James Kirchik, journalist, author, and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, addresses the 11th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On the universality of human rights:

“Don’t let anyone tell you that certain cultures are immune to democracy or individual rights or the liberal idea. The best argument against that hidebound prejudice are the testimonies that you will hear today.”

“If there’s one message I wish for you to glean from today’s discussions it is an acknowledgement of the universality of human rights which is really just an expression of the universality of the human experience.”

On a new authoritarianism: 

“Today the rulers of countries that used to be communist like Russia or ones that are nominally communist like China have shorn the failed economic model of the command economy, yet they maintain and they regularly enhance authoritarian political practices.”

“The leading state exponent of this new ideology of authoritarianism is China, which is using its economic prowess to harness technology in troubling and frankly Orwellian ways.”

On the importance of speaking out:

“At a time when democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise, when the world’s democracies are becoming less democratic and less powerful, and the world’s authoritarian states are becoming more internally repressive and more externally assertive, it is all the more important for democratic nations and democratic peoples to work together.”

“Freedom of expression is the most fundamental right of a liberal society, the right upon which all other freedoms are contingent.”

Full Remarks

Thank you Hillel and thank you UN Watch for having me here today, and thank you all for coming.

In my work as a journalist reporting on the struggles for democracy and freedom around the world I’ve met an inspiring array of people.

13 years ago in Zimbabwe when that country was in the depths of its repression under the dismal regime of Robert Mugabe, I interviewed a blind cricket commentator, purportedly the world’s first blind sports broadcaster. After criticising the politicization of that country’s national cricket team live on the air he was visited at his place of work by government agents who escorted him to a secret room where they beat the soles of his feet until they bled. 

A few weeks later in South Africa, I met an exiled former Zimbabwean policeman who after refusing to partake in organised election fraud was seized upon by colleagues who mutilated his genitals with a knife.

 In Cuba, I visited the home of Berta Soler, leader of ‘Las Damas de Blanco’ (The Ladies in White). This is a coalition of wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers of political prisoners. Their peaceful weekly Sunday protests are regularly met with violence by state security agents who drag the women by their hair through the streets. “The problem that Cuba has isn’t the embargo”, she told me, “it’s the system that’s not working”.  “Fidel and Raul just sold a story that’s not true internationally and domestically”. That corrupt and oppressive system persists in Cuba and is working overtime to maintain an equally unjust system today in Venezuela.

Near the Demilitarized Zone which divides North and South Korea under dead of night and withstanding sub-zero temperatures I joined a group of North Korean defectors in launching giant hot air balloons that carried thousands of pro-democracy leaflets and a giant poster for the comedic film “The Interview” over the border into the world’s most repressive state. Pyongyang has called these people who organized such covert launches ‘human scum’ and promised to physically eliminate them. The man who organized this operation, the son of a formerly high-ranking North Korean regime official, named Park Sang Hak has been targeted as ‘enemy zero’ by that government which in 2011 dispatched a double agent to South Korea to kill him with a poison-tipped pen.

Belarus has been described as the last dictatorship in Europe and it was there in December of 2010, also in sub-zero temperatures, that I witnessed the brutal aftermath of a stolen election. Special police units deployed by President Alexander Lukashenko mercilessly beat unarmed demonstrators, young children, and old women with truncheons. Visiting the country just six months later I attended a performance of the Belarus Free Theater, an acting troupe that must perform its politically subversive plays in abandoned buildings and in the forests and which advertises its shows via text message sometimes just hours in advance. 

In Serbia I covered the first successful gay pride parade in that conservative Orthodox Christian country. Though the demonstration transpired relatively peacefully, it required the protection of some 5000 police officers who had to guard marchers from violent protesters rioting across the city. 

The individuals I’ve told you about just now speak a variety of languages, they hail from diverse cultures, they have different skin colors, they pray to different gods, or to no gods, and they represent an assortment of political and social causes. Yet despite these superficial differences they all share something in common, something which to my mind is far more important than the many things which distinguish them. They are committed to the liberal idea, the belief that all human beings are endowed with fundamental rights which no governments can take away. Some believe that these fundamental rights are granted by God, others are convinced that a higher power has nothing to do with it. Whether one thinks that our rights to expression, self-determination, and freedom of conscience are god-given or not, however, has no bearing upon the fact that they are human rights – by which they are rights inherent to us because we are human. 

This liberal idea is a relatively new one. For most of human history the notion that men – never mind women – possess rights that are inviolable and safe from the whims of a king or a regent or a tribal chieftain or some other absolute ruler was non-existent. As my Brookings Institution colleague, Robert Kagan, recently wrote in The Washington Post: “before the liberal idea took hold in the 18th-century, generations of peasants were virtual slaves to generations of landowners. People were not free to think or believe as they wished, including about the most vitally important questions in a religious age, the questions of salvation or damnation, of themselves and their loved ones. The shifting religious doctrines promulgated in Rome or Wittenberg or London on such matters as the meanings of the Eucharist were transmitted down to the smallest parishes. The humblest peasant could be burned at the stake for deviating from orthodoxy. Anyone from the lowest to the highest could be subjected to the most horrific tortures and executions on the order of the king or the Pope or their functionaries. People may have been left to the habitual rhythms of work and leisure but their bodies and their souls were at the mercy of their secular and spiritual rulers.”

It was only in the 19th century that slavery was abolished in the United States and only in the 20th that African-Americans and women were given full voting rights. Today across most of the world, the freedoms that we enjoy in places like Geneva or Washington or Tokyo are a distant dream. The liberal idea is a precious idea and it is under threat from all sides like at no other time since the Cold War when Europe was divided into free and unfree halves and international communism posed an ideological and systemic challenge to liberal democracy. Though the global conflicts between the communist and non-communist worlds may have brought us on more than one occasion to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, I believe that the struggle to protect and expand the liberal idea today will be more difficult over the coming century than it was in the last.

Today the rulers of countries that used to be communist like Russia or ones that are nominally communist like China have shorn the failed economic model of the command economy, yet they maintain and they regularly enhance authoritarian political practices. They offer a seemingly attractive bargain to not only their own citizens but to those around the world which is: surrender some of your democratic freedoms in exchange for political stability, economic growth, and cultural cohesion. 

The leading state exponent of this new ideology of authoritarianism is China, which is using its economic prowess to harness technology in troubling and frankly Orwellian ways: facial recognition technology, a pervasive social credit system that could have been lifted from an episode of the dystopian TV series ‘Black Mirror’, the Great Firewall of China. Such tools smother individual initiative and enforce societal control.

Communist Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, has removed presidential term limits effectively making him president for life. With its Belt and Road Economic Development Programme Beijing is flexing its muscles around the world and gaining political influence in regions traditionally hostile to its wiles like Europe. According to the US State Department anywhere from 800,000 to 2,000,000 Muslim Uighur citizens are languishing in re-education camps, concentration camps, today in China.

Now if China were just a giant Switzerland we would have no reason to fear its rise but it’s not unfortunately and in its current form China presents a threat to the liberal world order and the liberal idea.

Repressing their citizens at home, authoritarian states like China are using their long reach to attack critics abroad in some cases like Russia’s poisoning of the ex-spy Sergei Skripal on British soil last year. The tactics are audacious and deadly. Since publishing a paper two years ago documenting the extent of Chinese political influence in New Zealand the academic Ann Marie Brady has had her home and her office broken into, her car damaged, and she has received threatening letters, emails, and phone calls. “It is meant to scare me” she recently told The Guardian newspaper, “to cause mental illness or inhibit the kinds of things I write on. To silence me. So I win by not being afraid”. 

The individuals whom you’ll hear from today are similarly not afraid. Many of them have served time in prison for expressing their political beliefs, are engaging in the sorts of peaceful democratic activism which those of us who live in open societies take for granted. 

We are honored to be joined by the family of Raif Badawi, a Saudi advocate for freedom. After creating a website and discussion forum called “Free Saudi Liberals” he was convicted by his country’s government of quote “violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thoughts”. Originally the Saudi regime recommended Raif be tried for apostasy which is a crime punishable by death, merely because he liked a Facebook page which stated that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal. Raif’s plight is especially meaningful to me, we are the same age and propagating liberal thought is basically what I do for a living. Yet for Raif it brought on hundreds of lashes and a prison sentence.

At the age of seven, Nimco Ali was subjected to the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. This nonmedical procedure affects an estimated 3 million girls every year around the world. It is gruesome and misogynistic. It is meant to exert control over women, deny them autonomy, and put them in their place. Nimco has devoted her life to stopping FGM and will explain to us how we can help her in this important task.

Yang Jianli was a dutiful member of the Chinese Communist Party who became disillusioned with that country’s authoritarian system while witnessing the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square when the regime massacred thousands of his fellow students who were peacefully demonstrating for democracy. He has been imprisoned for his political beliefs and he now resides in the United States.

These are just a few of the voices you will hear from today. Different causes, different races, different countries, different languages, different traditions, different cultures, different political convictions, but they all share the same fundamental belief in human freedom.

Don’t let anyone tell you that certain cultures are immune to democracy or individual rights or the liberal idea. The best argument against that hidebound prejudice are the testimonies that you will hear today. Indeed if there’s one message I wish for you to glean from today’s discussions it is an acknowledgement of the universality of human rights which is really just an expression of the universality of the human experience.

Across the world and especially in the West, we are seeing a rise in what’s commonly referred to as identity politics; this is the belief that one’s identity whether racial, religious, national, or sexual gender is the key determinant in one’s life. Identity politics has the tendency to create unbridgeable divisions between people emphasizing superficial differences over universal similarities. The salience of identity as a determinant in global politics is growing. If the major world conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century was over economics, today they are increasingly determined by identity.

According to the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, “identity politics is no longer a minor phenomenon playing out only in the rarefied confines of university campuses or providing a backdrop to low stakes skirmishes in culture wars promoted by the mass media, instead identity politics has become a master concept that explains much of what is going on in global affairs. While our diverse identities are important to recognize and respect we must not let them overwhelm our sense of what it is that unites us. By arguing that humans are ultimately defined by their irrevocable traits, the extreme forms of identity politics are fundamentally opposed to the liberal idea, they are anti-enlightenment.” 

One hears the arguments of Western practitioners of identity politics replicated in the words of dictators who say that ideas like freedom and individual rights in democracy don’t apply to their cultures, but as the people in this room can attest the rights of man are non-negotiable. It is often said that a society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members, the aged to the infirmed, to the poor, the same metric applies to a world order beset by various forms of dictatorship, how do we treat the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable states? 

At a time when democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise, when the world’s democracies are becoming less democratic and less powerful, and the world’s authoritarian states are becoming more internally repressive and more externally assertive, it is all the more important for democratic nations and democratic peoples to work together. That is what we are all doing here today. Democratic alliances like the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the bilateral relationships between democratic countries must be strengthened if human liberty is to flourish.

Leaders of democratic countries must support these alliances and institutions and speak out forthrightly in defense of liberal values wherever and whenever they are under attack. With great freedom comes great responsibility, as a citizen of a free country who has been provided with a public platform I believe it is my responsibility to speak out when the fundamental rights of my fellow human beings are being repressed especially when those fellow human beings are denied the right to speak for themselves. 

Freedom of expression is the most fundamental right of a liberal society, the right upon which all other freedoms are contingent. The founders of my country the United States, understood its centrality which was why they enshrined it as the first amendment to our Constitution. Those of us who live in free societies are incredibly lucky to have this right most of the world’s population does not. 

Earlier this month in Washington where I live and work I listened to a speech from the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, who said hers is a small country in Eastern Europe which for decades was occupied by the Soviet Union, but today it is a dynamic, open, tech-savvy, liberal democracy, which tops global rankings for democratic participation, transparency, female participation, and other leading indicators of social advancements. Reflecting on a previous visit to the US capital, she recalled walking along the National Mall, the Grand Plaza in downtown Washington where our monuments to presidents and war memorials are located. She recalled reading the thoughts displayed on the walls of these monuments and I told myself this is the place you have to always remember- should life bring you among the decision makers in politics, some of you in this room are among those decision makers, others certainly will be in the future, I hope that you take the time to listen and learn from the brave men and women who will be speaking with us today, democratic nations and democratic peoples must stand for the liberal idea which means that we must stand for human rights.

Thank you.

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