. 

So let me just offer three points about some of my own experience freeing political prisoners around the world and fighting oppressive regimes. The first is to talk about the importance of political prisoners and I was unfortunately unsurprised to hear from Chito that the government is now going after a leading senator and opposition figure, because of course, when one is operating as the President of your country is operating, there will be substantial opposition and effective opposition and, as a result, what has to happen next is to put those people away. Unfortunately, the smarter repressive regimes hide the reality of why they are charging people with crimes behind what, on the surface appear, to be legitimate offenses. So charging somebody with drug offenses makes it harder to defend them internationally at first, because you have to get behind those pretextual charges. 

But in my experience, political prisoners are the heroes of our time and frankly, even more so, are the family members who love them and who are tireless in advocacy on their behalf. They are the bellwether for their countries as to the repression that people are undertaking. They are the people who have the courage to stand up to autocracies and say, “No, I am not going to go along. I am not going to succumb to pressure. I am not going to succumb to threats of assassination, imprisonment, torture, or even death.” Because, freedom is a very powerful idea that is in their head and cannot be beaten out of political prisoners, in my experience, regardless of how severe the beatings get. And so, in my view, by supporting political prisoners and helping to secure their release from jail, that has a dramatic ripple effect down into societies. Because of course, if dictators can imprison people who oppose them with impunity, then what hope does the average person wanting to stand up to the dictatorship have, if they do so. They are therefore afraid that they will be locked up arbitrarily and held under torturous conditions and detained for really extended periods of time, if not killed extra-judicially as the case may be. So in my view, all governments around the world should be looking to take up the cases of representative political prisoners in all countries where there are political prisoners and seeking their freedom because by achieving their freedom, we help not just them, but everyone around them who are fighting for similar rights and values. 

The second point I want to make is about what motivates dictators. And this is from my experience, having taken up more than 40 cases of political prisoners over the years. And my experience is that dictatorships, although they are very, very different, operate by one fundamental principle, which is fear. They like to instill fear, but the reason they like to instill fear is because they are afraid. They are afraid of their own people. They are afraid of what their people might do to them. They are afraid of loss of power. They are afraid of justice and accountability. And unless we understand that it is fear that motivates dictators and play to that fear in the maximum ways possible, it is very, very difficult to defeat them. 

Dictatorships do not just operate in their own country. Dictators do not operate in their own countries to go after people, they travel the world to go after their critics. So, most recently, of course, we saw the brother of Kim Jong Un in North Korea assassinated in Malaysia. I was recently able, working with another highly competent council, to secure the release in France of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a leading political prisoner and opposition figure in Kazakhstan. The government of Kazakhstan pursued him all over the world, helped facilitate the abduction of his wife and daughter from Italy to be returned to Kazakhstan in an extraordinary rendition case in Italy and worked with the government of Russia and Ukraine to manufacture charges against him that led to extradition proceedings in France. And they almost got them. But ultimately, collectively, we were able to prevail in that case and he is now able to return to his critical activities, advocating for the restoration of democracy to his country.

So we have to go after dictatorships, wherever they are. I mean I would also note, because I also represent Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate, and began working with his wife, Liu Xia, a few months before he won the Nobel Peace Prize that the Chinese government has another illustration and they have now stopped publishing these figures. But the Chinese government spends more than 120 billion dollars a year to monitor their own population. And it is a losing battle because well, the Chinese people now have access to the internet ­­­­– there are almost as many mobile phones as there are people in a country of 1.4 billion. Many people have multiple phones. And as much as they try to control what is happening in the country – there are more than 150,000 protests a year in the country – I like to joke that no detail is too small for the Chinese government. Apart from going after political prisoners, they also spent many years fighting my NGO “Freedom Now” to get our consultative status at the UN. It was a five-year struggle for us to get our consultative status and it required the United States calling a vote in ECOSOC in order for us to finally be approved after many years being turned down by the NGO committee. 

Last point I want to make is, based on my own experience, just getting to know political prisoners and their families over so many years and what has really astonished me in the work that I am involved in, and of course we are all human beings, so this maybe should not be so surprising. But what I’ve really learned from political prisoners and their families from so many different religions and geographies and cultures and contexts, is that it’s very similar things that motivate all of them to stand up to repressive dictatorships. And they see repression in their local context sometimes in a more or less severe way and, despite everything in their society telling them to just keep their mouth shut, to keep their heads down, to just go along to get along, this just is not how they are built. And they are not capable of standing silently by as their fellow man and woman and children are being repressed. They have to stand up and be counted because their conscience does not enable them to look the other way at the repression of their own people. And I have heard similar stories as I have gotten my clients out of jail around the world in so many different contexts and in so many different languages, that it just really is stunning to understand that the power of human dignity as an intellectual concept really connects all of us around the world. And despite all the arguments of governments that there are culturally relative reasons why in a particular context, one should look at fundamental rights in different ways, then in fact those rights are universal and connect all of us. 

So let me just conclude what I have to say by noting on political prisoners, that my client Liu Xiaobo, when he was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion, at the end of his trial in December 2009, he released a statement through his local counsel and I will just paraphrase it, but I think it is very apropos of what all the panelists have been talking about. He said that when an independent intellectual stands up to a dictatorship that often, freedom comes by first having to pass through a jail cell, and by being sentenced to prison and going to jail, that true freedom is that much closer for the Chinese people. 

So let me just leave it at that and then I think there are a number of very interesting questions that have been raised by the panelists. But let me ask all three of you; it is very easy from where I stand, relatively speaking, to stand up for human rights and democracy all over the world, because of course, I can do that mostly from the safety of my own office in Washington, DC. I do get out in the world and I am able to travel to many of the countries where I represent political prisoners, but in a country like Venezuela, for example, I am not given a visa to go. And in another country, like the Maldives, I was deported when I first tried to visit President Nasheed when he was in jail and it was an honor to represent him and continue to work with him to restore democracy to his country. 

But let me ask all three of you, what is it that motivates you in your different contexts to take the risk of standing up to the governments that are repressing your people? You are obviously putting your family members, but also yourselves at a great personal risk. And so it would be interesting to hear from your different perspectives what motivates you to continue to fight that fight on behalf of your families and for your country. 

Antonietta Ledezma:

What motivates me to fight for freedom is because what I believe personally that has happened in Venezuela; Venezuelans have learned what freedom and human rights are by not having them, not knowing them for over 20 years. I represent the youth of my country. I am 25 years old and I do not know anything different than living under the oppression of a government. And personally, last September, I had to leave because my life was in danger. I was constantly threatened. So when you have to leave and when you see so many people you love being so affected by a dictatorship, I think that is something that goes beyond yourself. It is something that I cannot explain in words, because when you see injustice so close, you just get up and you say, “Stop, we need a change.” We don’t want this any longer and because I want to live in a free country it’s as simple as that. I don’t want to live in a country under the fear of expressing my ideas. I don’t want to live in a country where I’m treated differently because I am the daughter of a politician who doesn’t agree with the regime, and that’s basically it. I want to live in a country where I can have and build a family and where I am not different because I think differently. And that is something that I want to fight for and I am going to continue fighting for. Because that is what I learned growing up, that is what I saw in my father, because even though I remember when Chavez passed away my father was the first who said, “We can never be happy for the loss of someone because like me, he has a daughter who cries for him and that’s to be respectful.” And that is what makes me fight because it is something that goes beyond yourself and when you fight for freedom and democracy and human rights, it is a fight that has no boundaries. And, you know, that’s how it is.

Chito Gascon:

I just want to echo what Antonietta just said. What motivates us to do what we have to do is the human spirit that aspires for truth, for justice, for freedom. I lived through the dictatorship in my country as a young man then and we saw firsthand the oppression that a dictatorship does on its own people. And while, for a short time, those who would rule over us may think that they will never be held to account, over time, ultimately, there will be a reckoning, there will be an accounting. And that is because people always aspire to have freedom which is why it is important that, as I mentioned earlier, we draw the line when we see human rights violations, we should not keep quiet. We have to speak up against it. When we see violations of law, when we see abuse of authority, it is important for us to hold those who have the power to account. So, that’s what has motivated me in the course of our struggle against dictatorship and over the last 31 years of trying to build up a democracy. And that is what will continue to motivate me and our fellow travelers in the Philippines who are working for truth and for justice to continue to speak truth to power and hopefully over time ensure that justice will be served.

Taghi Rahmani:

Human rights, as you said before, are universal. They must be superior and above all religions in all cultures. People who have commercial or economic interests do not respect human rights. My fellow countrymen and my fellow Muslims lead me to say that we want to live in a free society. I want to be able to express myself freely, that my children will be able to be free and express themselves in a society where justice counts. I dream that one day in Iran, all citizens will be able to live in a free society to defend human rights. We shouldn’t need to have to pay so dearly. Today in Iran, we are paying very dearly to defend our human rights, but I do dream of an Iran that we and our children will see that human rights are protected. Basic things like freedom and justice should not require us to pay so dearly for just basic human rights. In Iran we have human rights activities, they continue, but we are afraid, afraid of a war of embargoes, of sanctions, that a war in our region will take human rights far from our country. 

I thank you.

Jared Genser:

Thank you very much to the three of you.

It’s really extraordinary to be able to hear about what motivates human rights defenders. I never tire of hearing that kind of explanation because it’s really that kind of human courage that is necessary to stand up to repressive governments. And the irony is, that for all of their power, military, economic, political, that dictatorships are afraid. They’re definitely afraid of people like the three of you because you are speaking the truth and the truth resonates with the people that are living under oppression and inspires them to have courage themselves under those circumstances.

Let me ask you; We are here with a lot of diplomats, with a lot of NGOs, human rights defenders, donors, and others, and it’s fabulous, of course that UN Watch has organized this important conference for so many years, right before the beginning of the Human Rights Council session. But let me ask each of you very tangibly, what kind of help do you each need in your respective struggles from the international community? What would be the most valuable things that we could provide to each of you individually? And perhaps there will be people in the audience who hear your request for assistance and will be able to provide it. Obviously the session is being recorded and will also be available online. I know from where I stand, to be able to stand in solidarity with political prisoners, prisoners of conscience especially, to secure their freedom requires a very broad range of assistance. But I’d love to hear from each of you about what your daily struggles are and the kind of help that you need from the international community. 

Taghi Rahmani:

I hope that there will be a discussion on human rights amongst governments. When you talk to the Iranian government, for reasons of trade or for diplomatic reasons, you must speak about human rights. These issues should be part of all dialogue with the government. Other countries must bring this up in their discussions with the government. I think that we must take on board the issue of human rights in all dialogues in our region and in the world as well. There are economic powers and emerging countries that are acquiring power and they do not respect human rights and they are on the world scene. they are very visible, but they do not respect human rights and civil society is not strong enough to be able to fight against this abuse of human rights. So I believe that we must repeat to our governments time and time again, that human rights matter.

Lastly, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the government, to defend itself in terms of human rights, always says, “Well, are you being hypocritical in the West? You say that you have strong economic relations with certain countries and you don’t say anything.” When they say why are your being hypocritical, you have to get back to the point and talk about human rights and do that with all countries, bring up the issue.

Chito Gascon:

You asked about what can be done to help. I would like to focus on two key issues; The first is action and support for matters that inspire courage. Antonietta mentioned earlier how it was important, not just to fight for her father, but all the political prisoners in Venezuela and that requires, in a sense, spreading the spirit of courage. And there are many ways that that has to be done to undertake that. In the context, for example, of my country, part of the violence that’s now seeping through society is a culture of fear and reprisal. Now witnesses are afraid to come forward to tell us what they know largely because they are afraid that they will be next. And so I think that it is important for us to develop different initiatives that will encourage, support and inspire courage. This could involve anything as specific as witness protection programs, whistleblower mechanisms, and the like and again it must be set in the context of each country, but I think work that inspires courage is very important, which brings me to the second type of work that we need to do. 

You mentioned that dictators work on fear, but they also work on confusion. They try to distract and confuse and fool the people. And I have seen that happening more and more, not just in my country, but elsewhere where they say we now live in a post-truth world. Fake news about the traditional gatekeepers for the truth, the media no longer have a monopoly of that and there are so many lies that are being spread in social media where more and more people rely on that as a source for information they get, or in this case misinformation. So aside from work that inspires courage, I think we need to continue to do more work, more vigorous work, more aggressive work in affirming the truth. Testimonies like today, this a forum where people have an opportunity to come forward and to share their testimonies. But we cannot always have a Geneva Summit every day of the year. So it’s important to develop mechanisms whereby people are emboldened to speak the truth. We need to confront and challenge the lies that are out there because lies are being presented to us as if they were the truth. And it might create a counter-narrative of oppression and repression in different contexts.

You talked about it very clearly in China where many people are unaware of what is happening. I am sure many people in North Korea are not even aware that the half-brother of their leader was assassinated in Malaysia and so on. So we need to do all we can to get the truth out. And of course, defense of journalists is important, but also defense of citizens who have a portion or part of the truth is also something that we need to do as we move forward in terms of holding to account, documenting, and ultimately bringing people to justice.

Antonietta Ledezma:

Well, to answer your question, I think that as a Venezuelan, what we need the most is the international community to stop recognizing Venezuela as a democratic state and acknowledging it more as an authoritarian government, because that is what we have today in Venezuela, we have a dictatorship. It is exhausting to keep listening and seeing on the news that it still is considered a democratic state when it is not. We need the United Nations to address the real problems that are happening in Venezuela, because the ones who are representing us there, do not represent the real needs of Venezuela today. So I think that what we need the most is the real information to be spread in the world, because personally what I know our government fears the most is to be exposed internationally. We need more defenders like yourself to defend all political prisoners. We need people to raise real awareness of our real situation in Venezuela. So I think that’s basically our main needs as people of an authoritarian government and an authoritarian country. 

Today in Venezuela, we are leaving our cruelest dictatorship and we are eager for the world to know that. We feel silence, sometimes we feel isolated because our government completely controls our press and when we know that internationally, we have the support of governments, the support of presidents, that sort of gives us a relief to feel that we are being heard, not to feel that we are completely isolated. So I think that that’s very strong, and as the daughter of a political prisoner, I feel relieved when I know people associate Venezuela with dictatorship and people live in the lack of food, lack of security, lack of medicines and lack of human rights and the constant and systematic violation of human rights.

Jared Genser:

Thank you to all three of you for really being an extraordinary inspiration to all of us on this panel. Let me just conclude by emphasizing as was said in this last round of questions that telling the truth publicly and loudly is something that all of you are putting your lives on the line to do. And oftentimes, particularly in places like Geneva and in the Human Rights Council, those truths are not spoken on the floor of the Human Rights Council and they are not acknowledged. And one of the most important things in my own experience as well in representing political prisoners is to bring the family members to speak out publicly and loudly on their loved one’s behalf. And the power of testimonials to move people is really extraordinary. And I can say from my own perspective in Washington, that it’s one thing for me as a human rights lawyer, to talk about the story of one of my clients and that doesn’t candidly have all that much power, but it’s something entirely different if you are meeting with policymakers, not just in Washington, but all over the world, if the spouse of a political prisoner or the daughter of a political prisoner is talking about their own truth, their own experience, and bringing it to life and can make a human connection with diplomats who are human beings too and are capable of being moved emotionally and having a tie to an individual story that enables them to remember when they run into the ambassador of Iran, or when they run into the ambassador of Venezuela or the Philippines, they are able to say, and they often will privately, “I just met so and so from your country, and I am very worried about what’s happening there.” 

And so, I think that the power of all of you here today to bear witness to these stories, to be able to tell them to others, the importance of diplomats in the room, to be able to speak truth to power as well, and to these autocratic regimes is critically important. 

So thank you all very much. Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Taghi Rahmani

Journalist, former Iranian political prisoner, and husband of jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi


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