How Can We Make a Difference? with Hillel Neuer, Elham Manea, Paulina Neuding, Michael Levitt, James Kirchick

Paulina Neuding, Hillel Neuer, Dr. Elham Manea, James Kirchick and Michael Levitt discuss on how to better promote human rights at the 11th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

Full Transcript

Moderator: Honored guests, it’s my honor and privilege to be in this room and to stand on this stage where we’ve heard from so many human rights. We’ve listened to your stories, we’ve marveled at your courage, and we’ve witnessed your pain. But sharing this room with you also places the obligation to act to support your causes to support human dignity, human rights and human freedom everywhere and to do so as social media users, as citizens, as students, as voters. Every single one of us in this room can do something and how do I know that? Because I’ve just seen three kids today who travel across the globe to speak for their imprisoned father, the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Nashwa, Jerrod and Miriam, I don’t know why it fell upon you to carry such a heavy burden at your young age, but I know that you are role models to all of us in here today so thank you, thank you for showing us what real courage is. So we must act, but how do we act most efficiently? How do we use the energy in this room and all our good intentions for good? With us here today to discuss that issue is one activist, one scholar, a writer, and a politician. Three of you are familiar faces in this room already, Hillel Neuer, you’re the executive chief of UN Watch, one of the organizers today. Jamie Kirchik, you’re a fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and a writer and a journalist, and Michael Levitt, you are a Canadian parliamentarian and a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations in the Canadian Parliament. You’re also a member of the Liberal Party. And perhaps we can start with you Hillel Neuer, let’s talk about the international system: what can we do to fix a broken international system especially here in Geneva and at the UN?  

Hillel Neuer: Well, the common complaint about the United Nations here in Geneva is the Human Rights Council. Let’s just talk about some of the things that I mentioned very briefly in a few words that I had this morning was that you have members that are on a human rights body and Alfred spoke about this as well, Ambassador Moses, is that you have members that are supposed to be judges of human rights at the United Nations when in fact they are often, at least half of them are some of the worst dictatorships in the world so we point to the fact that Cuba and Pakistan and China and Eritrea and Qatar and Saudi Arabia and others are sitting on the Human Rights Council and that’s a serious problem and it’s something that people don’t like to talk about. A lot of people who work within the United Nations world don’t want to talk about the elephant in the room, which is that in order to get anything adopted, in order for someone to get appointed, it has to be approved by a lot of dictatorships but that’s really only half the problem. The question that I think is more relevant for us here in Europe, here in Switzerland or back in Canada or in America, is what are we the democracies doing right. So we know that Qatar is gonna be Qatar and Saudi is gonna Saudi and so forth, we know that and China’s going to be China and as I said before they interrupted me when I tried to speak about the 1 million Muslim Uyghurs who are being detained, so they’re gonna do that and that’s a big threat, but what are we doing and people speak about reform of the Council, we need to reform the Council so that they’ll be this or that. I say you know what, don’t give me any reforms because the reforms don’t work, they never do. I want you, you Sweden, you Canada, you France, you Switzerland, what are you doing with the existing institution? And let me give an example—here in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council, it’s made up of 47 countries. You only need one-third: 16 countries can call an emergency session at any moment so with the Uyghurs, the 1 million Muslim Uyghurs being detained in camps or beatings of protesters in Nicaragua or we had in Iran a year ago with the killing of protesters and all these emergencies that you can think about, you only need 16 countries and there are 16 democracies on the Council, countries like the UK and Spain that can convene an emergency session which will not stop the killings but it can mobilize an international spotlight. But too often they don’t do it—there’s never been one emergency session on Iran, there’s never been one emergency session on China, there’s never been one on Turkey, there’s never been one on Pakistan so it’s our own democracies. We talked about today, we talked about Venezuela—we had Diego Arria. Well I went to Madrid and we had you and UN Watch did a draft resolution for people in Venezuela and we went to Madrid and they didn’t do anything, we went to the Foreign Ministry. Only finally now in September we had one resolution, a very weak one, so I think it begins with our own democracies too often for reasons well you live in Sweden and you know that your own government which claims to have the first feminist government and feminist foreign policy and we saw that the leaders of Sweden, many female ministers went in Iran and went along with the forced hijab law, we have the woman who won our women’s rights award a couple of years ago Masih Alinejad who heads an incredible movement called “my stealthy freedom” and encourages women in Iran to be free and not to have to go along with the forced hijab laws, not against a hijab, she wore one herself, her family wears one, she just says a woman at 7 years old a girl until the age of 70 or whatever it is, need not be forced to wear the hijab and she called on European women leaders who go there not to comply with it but they did.  

Moderator: So Swedish government ministers who represent the world’s first feminist government went to Iran and wore a hijab? 

Hillel Neuer: Yes, wore a hijab and covered themselves quite significantly in a clear deference to the repressive laws, and Masih Alinejad, who’s a courageous Iranian women’s rights activist now living in America, she had to flee because as a journalist she was asking questions that were too hard for the regime, she has appealed to them and she said if you would go to America, the 1930s in the south and there’d be a law about discrimination against black people, you would not comply with that, you would say it’s an unjust law and so why is it that when you go to Iran suddenly you say ‘ah I’m being deferential to your culture,’ she says no that’s not our culture that was not the way we had it before and something obviously that Elham can speak to in great detail but the point is that here you have European leaders and instead of taking action on many situations, there are some exceptions, there have been a number of resolutions on Syria, we had one on Nicaragua, we had a weak one on Venezuela in September, we have one on Iran which is they call it a short technical text, it’s just like a paragraph all it does is renews the monitor they call the UN Rapporteur on Iran, which is important but doesn’t say anything about Nazanin or Ratcliff or any other political prisoners not mentioned there so I think it begins with our own governments and they are sadly weaker than ever before, so years ago I saw more readiness and today it’s weaker so when we talk about reforms at the UN it begins with our own democracies and I’m Canadian, I want our country to do more on Cuba for example and I think it begins with us going to our own governments and demanding that they do more for the situations that we heard today, that would be a great start. They can do things, they can’t do everything, but there’s a number of things they can do.  

Moderator: So dictatorships play a very dominant role here in Geneva at the UN. Dr. Elham Manea, you’re an associate professor at the University of Zurich in political science, why is it so important for these countries to be on the UN Human Rights Council? 

Dr. Elham Manea: Well I think through that membership they get a certain legitimacy. They can be recognized as members of a body, a human rights body, that is supposed to represent and defend universal human rights. And they are violating these rights with impunity and if I just connect with you, with what you were just basically saying, you’re talking about the role of democracy, liberal democracy, in defending universal human rights and liberal values. I would look at right now, I would move the ball right now to within these states itself because we realize that there are movements in many of these countries defending these very values and if we just look at Saudi Arabia as an example, we see a situation where men and women are paying a high price for defending these very values and yet we see countries like the United States working together, headed by Trump, working together with the current regime putting economic interests as the top priority. What I learned over time is that we shouldn’t wait for others to defend us, we shouldn’t wait. Because if I’m going to wait for someone to defend women’s rights in Yemen, my country, at stake I think I’ll wait for a long time. Okay, it’s better if it comes from within and we can change by insisting that these are universal values and these universal values apply in Yemen just as they apply here in Switzerland. We shouldn’t make any distinction because of cultural relativism or identity politics that is very much on the rise right now in European and Western countries. We should basically insist these are universal. There’s a need for these universal values for the very reason that inside of each of us is a monster. We know that during World War Two, we know that today and we have to tame that monster through the protection of these individual rights and universal human values. 

Moderator: So there’s an idea that if we just include these countries into the UN or the Human Rights Council or just in general, our values will somehow rub off? Yeah, what do you see Michael, is that something you see in your work?  

Michael Levitt: No. No, not at all. I don’t think it’s a realistic outlook and in fact, I think we’ve seen with what happens at the Human Rights Council and sometimes expanded into other elements of the UN, that that’s not a dynamic that’s effective at all and I think we’re at a stage where we’re seeing the need for like-minded countries. Countries that respect the rule of law, countries that respect democracy, and many of the freedoms that we’ve talked about here today outside of traditional frameworks, multilateral frameworks. We need to see them coming together more often because we’re seeing an erosion of the rule of law. We’re seeing it not just at the human rights level at the Council and a number of the cases we’ve seen here today but we’re also seeing it in much bigger ways. We’re seeing it in Russia, at Russia’s actions in Crimea, we’re seeing it in China’s actions in the South China Sea, we’re seeing it in Iran’s actions in supporting state terror, and it falls on as I think we’ve heard multiple times already in this panel, it falls on the countries that have a voice and a heart for democracy to be able to work together to be able to find other strategies. You know I think that the case of Saudi Arabia has been raised. Canada was one of the few countries that stood up and raised the voice on the Raif situation and we found ourselves very isolated for a long time because of it. The reaction was very muted in the international community I think we saw a shift in that after the Khashoggi killing but we need to again keep building that coalition, keep working together with like-minded so that we can push back because the reality is that, as I mentioned in my remarks earlier, when we look at the deplorable situation that took place over an extended period of time in Syria, the multilateral UN was unable because of the structure to be able to affect real and meaningful intervention in terms of getting solutions into the area but working in what was an ongoing situation. I think we need to as an international community find like-minded and learn to work with them more closely.  

Moderator: So you say that Canada was isolated when you spoke out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. What do you say, Jamie, do the countries who have a voice – democracies – are democracies speaking up the way they should be speaking up? 

Jamie Kirchik: No, unfortunately, I don’t think they are and they seem to be led by my country the United States where I think human rights in some cases has taken a backseat at least in terms of presidential rhetoric. You know, it used to be that presidents of the United States would at the very least in their public pronouncements always speak out in favor of liberal values and human rights and this president occasionally does it but oftentimes he doesn’t. Worse, in my opinion, he frequently expresses his admiration for all manner of dictators whether it’s the dauphin who runs North Korea or the president of Russia in particular and I think that’s really worrisome and particularly if you are a political dissident in one of these countries, you know it used to be if you were in some prison in Siberia you could hear if you were lucky, maybe you know on Radio Free Europe, you could hear President Reagan calling the Soviet Union an evil empire and that would at least give you some hope that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, was at least thinking about you. And today I’m afraid to say I don’t think that my president does that. There are other people in the administration who do. I think the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spoken out quite consistently on human rights, but you know in the matter of Saudi Arabia I thought it was really shameful the way that Canada is one of our probably our closest allies, I mean you’re our neighbor and to see Canada bullied by Saudi Arabia that way and to not really have the full backing of the United States I thought was very disappointing 

Moderator: The U.S. actually left the UN Human Rights Council for a few years. Hillel, could you tell us about that what was it like, what were the effects, what happened? 

Hillel Neuer: Well, it’s something that happened recently. It happened in June or July and it’s not the first time so for those of us who’ve been at the UN for a while will recall that it happened the first time ever in America. Eleanor Roosevelt, as I mentioned this morning, was the founding chair of the Commission on Human Rights in 1946 and since then America was always there and then there was a reform 60 years later in 2006. President George W. Bush was in office and John Bolton was the ambassador. They didn’t like the reform. It was a reform the Commission got a new name, was called the Human Rights Council, they said it’s all been reformed and of course, it wasn’t reformed. The same dictators that were there the day before were there the next day. It just changed the name from Commission to Council and a few other cosmetic changes mostly and most of the same problems and defects remained. And so America pulled out then was gone for a few years and actually, things got worse, that’s the truth. At the time Pakistan and Egypt were very aggressive, other dictatorships and America had always been the backbone whenever there was a resolution, then America used to try to do a resolution on China and today no one would even think of trying because the world has changed. America is weakened, China has risen up, it’s a different world. I mean right and I arrived here in 2004, America was still probably riding on the coattails of the 90s when it was the only superpower on the world scene and today America is diminished. China has risen, other countries have risen. So America pulled out and there wasn’t, the Europeans were kind of didn’t really know what to do, they didn’t have any drive to hold abusers to account and so it was actually the Human Rights Council never got worse, everyone would be interrupted. I often get interrupted but even folks who speak much more diplomatically than I do, they were getting interrupted and it was really quite…  

Moderator: I think you have to explain these interruptions.  

Hillel Neuer: Yeah, sure.  

Moderator: What is it like when you are interrupted in the Council? 

Hillel Neuer: Well one of the great things about the UN Human Rights Council is, unlike anywhere else at the United Nations or almost everywhere else that we know about, at the Security Council where Ambassador Arria served or in the General Assembly that is a forum of governments and an individual who’s not an ambassador has no standing there and the anomaly here in Geneva is that human rights groups known as nongovernmental organizations that get recognition by the UN have an NGO badge, they can speak in the same debate as the representative of Communist China and Syria’s Assad or France. They speak and then we get to speak in the same room in the same debate which is quite extraordinary. So the more that NGOs have been outspoken and it’s now being filmed and it’s on YouTube, they don’t like it. I mean they never like, they don’t like being held to account, they’re not used to it. You know if you go in there and you attack Canada or America or Switzerland you know they’ll shrug, maybe they’ll respond but there’s nothing you could say about America that hasn’t been said on CNN or in the Congress by people who don’t like the president and the same goes true in most other democracies. But when you criticize China, well they’re just not used to it. No one’s doing that in China, they can’t, because you’ll get thrown in prison. So they really don’t like it and, as Elham said, they want the legitimacy, the false legitimacy. The Saudis, when in Canada a few years ago, there was, I think what’s called Embassy Magazine had an interview with the Saudi ambassador and they said ‘Mr. Ambassador, why should Canada continue to sell you military vehicles and so forth because you’re doing a lot of nasty human rights abuses?’ And the Saudi ambassador said ‘no you don’t understand. Didn’t you hear? Has the Saudi government been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council? Don’t you know we are kosher, we are angels, we are virtuous, yes?’ And well, so that’s why they wanted and I think it’s for two reasons. I think it’s one, as propaganda on the world stage, that’s number one; number two to be present when decisions are made to ensure they’re never condemned. But finally, I think I mean if you’re Raif and you’re sitting in prison and you read the headline of the propaganda newspaper and it says you know headline or read from CNN headline: ‘Saudi Arabia has just been elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council,’ well I would take that as a kick in the stomach. How demoralizing can that be when the world you know as Yang Jianli said, he thought everyone abandoned him. Well if the world is electing your oppressor to positions of human rights. So these things are happening, America pulled out again. So America under Obama came back in 2009, they were there for nine years, and then the U.S. pulled out in the summer. And I don’t think it makes things better. I’ve always said, you know the legendary U.S. ambassador Patrick Moynihan who spoke truth to power, I think it would be great to have more people speaking truth to power and NGOs can say things, that’s great, but when a leading government says something that gets recorded you know absolutely in Reuters and leading media, so it’s a way to go on the record. So I think it’s not going to make things better. It’s true that the Obama administration did legitimize the Council, they were cheerleaders of the Council so it’s to find the balance to be present without feeling the need to make exaggerated praise.  

Moderator: Jamie, what about us as journalists? How should we deal with news coming from the Council? Resolutions, reports, and so on. How should we report on these things? 

Jamie Kirchik: Well I think you need to have a sense of perspective and really not fall prey to moral equivalence. All governments commit human rights violations, maybe not Canada, but I’m sure there are some things that Canada does that aren’t good. But clearly, not all countries exist on the same plane when it comes to these things, yet you go to this sort of bizarre funhouse mirror called the UN Human Rights Council and it’s Israel, the United States, pretty much the two countries in the world that are attacked more than any other and they’re two democracies and that’s, I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be criticized for their human rights abuses, but there needs to be a sense of proportion. And I feel that oftentimes and as a journalist, it’s your role to separate fact from fiction and put things into perspective for your readers and to explain to them when the Russian delegate is saying that the annexation of Crimea occurred under a democratic plebiscite, it’s the role of journalists to come in and say wait a minute, it’s not a democratic plebiscite when you have soldiers literally roaming the streets with guns intimidating people into voting or disappearing Tatar human rights activists, that’s not a conducive environment to a free and fair election. And these dictatorships rely upon the gullibility of many people and often journalists who don’t fully understand exactly what is going on in these countries.  

Moderator: Michael Levitt, how do you strike the right balance between being here not legitimizing the dictatorships on the Council, still taking the Council seriously, how do you strike the right balance? 

Michael Levitt: I think we have to look at each situation. I mean I’m here because of the very essence of what the Geneva Summit is about: it’s about human rights defenders, the real human rights defenders being given a voice in Geneva and that’s the reason I’m here. I’m here because this is incredibly important work. One of the goals of the Geneva Summit is to be able to bring this information back into the political sphere and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been here a couple of days, I’ve met with some incredible human rights defenders and this is all-important work. When I go back to Ottawa next Monday, one of the first things I’ll be doing is sitting down with my foreign affairs committee members and starting to have some discussions about what we’ve seen here and what we’ve heard. A number of the areas that we’ve actually covered today have been areas that we’ve looked at in the Canadian parliament. I think the role of parliament as opposed to government, and it’s a distinction, is really an important dynamic where holding human rights abusers to account for this concern. I think there’s a lot of good work that happens between parliamentarians in different countries. I can use the example of the United States where we’ve taped, we’ve gone down with both the Subcommittee on International Human Rights and the Foreign Affairs Committee and met with the Lantos Commission and other really keen parliamentarians who are knowledgeable and resolved to be able to bring about some change. And just as a final point if you look at the adoption of the Magnitsky Act as an example and the work that Bill Browder started in the U.S. and then you know there’s been a domino effect including Canada where I sat on the committee that unanimously passed the Magnitsky study and then it came into law, this is a really important dynamic. Parliamentarians can be a good voice for human rights defenders. 

Moderator: Could you just quickly explain the Magnitsky Act? 

Michael Levitt: Sure. So the Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky. Sergei Magnitsky was a lawyer for an American investor living in Russia who got into and who puts in and decided that they were going to criminalize and take umbrage with the work and the investment strategy of Bill Browder and what he was doing there. They didn’t like that he was being able to basically create profit and have an honest kind of investment strategy. That was pushed back upon by the Russians. His lawyer, Sergei’s lawyer, because Bill had to leave the country, ended up being arrested and being tortured and killed while in jail. Bill Browder then went and basically started in the U.S. but managed to get laws passed in Sergei’s name in a number of countries including Canada, the U.S., the EU, and other countries that basically hold gross human rights abusers to account and we named our laws in Canada after Sergei as have been done in a number of other jurisdictions. It’s a really important act because as opposed to larger sanctions regimes, which are at the state level and require a much broader kind of context, these are particularly targeting the very worst of the human rights abusers in a number of countries. In Canada, we’ve got Magnitsky sanctions that have been applied to Russians and Venezuelans and a number of other bad actors in a number of other countries and it targets them specifically and their assets in our country, and when you start building a network of these Magnitsky sanctions across a range of countries it becomes a much-limited field where some of these bad actors can profit. 

Hillel Neuer: I just want to pipe in for a moment. It seems to really really bother Putin, perhaps more than anything else. Bill Browder, someone who’s just the mastermind of the Magnitsky Act, has been hounded by the Putin regime as they try to arrest him wherever he goes, try to misuse the Interpol, call the red notices, he wrote a book on it, that’s the title of his book right. And he spoke twice at our Geneva Summit. If I’m not mistaken when Vladimir Putin met Trump and he asked for some names, I think Browder is one of the names that he wanted handed over.  

Jamie Kirchik: Well yeah that and then Mike McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia and also in response to the Magnitsky Act, the Russian regime banned the adoption of Russian children to American families so I mean really cruel. I mean I can understand retaliating by maybe placing some kind of trade sanctions on the United States but to inflict your anger on the United States government by punishing Russian orphans is just an incredibly cruel and despicable thing to do. 

Moderator: It shows what kind of regime it is we’re dealing with. James Kirchik, you have focused a lot on gay rights in your writing, is when you look at the Human Rights Council in Geneva how is it advancing gay rights or is it advancing gay rights? 

Jamie Kirchik: I’m not really aware if it’s done much, it’s hard when you have countries…  

Moderator: A lot of the countries here have some of the worst human rights abusers. 

Jamie Kirchick: They criminalize homosexuality then impose the death penalty for being gay. Saudi Arabia, Iran. I think something like 75 countries in the world, that’s been a third of the countries of the world actually criminalize homosexuality and there’s now an effort by the Trump administration – I’ll give them credit – to try to launch a campaign to reverse this and I think it’s really important because whatever you think about gay marriage, this is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a fundamental issue that people should not be murdered for their sexual orientation. I think that’s very basic and I would like to see the democracies, I’m sure Canada, I know Canada has done a lot on international gay rights, but to really bring this before the Council and name and shame these countries.  

Elham Manea: There is a certain movement coming right now also from within certain Arab countries is like I’ve never thought that I will see in Tunisia or in Beirut, NGOs openly defending gay rights or homosexuals and ended up, of course, it’s like they are facing a lot of sanctions, social kind of like authorization but there is something that is taking shape and that brings again the issue about change from within. 

Jamie Kirchick: I think it also shows you the importance of democracy – you mentioned Tunisia and Lebanon, two of the most democratic countries in the Arab world, and it wouldn’t be possible in any other country because you don’t have a right to free speech in other types of societies and so it’s only in the society where people have the right to free speech that they can actually advocate for something like gay rights. We’re not going to see that in Saudi Arabia or Egypt or any other country because…  

Elham Manea: You see them on Twitter, on social media platforms defending these rights but anonymously as you correctly mentioned that basically, the sanctions will be harsher specifically with imprisonment or death in the worst case. 

Moderator: So is it an improvement that you see in a cultural level in these countries?  

Elham Manea: Well the Arab Spring, if you can call it that way, was a political catastrophe and it has to do also with the structures of all of these states so it was no coincidence theory Yemen or Libya collapsed but, that said, there is a change you can actually follow on a certain culture and value on enormous levels. There are issues that are being talked about in a manner that ten years ago I never thought it was possible. Even we’re not talking only about sexual orientations, women’s sexual rights, also questioning religious issues – authenticity of Quran written by humans or came directly from God, questioning things that used to be solid and holy. That is something that might lead to a new, I would call it, an enlightenment in our region. As I said, it’s not about democracy, not yet you know, but I don’t think you can have a democracy without enlightenment.  

Moderator: Something is going on you say? 

Elham Manea: Very much. I’ll put it this way and in a very positive way. I’m the optimist but I don’t think you can change without optimism. I believe something is changing in the region and we have yet to see it coming also here in some areas in the European context.  

Moderator: Why do you think that is, is it social media or is it something…? 

Elham Manea: The control that the governments used to have on ideas is not there anymore no matter what they try to do. And I see as well whether in Saudi Arabia or in Yemen or in other parts in the Arabian Peninsula, in Egypt, you see a certain kind of youth movement – I’m not going to say it’s homogeneous but you have a certain segment of a youth movement – it seems to be questioning everything and pushing the boundaries and the fact that you can, through social media, spread ideas books that were not available before, before 2001 are available right now and you see it and I know it’s not good for intellectual property but it’s heaven for those who want to know. And you see certain books translated from other languages into Arabic for instance and that has an impact because the issue is basically if you are raised just to see a reality from, how do you say, “the whole of a needle,” and suddenly you see a horizontal view, so that’s a bit of good news. 

Moderator: So we’ve been focusing on the institutions, you know their cultural shift. Now I would like to talk about the individual human rights defenders, how can we help individuals like we’ve heard today. And how can you as politicians do something? For instance, Canada has a fantastic record on defending human rights abroad so you also have lots of cases to look at. What works, what doesn’t work, what can you tell us? 

Michael Levitt: I think it’s when I look at over the last four years and especially in my previous role as chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, we were able to shine a light and give voice to a number of human rights situations that we took up in committee that we were able again to work with civil society and find common cause with other jurisdictions as well, so I think parliamentarians and government is always a good place for the people. I mean Ketty [Nivyabandi], as an example, has been in my office, we’ve met a couple of times and had discussions and had other members of the Burundi community to discuss what we can do. You know sometimes there’s more, sometimes there’s less when I look at, for example, what started off in 2016, one of the first sessions of the Human Rights Subcommittee that I was in the chair for was having a group of politicians from the Venezuelan National Assembly, democratically elected National Assembly members come and speak to us in Parliament and there was six of them, they testified before the subcommittee and then they told us about the repression, they told us about Maduro and the bad acts that were really starting to intensify, the beatings, the whole gamut. Then they went to Congress in the States, did the same thing then they went home and they were beaten for coming and sharing their stories in Canada and the U.S. That made it a little bit personal. I have to tell you that when we heard that the people that had risked their lives, their positions to come to Canada when they went back and wound up in jail or beaten we decided that we were going to stay on this case and I’m incredibly proud that two and a half years after that, Canada was one of the leading voices in the Lima group pushing and one of the first countries to recognize interim president Guaido and we now are working very closely with the OAS, with Lima group partners, with other like-minded countries to try and bring about democracy, trying to bring democracy back, trying to bring again to give people a voice in Venezuela. But it started from where I was in Ottawa, it was that first phone call from one of the local activists, one of the local Venezuelan activists who said her name is Alissa. She reached out and said, “I want to bring in the members of the National Assembly, can we come in and speak to you?” And of course, that was going on all over the country and every other country but for me it really hit home and it was the planting of a seed, so I think there’s a real value to having civil society, human rights defenders and academics, I mean you’ve got everybody up here. It’s these institutions working together that can bring about real change. It’s not always…listen, there’s lots of situations that don’t end up with that sort of momentum but I can think of a number of them in the Canadian context that have, and in case I don’t get the microphone back again I’ll just say, working across party lines is key. I find that the biggest successes we’ve had in Canadian Parliament is when I can reach across the floor to my Conservative and NDP colleagues, so like if I’m in the center, left and right saying “come on these human rights issues are beyond partisanship,” and honestly, that has played true in the majority of my experiences in the last four years, everybody gets that. 

Moderator: Is that because it signals unity and simply a stronger message? 

Michael Levitt: Yeah, it signals that these issues, you know when you have somebody that’s being repressed, when you have somebody whose life is being threatened, whose rights are being removed I think, and I’ve seen the same thing in the States too. Listen, the Lantos Commission as an example operates beyond partisanship – they’ve got Democrats and Republicans on there and they work in common cause. And I think when I’ve been, we were just traveling with the committee to the UK a few weeks ago, a lot of Brexit discussion going on, but there was also discussion with my colleague in the British Parliament Tom Tugendhat, who’s the chair of the British Foreign Affairs Committee, and there’s the same degree of interest there, so it’s about reaching out again, whether it’s to other jurisdictions or to other parties because when we do that, good results happen. 

Jamie Kirchick: I actually think one of the few areas where there’s been some bipartisan consensus in the United States – it’s very hard to find anything right now – but on the Venezuela policy, with the exception of a handful of far-left Democrats in Congress, you have the vast majority of people in Congress, Democrat, Republican, are supporting the Trump administration’s real forward leadership on restoring democracy in Venezuela.  

Moderator: Hillel, it looked like you wanted to comment. 

Hillel Neuer: Well I was hearing a lot of optimism, a little too much optimism. I agree with Elham that you need it otherwise what are we doing here? We’ll all just give up and you know we need it. But I do want to note something, I don’t know if it came up today, I’m sure it did in some ways, but something that’s worrying, it does seem like the world’s worst regimes are becoming more aggressive than ever in going after activists worldwide. We know that in their countries always if you dare to criticize the regime, you lift up a sign in China and Saudi, well they throw you in prison. But now it seems more than ever. I was in The Hague a year ago at a conference and an Iranian dissident was assassinated. That happened a couple more times in Europe and eventually the Danish and some others had to complain. They didn’t really want to complain to Iran but they said “wait a minute, can you please stop assassinating people in Europe, you haven’t been doing that for a number of years”. Well, they’re back doing that, Saudis, the Khashoggi case is an example where it’s a combination of things, it’s regimes that in some ways are primitive or becoming more sophisticated. They care about what someone is saying in Washington. We tried to bring a certain, another Saudi activist who lives in another country and that individual said, “you know what, I’m done. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m done, I have a family and they’re coming after us,” and there’s reports about things, you know using cell phone technology to track them so I think we’re seeing, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and I’m sure many others, they care about things like this and dissidents who are here, they know that better than I do. Wherever they live, you could be in Canada, it could be some other kind of place. Hopefully, your government protects you but they care and they are getting becoming more emboldened, and the fact that Trump is not using the discourse of human rights, it sends a signal. I’m sure they were doing it before. But that sends a signal, it gives an opening and I think people like the prince in Saudi Arabia felt emboldened. I think others do too so I’m very worried about precisely the people that we brought here, people who many of them live in exile that their communities, there are many of them, there was an article I think was in The New York Times about how everything was about Saudis, how many Saudis in many different countries in Europe suddenly getting phone calls, “come to the embassy,” saying they want to speak to you and they know how to find you they know where you are and it seems that they’re doing things and they have no fear anymore.  

Moderator: James Kirchick, do you agree with Hillel that this is, these countries are being emboldened by the Trump administration? 

James Kirchick: It’s hard to draw direct cause and correlation connections between this. I do think in general, as I said before, I think it is the role and the duty of the titular leader of the free world to actually speak out in favor of freedom and democracy. And when you don’t hear him doing that, I do think it sort of creates at least an environment or a more permissive environment where these sorts of abuses can happen. On the other hand, there’s also hard power and if you want to look at one sort of disparity, you have very bizarre disturbing presidential rhetoric on Russia praising President Putin, repeatedly saying that he didn’t intervene in our election. Yet the actual policies of the Trump administration towards Russia are actually quite tough and in terms of human rights, in terms of sanctions for what they’re doing in Crimea, in terms of our support for NATO, again you know Trump says all these terrible things about NATO but actually U.S. support for NATO has grown over the past two years so it’s strange I mean and so you know in some sense there’s a friend of mine who refers to Donald Trump as being a visiting fellow at the White House, you don’t really, it’s hard to tell sometimes there’s sort of the president’s policy and then there’s the administration policy and they’re not always the same. But I do think it’s troubling to have a president who speaks this way. On the other hand, you often have presidents who say lots of nice flowery things and then don’t back it up. So you know the last person the United States gave very nice speeches about dignity and human rights and whatnot, yet when he had the opportunity to do something in Syria where something like half a million people have been slaughtered, he chose not to. So you know words are nice but actions are better.  

Elham Manea: If I could basically comment. Yes, the situation of human rights today has reached a certain kind of miserable status. But that said, I will never forget the situation during the Cold War, remembered at that time. Okay now if you remember during the Cold War, also the human rights status or situations in countries were the least, were not exactly on the top priority of the two superpowers. If you are in my camp I would defend you regardless of what you’re doing and there’s this famous expression, “yes he’s a son of a [ B__ ] but he’s our son of a [ B__ ].” Saudi Arabia was also part of that camp. So from that perspective, human rights as a status that we have to insist that it should be respected in the world, was not exactly on the priority okay. Today we are also faced with a similar situation but involved in. Actually, the dictators or the authoritarian governments are emboldened by the lack of a certain kind of country that can play like the moral compass. The United States, no matter what they did, there was always a certain kind of like respect. They do have a certain kind of line when it comes to human rights. Today I don’t see that, today I don’t see that. And the problem is basically you see a changing international order with the rise of countries like China which does not care at all about these issues. In fact, it can push us into a different direction that’s for me a problem.  

Moderator: So what you’re saying is that leverage on human rights is also a function of military and economic muscle. 

Elham Manea: That’s why we are also, that’s why I don’t care how these connections are at the end of the day, it’s from within. The people can change, but then when we change I hope we don’t end up with a situation like we had in Egypt when that change took place and those democratic forces were not organized in a manner that allowed them to take the lead. In fact, you had the two institutions – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – both were good, well-organized and that brought us back to the authoritarian situation that we are in.  

Moderator: James Kirchick, you looked like you had a comment on that.  

James Kirchick: I was just going to say you’re right about that and during the Cold War, particularly during the detente era when the Nixon administration basically said you know we want to have nice relations with Russia, the Soviet Union, and we’re gonna really not talk about this human rights thing. And then there was the Helsinki Accords which in 1975, the Soviet Union, in Europe, in the United States, all these countries, they basically signed these Accords that did talk about the importance of individual rights and human rights. And once the Soviet Union signed its name to that document, it then basically created a precedent where its own citizens could point and say “you know what? You sign this document and we know that you know you never really did that sincerely but you’ve put your name to this and we’re now gonna hold you to account.” And then you have President Reagan come in who was really unafraid to talk in very strong moral terms about the Soviet Union – he called it an evil empire – he gave many speeches and people would often you snicker, he’s this B Hollywood actor and he’s Ronnie Reagan and he’s gonna drive the world and nuclear Armageddon. But you talk to people who live behind the Iron Curtain and it meant a lot that they had the president of the United States who spoke very clearly about what was going on the other side of the Iron Curtain and whenever he had a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev he would have a little list of the names of prominent political prisoners in the Soviet Union. He would always make a point to mention those names and say “when are you going to free these people?” and it became humiliating, it became embarrassing for the Soviets to have to constantly explain and say why these people are in prison and whatnot. And you know there have been some human rights victories, we have gotten some political prisoners out of jail in this current administration but I can’t say that Donald Trump feels that in his gut like Ronald Reagan did.  

Moderator: If we talk about lists like you mentioned, lists of individual cases, I’m wondering when it helps to speak up to mention their names, to talk about them as we have done today, and when does it help to take a step back and not say anything and work behind the scenes and let a regime perhaps let them go free without losing face? What do you say, Michael Levitt? 

Michael Levitt: Yeah, it is very complicated and I think it really is on a case-by-case basis. I’ve seen this dynamic now over the last four years that I’ve been a parliamentarian, there’s a number of cases that have come up and in discussions with the government, with other parliamentarians, sometimes with NGOs, with other outside organizations. You know I see the Raoul Wallenberg Centre in the room, I’m part of an initiative with them, the Raoul Wallenberg Parliamentary Caucus, multi-partisan, and we’ve actually got a political prisoners initiative where we’ve adopted each individual parliamentarian as a political prisoner and we’ve done statements in the House, press conferences all in an effort to raise the visibility. There’s been other cases I know and again it changes over time but there’s been other cases, maybe even the Badawi case at the beginning where there was a concern about speaking out too publicly about Raif’s plight for fear of backlash. But I think these things are always in flux, they’re always changing, and I think there’s a point that if it’s not moving one way, we need to give it voice, we need to make sure his name is known. You know I mean could there be anything more emotional and poignant than seeing his daughter standing up here today talking about her daddy languishing in jail? I mean that is a message that will get out to millions of people and there’s a point at which that we need that to happen so I think an answer to your question depends on the situation but really important for civil society, for parliamentarians, for journalists, for academics, and for all of us to give voice to those important cases.  

Elham Manea: If I may just speak for just a second. Yes, it’s very important to look from one case to another because there are certain cases where you can work from behind the scenes and I was involved in such cases and it really worked, but the question is basically to be here clear. He was languishing in prison for two years despite everything no one cared when he was lashed, when he was flogged after the Charlie Hebdo massacres. Then suddenly it clicked and you had a certain kind of a human rights campaign that made clear that this cannot be. So the campaign I hope did not harm his chances because, despite everything that was done for two years, nothing had.  

Moderator: If I go back to you Michael Levitt, are there cases right now where Canada is working behind the scenes that we don’t know of because it’s something that you don’t want to make public? 

Michael Levitt: Listen, I’m a parliamentarian, I’m not the foreign affairs minister. We’ve got a consular affairs department that works night and day to deal with the issue of Canadians that are being held abroad. I mean this is a top, top priority for our government and the prime minister said it, foreign minister Christian Freeland has said it. This is an unending effort that’s involved so there will be both – there will definitely be some behind the scenes that are being worked on but there’s others, obviously the ones we’re more familiar about in Iran, in Saudi Arabia, and other countries where it’s been very public. Leopoldo Lopez, an example of another one that was very public, we had his family up on Parliament Hill and it was really a full-court press of publicity. Absolutely there’ll be other ones where the judgment will be made that there’s opportunities to do it quietly, but it’s really something that’s very delicate and we trust the officials that are dealing with that to be able to make that decision.  

James Kirchick: I know there’s a Canadian citizen currently being held by the Chinese, a former Chinese diplomat who’s basically being held as a political pawn. 

Michael Levitt: We’ve got three Canadians right now that we’re dealing with in the Chinese situation that is very complicated and tied into the situation with the Huawei executive in Canada as well. So again our position always in these types of situations is that Canada is going to uphold the rule of law where Canadians are being held abroad. We’re going to use every means possible, both quietly and publicly when necessary to make sure that Canadian citizens, and I know that’s true for the U.S., I know it’s true for our like-minded countries. Nobody wants to see their citizens languishing in a foreign jail on trumped-up charges. I mean it’s the worst-case scenario and certainly as a parliamentarian when I have those families come in, whether you know again publicly or in private though it’s gut-wrenching. I mean can you imagine I’m hearing Richard Ratcliffe here today, it is absolutely gut-wrenching to know that those individuals are suffering in jail and that the families are suffering at home.  

Moderator: We have a roomful of students here today and I think we’re all wondering, all of us who are sitting here, what can we do as individuals and as citizens and social media users and so on? I would like to ask the panel again – Hillel you’re the activist, Elham you’re the political scientist, James journalist, Michael politician. From your perspective, what can each and every one of us do to help?  

Hillel Neuer: Yes I think it can be easy to think that we have no power at all to make a difference on these things and the truth is that each of us has to feel as though they can really make a difference for someone in this world and only with that attitude can you do so. And we saw that Jiang Yanli spoke about being in prison and solitary confinement and finding out that there was an outpouring of support which eventually led to China agreeing that a lawyer would visit him and eventually caused him to get out of solitary confinement and eventually he was released. So it’s a fact that we can make a difference, we have people here, political prisoners who were released through one form or another. So I think what the students have been doing, there was a group from Amnesty that’s doing a letter-writing campaign, I think that’s very important. I think we, those of us who live in democracies, we all have representatives. If you live in Switzerland you have a Member of Parliament. It might be in your Geneva canton or the federal parliament. You can write to them and you can reach them probably through social media, through email, or through Twitter, or through Instagram. You can send a message and you could send a message of someone that you heard a story that you’ve heard an important case that, whether it’s a country situation like Burundi or, I’m actually happy to announce that Ketty informed me that the girls who were arrested for doodling on the president’s photo were actually just released today so that’s the thank God for that right, free our girls. So I want to pay tribute to Ketty and everyone around the world who spoke out on that. So that’s just an example – you never know what leads to something else but we do know from people who’ve been released that certainly beyond the case when they wanted to keep quiet to do some kind of a deal, but I think the way we can all make a difference is to send a message to a member of parliament, some representatives that you have, and say “I care about this case, what are you doing about it?” And trust me, if an elected representative gets enough of those messages, he or she will say something and that could make a difference.  

Moderator: Dr. Elham. 

Elham Manea: I usually tell my students don’t be indifferent, and very often I realize that many of us are afraid to make a judgment, to take a position because very often we think we don’t know enough. And all I’m saying is inform yourself and look at the consequences as, regardless of which religion, culture we’re talking about, look at the practice and look at the consequences on the human beings that are living under these conditions and if you think you cannot bear it for yourself or your kids then with all due respect, take a stance, don’t be indifferent.  

James Kirchik: Yeah, I would just reiterate what I said this morning, which is that I think that what unites us as human beings is greater than what divides us and if you’re looking at a country like Iran or someplace in Africa like Zimbabwe, there are superficial differences – people might wear a hijab or they might practice a different religion than you, but they do fundamentally want the same things. And you shouldn’t listen to those who will tell you that you know this society isn’t ready for democracy or individual rights. I think that’s a fundamentally racist mode of thought and that’s what the dictators and the authoritarians want you to think.  

Moderator: People are the same with the same need for freedom and democracy.  

Michael Levitt: I think my message would be to the young people in the room, find your passion, find your passion, find that issue that drives you. If it’s an issue related to human rights, there’s organizations out there that are doing good work, if it’s LGBTQ, if it’s women’s rights, if it’s the rights of religious minorities that are being persecuted. There is tremendous activity going on in civil society, there are groups that do such great work that sometimes are even easier than just sort of writing into your MP although I welcome any of you from York Centre in Canada to email me right away, but I think that finding your passion will mean that you’ll just be motivated to get involved. Don’t be indifferent, get involved, get active, and have your voice heard. You’re never too young to have your voice heard. 

Moderator: Find your passion, that’s great advice. Thank you. Michael Levitt, James Kirchik, Dr. Elham, and Hillel Neuer, thank you very much and thank you for listening. 

Speakers and Participants

James Kirchick

Journalist, author, and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution

Michael Levitt

Canadian MP, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Former Chair of the Human Rights Subcommittee

Elham Manea

Professor of Middle East affairs and family spokesperson for Raif Badawi


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