Opening Speech with Markus Löning

Markus Löning, Chair of the Human Rights Committee at Liberal International, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full Remarks

Hillel Neuer: Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Hillel Neuer, I am the Executive Director of UN Watch, and it is my honor and pleasure to welcome you to the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. We are being webcast live around the world. I welcome you this morning as part of a cross-regional coalition of 20 human rights non-governmental organizations. 

And before I begin, let me just remind you all that the day’s program is on our website,, for those of you watching the webcast. For those of you here in the room, it’s in your badge- the entire program is in your badge. And if you leave the conference center you must keep your badge to come back in, so don’t lose your badge. For those of you who want to follow in English or French, we have live interpretation happening throughout the day, and you’ll see the channels on your audio box at your desk, and you can see that the language is indicated. When people are speaking in a language other than English and French, it will be translated into English and French. 

Finally, I want to encourage all of you to be active and share the information, share your thoughts, share your feelings, share your questions on social media. You can tweet; the hashtag is #GS15 and the Twitter handle is @GenevaSummit. The panel sessions- we have a very packed schedule, so we won’t have the ability to take questions from the audience, but you could put things on Twitter and perhaps the moderators might be able to pose some of your questions during their session.

Ladies and gentlemen, we began the Geneva Summit yesterday with an opening press conference, a special event yesterday at the United Nations at the Palais des Nations, co-sponsored by the governments of Canada, the Czech Republic, and the United States, and we thank them for their support. Yesterday, it was an extraordinary event. And we had international media as we have again today. 

And when we heard the compelling presentations, I felt sadness. And I also felt hope. I felt sadness and I think we will feel sadness today. When you hear from a journalist who was held captive for 10 months by one of the most barbaric terrorist organizations the world has ever known, ISIS – people are being beheaded, burned alive every week. And when we hear from a journalist who spent 10 months with people who were famously beheaded, you feel extraordinary sadness. And you feel sadness when you hear, as we’ll hear later today, from Ashiq Masih, who’s come here from Pakistan, whose wife is on death row convicted to death for blasphemy because she went to drink, to get a cup of water from the well, and her villagers decided to denounce her for blasphemy under false charges. And you feel sadness when we’ll hear the case of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, a young man whose only crime was to create a blog for liberal Saudis, and he was convicted to 10 years in prison and to 1000 lashes. And we’ll hear many cases like that, and you feel the weight of the human condition. 

But at the same time, ladies and gentlemen, I believe that today there are also, within the sadness, messages of hope. There’s messages of hope, when we see young men from Hong Kong, leaders of the student protest movement, who have taken a break from the Umbrella Protests to come here today, to share their extraordinary story. And it’s inspiring to see young people so energetic and courageous for the cause of democracy, freedom, and universal human rights. 

And we feel sadness when we will hear from the young woman from Nigeria. We all remember last year, the school girls who are abducted by Boko Haram, more than 270 girls taken from their school, to slavery, we don’t really know. And we all put up the hashtag bring our girls back, bring back our girls. Well, today, one of those girls is with us. And we’ll hear the extraordinary story of how she escaped Boko Haram, showing courage, and how she is willing to speak out, despite the risks to her family and friends, and to take on this horrific group that is now plaguing tens of thousands, burning villages in Africa. 

And I believe that within the sadness of Iran, a country that suffers from gross and systematic human rights violations, will hear a message of hope, when we will present our Women’s Rights Award this afternoon to Masih Alinejad, a woman who’s done extraordinary things to provide a platform for girls, for women to feel basic human rights in small places; to feel basic human rights at home, at work, at school, within their daily lives. 

When we hear also from courageous dissidents, activists, journalists, from China, Cuba, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and other countries, a number of whom had a very difficult time to get here, some of whom were initially blocked on their planes by their oppressive governments. When we see their example, people willing to risk all for the cause of basic freedom, I believe there is a message of hope and inspiration for humanity. And that’s why we’re gathered here today, days before the United Nations will meet in their annual session of the Human Rights Council across the streets and foreign ministers will be gathering on Monday. And we’ve gathered here today, activists, students, diplomats, to try to shine a spotlight on some of the world’s most compelling human rights situations, and to urge the international community to hear their testimonies, to hear their plight, to hear their humanity, and to act. We’re here today to demand action. 

With that, I have the great honor to call up one of our partners, one of the NGO partners of this Geneva Summit, Mr. Markus Löning from Liberal International. He’s the head of their human rights committee. He was a member of the Bundestag for a number of years, and the Human Rights Commissioner of the German government, and we’re so honored and privileged that Mr. Löning will deliver our opening keynote address, please.

Mr. Markus Löning: Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear human rights activists, dear friends, it’s a great honor to speak here and to be able to make a few remarks at the beginning of this very remarkable event. I would like to start by thanking Hillel. Your effort, the effort of UN Watch, the effort of all the other NGOsm to bring together human rights activists from across the world to Geneva, on the eve of the day that the Human Rights Council is going to start its session, and that leaders and representatives of world governments are going to meet in this very place over on the other side at the Palais Des Nations. Because I think that is what civil society is about. It is about bringing issues to the table, bringing issues to the public, to the media, and putting pressure on governments and reminding governments of their duty. And they have one duty that is very clear, and that a lot of them don’t comply with, and that is the duty to protect the human rights of each and every one of their citizens: of every girl, of every boy, of every woman and of every man. That is the first and most important task of every government in this world and we’re here to remind them of this task. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me touch on a few issues. The agenda today is very impressive and I’m impressed by people that came here under difficult circumstances; human rights activists, but also victims of human rights abuses that made their way to Geneva to speak up and to tell their story to the world. And we’re going to see and talk about very different issues, different countries, very different different topics. 

I would like to open this meeting with a few remarks on four or five different issues. If you’re a human rights activist, it’s sometimes easy to paint the world in black and in white, we’re the good ones and they’re the bad ones. But I think to be successful, it’s very important to look at things more deeply, and to recognize that the world is not black and white. The world is a very colorful place and there’s no such thing as the perfect good on one side, or the perfect evil on the other side, there are all the shades between. And it is our task to move countries and people and governments more towards the good side. And we don’t have solutions to everything. We should also be honest about that. I do not have a solution, or proposal to make [on] how to stop the atrocities that are being committed in Syria, or in Iraq. I do not know what the world community can do. Or how we can move the world community to do more. To stop this. What we have seen over the past weeks, months, years now is an international system that has failed.

We have seen a UN Security Council that has not done what it should have done. It has not even made humanitarian access to many areas in Syria possible. It has not called on the conflict parties in the way it should, to stop them. It has not been able to manage a dialogue to stop, or to try to at least bring down this conflict in any way. And we should be aware that this is the case in many other conflicts too. The world is watching Syria, the world is watching Iraq. The world is watching what is happening in Nigeria and in neighboring countries where Boko Haram is committing their atrocities. The world – and that is a call to my own continent, to Europe is watching what is happening in Ukraine. And we feel helpless in many ways, and we do not know how to stop these atrocities. And we must be aware of this and always say it again and again. And think harder, try harder and work harder to stop what we can do. 

And there will be different solutions proposed. Some people will propose to bring in the military, and stop the atrocities by bringing in the military. That is something that you can discuss. But we have had the experience of Libya, we have had the experience of Iraq, we have had the experience of Afghanistan. And we must ask ourselves, is that the way to go? Is that the way to go to the Syria conflict, to end the Syria conflict? It is something that has stopped for a while the conflict in Mali. But is it a way that we can stop the conflicts that are going on? Or is the supply of weaponry the way to go? Do we want to arm one or the other side, or certain groups in this conflict to help them protect their lives, defend their families? I do not have an answer to that. And I think that is a question which must be discussed again and again. Because these are very, very difficult questions to answer and very, very difficult questions to take responsibility for. But there’s one thing that is pretty clear where the world community can definitely do more. And that is the question of refugees. 

We’re seeing millions of people leaving their homes in Syria and in Iraq. We’ve seen the neighboring countries Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, giving shelter to these refugees, and I myself have been visiting camps, refugee camps. I have been talking to people that have left their home, that had to flee their homes. I will never forget speaking to a grandmother who was there with her grandchildren and her sisters and her daughters-in-law, and she was telling [me] about her home, her hometown, and the house that she had been living in all of her life, which was only 50 kilometers away. And she had to leave it. And she had to leave her sons there that would want to fight to defend what was their family’s home. And she didn’t know at that time whether she would ever see her sons again, and whether her grandchildren would ever see their father’s again. And I think this is something where the world’s community must make more of an effort. 

We cannot have people live under very, very dire conditions in these refugee camps in the Middle East. And we cannot have people die in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe. The European Union must step up its response to the refugee crisis. The European Union is a union of rich countries. And we can have more refugees and give shelter to a lot more people than we are doing right now. And I know in many countries it’s difficult. I’ve seen it in my own countries; we have demonstrations out in the streets, xenophobic demonstrations. But still the majority of the people are willing to receive and to give more shelter. And I’m calling on the politicians and the governments across Europe to give shelter to more refugees. 

Listen, gentlemen, the second topic I would like to touch on is the question of religion, religious freedom, religious extremism. This is an extreme, difficult and touchy issue. We have seen infringements on the freedom of religion with just the example of Pakistan, which is one of the countries where religious freedom is least respected if you’re [of the] non-majority Muslim. There’s always other questions to it, too. It’s not only religion, there are social questions connected to it, there are political questions, there’s sometimes ethnic questions also connected to it; we should also be aware of that. 

But we should also be aware and clearly address that infringement of religious freedom is not a question of one religion. If we’re looking at Myanmar, we see a Buddhist majority killing a Muslim minority, or killing people from a Muslim minority, trying to push them out of the country, neglecting them their rights to be where they have been born, or what their parents have been born. If we look at Africa, we see Christian, so-called Christian armies, Lord’s Resistance Army and others, claiming to be acting because of their faith. And the same is true for ISIS or for Boko Haram. And I think we should give a very clear answer to this and say that very clearly, religion can never be an excuse, no matter what religion, it can never be an excuse to kill people, to take away people’s very basic rights of freedom to live, of freedom to move and of their personal dignity. 

Religion is something that must always be respected. Each and every person has the right to follow his or her religion. And religious groups have the right to worship in public and to meet, to follow their religious routines. But the question that we have to ask is, how far does that go? Can or are our religious groups, or religious extremists – whoever you may call them – how much are they allowed to impose their view of the world on others in the society they are living in? Where do we draw the lines between expressing your view, living your religion, and imposing your way of life and your way of looking at the world onto others? And I believe that this is a very, very important question that societies across the world, be it in Europe, be it in the United States, be it in Africa, in the Arab world, or in Asia have to confront over the next years. This is one of the most difficult questions that human societies will have to answer over the next years to come. 

And there’s one thing beyond violence that we should also make very clear as human rights defenders. We cannot accept hate speech. And the freedom of speech is a basic freedom. But if someone is abusing the freedom of speech, to incite to hatred against minorities, be they ethnic, be they sexual minorities, be they whatever kind of minorities. If religious leaders abuse their status of authority, and abuse their religion for hate speech and incitement to hatred, we must step up against that. And we must make clear that we fully respect and will defend the freedom of religion. But we will not accept hatred, or violence in the name of religion. 

Ladies and gentlemen, freedom of speech has been under attack across the world. We’ve all seen the shooting in Copenhagen, and what has been happening in Paris. But we are also aware that this is something that is shaking Europe. And we’ve seen freedom of speech being attacked by groups, by individuals, by terrorists. And we can see how difficult it is for journalists that are under pressure. And that, of course, are afraid of being targets, to be courageous, and to keep up the courage not on the day after the attack, but also for weeks, for months, and for years after the attack, when the media are not looking at their work. And the public is taking freedom of speech and the courage of journalists for granted. We will have to stand up for freedom of speech, day in and day out. That is not something that is done or served with because there was a big demonstration in Paris and in many other cities. Or because we met in front of the Brandenburg Gate demonstrating for our friends in Paris and in France, and telling them “on êtes de Charlie, on êtes avec vous.” That is good and it was important. But it is not good enough. We need the day to day effort on freedom of speech. We will need it in Europe, but we will need it as much, at least in other countries. 

Never thinking of my friends in China. I’m not talking about Hong Kong, I’m talking about mainland China. If I see how much they feel under the pressure over the last years, how many of those courageous writers, journalists, poets, people that have been out on the Fourth of July 1989, on Tiananmen Square, fighting for their rights, to freedom and respect for their human rights, how many of them ended up in jail? How many of them had to leave the country? How many of them are now living in exile, be it in Taiwan, in Hong Kong, in the US in many other countries and in Germany, amongst others. 

And I think that is why it is so important to protect the rights to freedom of speech, in Europe, in the American countries, in many other countries. Because these are the real issues that we have to address. It is the infringement of freedom of speech by authoritarian regimes. I’ve been talking about China, I could just as well talk about Iran, about Saudi Arabia, or about Russia. And there’s many other countries where this is an issue. Freedom of speech is the mother of freedom. If you can address the issues in the country, if you can freely have a debate about how to improve the situation of your country, if you can point your fingers at those in government that are making these mistakes, or that you may want to lead different politics, you need freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is the key to freedom of the individual, and is the key to the protection of human rights across the world. And if we – and I’m repeating myself, but I don’t want to miss out on that – and if we as Western countries want to be credible on freedom of speech, we must also be credible on the protection of privacy. 

What we have seen, what has been revealed by Edward Snowden [] one and a half years ago about what the NSA is doing, what the GCHQ, the British intelligence are doing. But in the meantime, we found out the German intelligence is doing something similar. And the former President of our Constitutional Court in Germany has clearly stated in front of parliament that this is illegal. It is illegal to infringe on the privacy of people just because they are not your citizens. It is not acceptable to intrude into the privacy, without reason, of people across the world. And it is a massive infringement on civil rights. And it is delegitimizing the fight for human rights from Western countries. So my call today also goes out to leaders of the Western countries: be credible, and do what you preach. Protect and respect privacy and freedom of speech. Also, when you pretend to work on security, that is the difference that needs to be made.

There’s one thing that is the measure, and that is the foundation of all of the things that we are doing and that is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And this needs to be respected by each and every government. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let me very shortly touch on [the] death penalty because this is something where engagement of many has really moved the world. We have seen the number of countries that have the death penalty going down and down and down over the last years. We see the struggle of our friends in the United States, where less and less federal states still have the death penalty. I’ve been myself to California last year, the year before, when they had a referendum, which was very narrow. And they nearly abolished the death penalty in California. But other states like Maryland did, and more are going to follow. And that is just the United States. We’ve seen countries – and yesterday I was talking to my colleague who’s here from Morocco, and she was telling about her fight in Morocco against the death penalty. And I think we must stick together in this. We should all go together against the death penalty in all of our countries, in all the countries. And those that have abolished the death penalty, support those that are still fighting. And I think there is reason for hope. We’re looking at what is happening in Iran, which gives no reason for hope, concerning the death penalty. And we’re also looking at what is happening in Saudi Arabia where we see beheadings, which is unbelievable, which is unbelievably cruel. And we’re going to speak up on this again, and again and again. And I think the sign of hope that we can send, and that is my experience, even in countries like Iran, or even North Korea, speaking up does make a difference. It does make a difference. If people in charge are getting letters, phone calls, emails, if they are confronted with media coverage across the world, on people that are on death row or people that have been unjustly tried and that are in prisons like the Evin Prison in Tehran, it does make a difference. I myself have been speaking to former inmates of Evin that said, yes, it was because there were so many letters that we got released a little earlier. So it is worth the effort [to do that]. And that is what I would like to close on, ladies and gentlemen. 

This summit is a meeting of human rights activists, of NGOs, from across the world. And we’re here to raise our voice for the dignity of each and every human being across this world. We’re here to pressure governments to fulfill their duty, to protect each and every individual, and governments will listen. Some more, some less, but they will always listen to the voice of the people out in the street and it is always worth a try even if we think it will not make a difference. Ladies and gentlemen, I have had – and you will not believe it – I have had the ambassador of North Korea and my office calling: “Could you please stop passing these motions and supporting these motions in the United Nations.” So it obviously makes some kind of impression even on this awful government. So we should never stop doing this, and we should never stop pressing our governments for that. 

And as we are here, and that goes especially for those that live in free countries, let’s stand up for those that cannot stand up for themselves. We have a moral obligation to protect, and to stand up for our friends in Iran, in Russia, in China, in many other countries that cannot stand up for themselves, we must give them protection, we must give them all the support we can because that is all they have in many cases. And we must also always remember, as human rights activists, there will always be differences. I was talking about some differences, how to approach this or that conflict. We will always have debates on issues –  whether this is the right way to go or that is the right way to go. But we should also be sure that we will never be divided and always stand united in our common goal. And that is to fulfill the values and the rights of people that are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: to the protection of the dignity of each and every one, of each and every individual in this world. Thank you very much.


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