Opening with Yang Jianli

Yang Jianli, leading Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist, addresses the 4th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Yang Jianli: Thank you Hillel. Good morning my friends and good day. I say good day because anytime friends join together to openly dedicate themselves to the collaborative work of advancing human rights and democracy, it is a good day. As [the] United Nations Human Rights Council holds its main annual session, our Geneva Summit is assembling hundreds of courageous dissidents, human rights activists, diplomats, and student leaders to shine a spotlight and a call for action on urgent human rights situations that require global attention. And so, let me say again good morning and good day.

Although of course, it is the morning in this beautiful city, on this very good day, we know too that we are gathered in the shade of shadows. Shadows cast by human rights abuses; shadows cast by human rights abusers. The Syrian autocracy’s [continued] brutal crackdown on its own people is today’s most visible example of the bad and predictable habits of corrupt and unaccountable power. But while we watch and wait in horror as Assad’s regime murders Syrian citizens, while we deplore the senseless carnage visited upon all Syria brothers and sisters, and while we lament that more than 60 years after the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world still cannot prevent atrocities taking place like those taking place today in Syria. We should be grateful to the Syrian people for courageously reminding us that human dignity does not compromise when it demands recognition. We should also be grateful to the Syrian people for reminding us that the work we do here in Geneva is concretely connected to their struggle.

You see, I come from China. And just as the people of Syria have friends awakening people’s conscience around the globe, their oppressor has a friend in the Chinese regime. The Chinese regime that massacred innocent civilians and students in 1989 is still the same regime in power today in China. This is the same regime that is pursuing cultural genocide on our Tibetan, Uyghur, and Mongolian brothers. This is the same regime whose paranoid fear allows it to imprison and torture its best and brightest citizens. The list of the Chinese government’s crimes against its own people, its own citizens, goes on and on. The number of these regime’s victims lie into the millions, including the 26 self-immolated Tibetans in the recent three years. And this regime is the same regime whose foreign policies and the models of repression enable the morally and philosophically bankrupt regimes of Syria, Iran, North Korea, and so on to suck lives, freedoms, dignities, and wealth from their people. Then what is China’s punishment for this scandalous behavior?

When it comes to the United Nations, there is no punishment. Quite the contrary, China is rewarded for its behavior with a seat on the world’s highest human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council. It also has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, where it can exercise its veto with impunity. As a result of this farcical arrangement [the] Chinese government, an unaccountable and illegitimate power that does not even represent its own people, is able to influence how other countries, indeed how other dictatorships, treat their people. No country that behaves this way towards its own citizens should have a place on the UN Human Rights Council. No country. No country that uses its veto power to prevent [the] UN condemnation of the atrocities against the people of another country, like those taking place in Syria, has a right to the power it has been given by the United Nations. No country.

Indeed we should ask ourselves serious questions. Why should a dictatorship have a say in world human affairs when it does not allow a voice to its own citizens? Who does the dictatorship represent when it takes a seat at the UN? And more important[ly], who and what is the UN choosing to recognize when it grants a dictatorship power in a committee or on the Security Council? 

 In the case of China, the consequences of the dictator’s powers for the people of China are clear enough. So too are the consequences of its power at the UN for the people of Syria. All of these consequences are unacceptable. If China were a pupil in elementary school its progress reports would never stop reading: must do better. But it is not a pupil in elementary school; it is a powerful nation at [the] UN. Its progress report always reads ‘good enough’. No. That is not good enough for the advancement of human rights.

Special friendships between the dictatorships should not be allowed to continue at the UN. The continued existence of dictatorships in today’s world [are an] embarrassment to common sense and to our coming humanity. Dictatorships today exist as desperate anachronisms. clinging as we do to the nearest and most convenient of justifications, be they cultural, historical, or economic, to maintain power. Human rights heroes from Burma, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Egypt, and Pakistan will testify today at this summit that their struggles have demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate, just how flimsy these justifications are. We are very much looking forward to hearing their inspiring testimonies. 

We should be thankful to these heroes for reminding us that tyrannies that desperately work against fundamental human dignity are bound to fail. History progresses, and the older methods of control are swept away as illegitimate power faces opposition from more and more forces demanding freedom from domination; as has been most recently evidenced by the Arab Spring, and the opening up in Burma, and will surely be proved again and again by people’s struggles around the world. This is the promise of democracy in our own times. This is truly a good day, but I must remind you my dear friends that it says a lot about the work that must be done, that the discussion we are having here today, must take place outside of the official United Nations meetings. Clearly, we have a great deal to do, and let us make no mistake as we move forward. 

The international interconnectedness of our work must be a front, always at the front, of our minds. The problems of the people of China are our problems because they are the problems of the people of Syria. The problems of the people of Syria are our problems because they are the problems of the people of Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, [and] so on and so forth. They are the problems we must confront honestly, energetically, and forthrightly today in order to make a good day possible for more and more people tomorrow. 

Thank you very much.

Speakers and Participants

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China


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