Hillel Neuer, international lawyer, diplomat, writer, activist and Executive Director of UN Watch, addresses the 12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On the United Nations Human Rights Council:
“We don’t say here at the Summit that the Human Rights Council is doing nothing. That’s not true. But what we do say is that we here at the United Nations and at the Human Rights Council can and must do more.”
“When all of this is happening, sadly here at the Human Rights Council of the United Nations there’s never been a single resolution, a single urgent session, a single Commission of Inquiry, for people now locked up in camps because of their ethnic, religious and cultural identity.”
On the importance of taking action:
“This is really an occasion, ladies and gentlemen, for us to listen, to learn, to be inspired and most importantly take action. Let us commit to take action to make this world, to make the United Nations, a better place.”
Welcome to the 12th annual Geneva Summit, gathering dissidents, human rights activists, families of political prisoners, members of parliament from around the world to turn a spotlight on urgent human rights situations around the world that require the attention of the international community, of the United Nations, and of the Human Rights Council, which meets next Monday across the street from here.
I want to thank the 25 NGO co-sponsors of the Geneva Summit coalition, many of whom are here with us today, whose contributions ensured that we have the incredible panel of speakers that you will hear from very shortly.
Today you will hear from people who have sacrificed so much for the cause of fundamental human rights, for their people, who have paid in some cases the ultimate price. And these testimonies will be difficult. These are stories that are hard to hear, about oppression, persecution, imprisonment, torture, in some cases family members who’ve been killed.
And it’s easy and quite natural to become sad and to be depressed. And that’s normal. But there’s something else that you can take away today. And that is when you witness and meet with individuals who have devoted everything, who have sacrificed their freedom for causes of human rights, for the liberty of their own people, for the basic human dignity of their own people, we will have an opportunity today to be inspired. And not just to feel inspiration, but to be inspired and motivated and take action to ensure that all of our governments do the most that we can to make a difference for people who are behind bars, people who are suffering discrimination, persecution and oppression.
Now next week foreign ministers, as I mentioned, will gather across the street from here to open the 2020 session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Some say that the Human Rights Council has done nothing for victims, and it’s failing, and it’s not true to say that the Council has done nothing. That’s absolutely not true. Human Rights Council has taken action on a number of situations – there’s a resolution every year on Iran that which appoints an investigator, special report, a resolution was just adopted last year to create a fact-finding mission, finally, on Venezuela, something that we here at the Summit have been working on and lobbying for for many years, and a number of other situations.
So we don’t say here at the Summit that the Human Rights Council is doing nothing. That’s not true. But what we do say is that we here at the United Nations and at the Human Rights Council can and must do more. We can and must do more for the victims and situations that you will hear about today.
And so we need the voices of the speakers that we’ve brought today, we need the voices when we think about Iran, where some 1,500 protesters were slaughtered in the streets of Iran – their only crime was peacefully protesting calling for human rights and democracy in Tehran and Isfahan and Shiraz and other streets and other cities. And when the United Nations in this situation did nothing – there was no emergency session by the Human Rights Council here in Geneva nor by the General Assembly nor by the Security Council in New York – the United Nations in this case failed, and that’s why we need to hear from Kaveh Shahrooz, a courageous voice who calls out the inaction of our world leaders, who too often are complicit as apologists for the regime.
And when we see that last year, here at the United Nations, the Commission on the Status of Women elected, appointed, Iran as a judge of women’s rights violations, the United Nations is not doing enough. And that’s why we need to hear from Shaparak Shajarizadeh, who only a few years ago escaped from Iran after being arrested numerous times for the crime of removing her headscarf. That is a crime in Iran. From the age of seven every woman, every girl, must cover her hair or is arrested – and thousands hundreds of thousands are arrested by the government. She dared to remove her headscarf she was arrested, jailed, beaten and brutalized. And you’ll hear her testimony and she was named by the BBC one of the most influential and inspiring women around the world and she’s with us here today. She’ll be receiving soon our 2020 Women’s Rights Award and Shaparak we’re honored that you’re with us here today.
And in China where one million, at least 1 million Muslim Uyghurs, are locked up in prison camps so that their beards will be shaven off, so that the women will not be able to wear a headscarf if they choose to do so, and so that their religion will be destroyed and their ethnicity, the Uyghurs in the western province of Xinjiang and their identity – religious, ethnic, cultural, erased, in these so called re-education camps.
And when all of this is happening sadly here at the Human Rights Council of the United Nations there’s never been a single resolution, a single urgent session, a single Commission of Inquiry, for people now locked up in camps because of their ethnic, religious and cultural identity. And my friends I’m sad to say but it’s even worse. I’m embarrassed to be holding here a document that was published by the United Nations this summer dated 9 August 2019, you can write it down it’s HHAHRC41/G/17. If I didn’t see it myself I would think this is fictional. This is a letter signed by 50 ambassadors to the Human Rights Council here in Geneva, 50 ambassadors – here are their signatures – and I want to tell you what this letter says.
It’s about the situation of the Uyghurs and what China is doing to these Muslims. And I quote this is what the letter says: “Mr. President, Madam High Commissioner, we commend China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” And then they talk about Xinjiang: “China has undertaken counterterrorism measures in Xinjiang.” And one of these so-called separatists is the father of Jewher Ilham from whom we will hear shortly, who won the EU’s Sakharov Prize, who’s in prison because he dared to speak out for the rights of the Uyghurs and in this letter these are called de-radicalization measures. And the letter says: “Now safety and security has returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups are safeguarded, and people there enjoy a stronger sense of happiness, fulfilment and security.” An official document published by the United Nations, by 50 Human Rights Council ambassadors, celebrating the locking up of 1 million Muslims. And it’s signed ironically, paradoxically, by Bangladesh, by countries who claim, the first to claim, that they support the rights of Muslims and who will support every resolution saying that a cartoon criticizing or questioning a belief in Islam has to be prohibited.
These are the ambassadors who signed: Bangladesh, Cuba, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq they signed this letter. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen. The hypocrisy, the cynicism is literally infallible and that’s why we need to hear from Jewher Ilham. She will speak about her father Ilham Tohti, a political prisoner in China today.
And we need to hear about Pakistan, a member of the Human Rights Council has never been addressed. Here we will hear from Peter Bhatti, his brother Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated, he was the first Christian minister in Pakistan, a minister who spoke out for minorities, that was his mandate, he dared to speak out for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five sentenced to death for blasphemy. And he was assassinated. He knew, he was in Canada and he told Professor Cotler who’s with us here today, former Justice Minister of Canada, he said if I go back I know I would be assassinated but I must go back to my people. And sadly he was killed. And we’ll hear from his brother shortly.
And when Russia in New York City is on the United Nations Committee that oversees the work of human rights NGOs, the NGOs who are co-sponsoring this coalition have UN accreditation, Russia is a sponsor and yet we have Lyubov Sobol, a leading Russian anti-corruption activist considered one of the opposition leaders in Russia today she’s repeatedly arrested. Courageous person. Another woman named by BBC as one of the 100 inspiring and influential women of the world. She’s with us here today and we need to hear her voice.
And when Qatar is a member of the Human Rights Council obliged to uphold the highest standards of human rights,we need to hear from Pete Pattisson who’s come here from Nepal, an international labor rights photojournalist who is spotlighting the tens of thousands of migrant workers who are building the arenas for the World Cup to take place in Qatar, and who are treated as slave laborers. We need to hear from Pete Pattisson.
And when Cuba is elected repeatedly every time there’s an election here to the Human Rights Council, and has immunity and impunity for its throwing of human rights lawyers into prison, we need to hear from Laritza Diversent, a Cuban human rights lawyer, Executive Director of Cubalex, who dared to provide legal aid and advice to the people of Cuba, they raided her office, they tried to shut her down, and she’s living in exile but she will be speaking out.
And when the Democratic Republic of Congo is elected to the Human Rights Council as they are now a place that is neither democratic nor a republic, we need to hear from Rebecca Kabuo, a heroic pro-democracy activist from the DRC, the youngest prisoner of conscience in that country, who’s now free, celebrated around the world, and she’s with us here today.
And we need to hear from Malawi, where there’s still child marriage, from Memory Banda, whose sister at a very young age was forced to be married. If you want to call that marriage. And she leads girl empowerment network of Malawi.
And Vietnam, which has been elected in the past to the Human Rights Council, we need to hear from Dennis Chau, whose father Van Kam Chau was living in Australia, originally from Vietnam, but he left the freedom of Australia went back to be with his people in Vietnam, to support their struggle for human rights, against dictatorship, he was arrested and thrown into prison, he’s in prison now. We need to hear from his son.
And we need to hear from Dr. Elham Manea. When Saudi Arabia also is repeatedly elected every single time to the Human Rights Council we need to hear from this middle east scholar who will be a voice for Raif Badawi, the famous political, the human rights blogger, who was thrown into prison, a political prisoner, and other women’s rights activists who have been tortured. And we’ll hear from Elham Manea.
And on Venezuela, a country where the UN will be investigating it, and yet paradoxically, ironically, just elected the Maduro regime to the Human Rights Council – just took their seat last month and will speak for the first time in the new Council next week – we need to hear from Rosa Orozco, the mother of victim Geraldine Moreno, who was killed by the regime. She directs the Justice, Encounter and Forgiveness organization and she will provide important testimony about what’s happening. She’s come here all the way from Venezuela.
And Un Watch today will officially launch its campaign, chaired by ambassador Diego Arria, one of the leading voices for Venezuelans, he is the former ambassador to the UN before the Chavez era and Maduro, former president of United Nations Security Council, and he will be launching the campaign to expel the Maduro regime. And he’ll tell you and all of us about that.
And finally we’ll hear from Biram Dah Abeid, the leading anti-slavery activist in Mauritania, a country that has 100 to 500 thousand slaves according to CNN and The Guardian. And they were just elected to the Human Rights Council, against our protests, against NGO protests, and he went to prison numerous times to speak out for the rights of slaves in Mauritania. And we’ll hear his testimony as he receives later today the Courage Award.
And we’ll hear from someone was a lawyer, who is a lawyer for many of these political prisoners, Professor Irwin Cotler, former Justice Minister, Attorney General of Canada, Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, one of the inspiring forces behind the Geneva Summit from the beginning.
And we have members of parliament from around the world who are supporting us here as well, who will be moderating the sessions, joined by journalists from CNN and others.
It’s an incredible program, this is really an occasion ladies and gentlemen, for us to listen, to learn, to be inspired, and most importantly take action. Let us commit to take action to make this world, to make the United Nations, a better place.
Thank you very much.
12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, Monday, February 17, 2020