Fighting Authoritarianism with Javier El-Hage

Javier El-Hage, chief legal officer of the Human Rights Foundation, addresses the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On learning the importance of liberty:

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” [Jefferson]

“That’s one way of learning about the importance of liberty and democracy. To have to fight for it, to have to go through horrendous circumstances after you’ve lost liberty and then try to recuperate it.”

“Everyone that has a luxury of living in a free society, in a democracy, in a country that is not ruled by an authoritarian regime, must learn from the stories of the people that are bearing witness day to day that you have here in this conference.”

“We must hear the stories, we must learn about their stories, about their suffering, so that in our own societies we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

Full Remarks

Thank you to UN Watch for the invitation, the Human Rights Foundation chaired by Garry Kasparov and presided by Thor Halvorssen, I am very grateful for the opportunity to once again collaborate in the organization of this wonderful conference.

I want to start, before I introduce our panellists, by noting that there are two ways in which we can learn the importance of liberty and democracy. One of them is exemplified by Thomas Jefferson’s quote that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure, he said, it is its natural fertilizer. That’s one way of learning about the importance of liberty and democracy. To have to fight for it, to have to go through horrendous circumstances after you’ve lost liberty and then try to recuperate it.

Another way is exemplified by the great quote of Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, that said “we must bear witness for the dead and for the living, it is our responsibility to bear witness and to decide what to do with our memories of the deceased under a dictatorship”.  The second one obviously is the one that we are called to do here in open societies in Switzerland, in the United States, in Canada, in most countries in Latin America today, in most countries of Western Europe, in around 20% of Africa, everyone that has a luxury of living in a free society, in a democracy, in a country that is not ruled by an authoritarian regime, must learn from the stories of the people that are bearing witness day to day that you have here in this conference that you saw in the in the clip at the beginning. We must hear the stories we must learn about their stories, about their suffering, so that in our own societies we don’t repeat the same mistakes. We bear witness as they are bearing witness of their own societies and that way rid ourselves from the perils of tyranny that are prevalent in every open society. Every open society can shut down in a single generation.

The four speakers I’m gonna introduce today are examples of of heroes, survivors that have borne witness of their own countries that atrocities and I wanna I want to introduce them one by one. First though I want to define authoritarianism by Nathan Sharansky’s public square test. According to Nathan Sharansky’s case for democracy, if one cannot go to the public square and freely criticize its government one is not living in a free society one is living in a fear society. Authoritarian regimes are by definition regimes where people live in fear societies. Where people cannot go to the public square and criticize the government. Now political scientists go and make more sophisticated arguments that maintain this general truth.

One such political political scientist is Steve Levitsky which we follow at the Human Rights Foundation to classify governments around the world in either dictatorship or two types of authoritarian regimes: competitive authoritarian regimes or fully authoritarian regimes which are non-democracies. According to our account 95 of around 193 countries in the world are authoritarian regimes, are ruled by authoritarian governments that do not pass the public square test. That is the case of Vietnam, of Zimbabwe, of Cuba, and Turkey today. Unfortunately all four countries are considered fully authoritarian regimes, full-fledged dictatorships.

Turkey was a good example of a competitive authoritarian regime, there was some degree of decent competition for power, in a climate of harassment and persecution obviously, but there was some semblance of democracy. The same with Venezuela many years ago. But both countries have have transitioned into complete dictatorial regimes. We’re gonna hear first from Asli Erdogan, Asli comes from Turkey, a 85 million people country. A country that was on the verge of becoming full-fledged democracy and of being admitted for membership at the European Union but that unfortunately has gone completely the opposite way. Asli is a writer who has been herself imprisoned for being a member of an advisory board of a newspaper in Turkey. She has suffered political imprisonment, inhuman and degrading treatment in prison, and she is very eloquent as you’ll see in a minute in explaining how horrible the situation has become an unbearable for the free world to to continue watching Idle, how unbearable this situation has become in Turkey.

After that we’re gonna have Guillermo Coco Farinas. Guillermo is a Sakharov Prize winner, the human rights prize from the European Union as you know. As well as the Venezuelan opposition today represented by Mayor Ledezma. He won the Sakharov prize back in the early 2000s, he is a very brave advocate for democracy, he has essentially risked his life many times by doing hunger strikes in Cuba for dozens of days, he’s been at the verge of annihilation but he has survived to tell his story to bear witness to what happens in Cuba to his fellow dissidents and to enlighten us all so that we don’t repeat the issues that he saw in Cuba. He was a member of the dictatorship at some point, he was a military man, he fought with the dictatorship in Africa and he is here to bear witness about his experience.

Third we’re gonna have pastor Evan Mawarire. Evan is a hero from Zimbabwe, one of the worst dictatorships in Africa. After Idi Amin was an infamous dictator proudly Robert Mugabe became the best example of an awful tyrant that turned his country’s dream for independence into a nightmare of kleptocracy and abuse and repression. He is a member of the new generation that is calling on his country for hope, that this new generation that has eventually led to the overthrow of Mugabe. Unfortunately though Zimbabwe has not transitioned into a democracy, it’s still ruled by the same tyrants and he’s gonna speak about that today.

And finally we’re gonna hear from someone that is bearing witness also on behalf of his dad, of his imprisoned father in Vietnam. Vietnam has I believe very little attention compared to the degree of human suffering that it inflicts on people. Vietnam has a population of close to 100 million people. In this tiny country that we in the free world know mostly because of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War, this country is in fact still today oppressed. One hundred million people are oppressed by a dictatorial regime there and one of those people is Effy Nguyen’s dad and he’s gonna speak about that in a little bit as he bears witness and hopefully illuminates us all so that in free societies were able to spread the message, spread the word so that voters vote for the left or for the right every election cycle but never vote for the dictatorial left or the dictatorial right because the end result is very similar and it leads to oppression, dictatorship, and tyranny. 

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