Confronting Oppression, Defending Human Rights with Kaveh Shahrooz, Lyubov Sobol, Peter Bhatti, Melissa Mahtani

Full Transcript

Moderator: It was incredibly powerful. I would like to just begin by taking a moment, to really recognize the courage and sacrifice all of you, including Nury, have really taken and I don’t think it gets hard enough recognition. So, please, just join me in giving them all a round of applause. So, there are a lot of people in this room, who may have heard these presentations and feel like they are facing similar situations in their own countries, and, equally, I know there are a lot of students here who may be deciding which path to take: corporate law, human rights law, maybe becoming an activist, so I really want to just take a step back and ask each of you when was the exact moment you really decided that enough was enough: you needed to speak out and take a stand. Kaveh if I could start with you.

Kaveh Shahrooz: Sure. So, I mean, I think I alluded to it a little bit in my own speech, my own family experience, I think really sparked in me a desire to kind of be the voice of a lot of voiceless people that I saw when I was going to these prisons as a child. I would see families going to see imprisoned relatives that really were voiceless and really were powerless against a really brutal tyranny. So that, I think, sparked something in me. I had the good fortune of going to law school and I think that equips you with certain skills and certain abilities, and that’s you know, when I was in law school, I decided to focus a lot on human rights and expose some of these crimes that I’d heard about, and, you know, I think, I’m sure there are law students and lawyers in the room. You know, you are uniquely positioned to do that. So, I really urge you to use your platform, but if you’re in other lines of work, if you’re a journalist, if you’re just an activist or just a student, I urge you to do that. I think everyone really does have a platform, and all of us have some family connections, some friends, all of whom have suffered. Again, I think it’s important just to draw from that personal experience and then use whatever little platform you may have to push the human rights movement forward.

Moderator: Lyubov, you were also a lawyer. You studied law and then one when was the moment you decided that you wanted to go and work for the opposition, I mean taking on Putin it is not the easiest job in Russia.

Lyubov Sobol: I was always worried about the situation in Russia, about some injustice in our country and I always hate that some strong offense the weak, but I remember the very moment: I was studying at Moscow University, and I was the observer at the election in the Moscow region and I just wanted to control an honest election, but it wasn’t honest. It was dishonest, absolutely. And so, I just was literally kicked out of the election station, by the police, and then I decided that Mother is enough.

Moderator: You were escorted out because they wouldn’t let you actually observe that there were fair elections or even accounting processes. And so then at that moment, you decided I would go.

Lyubov Sobol: Because I didn’t do anything wrong, but I was kicked out from the election station by the police and said that it’s not a game, so it’s enough. I want to do something for my country and for me, and for my family and so on.

Moderator: Enough was enough, and for you, Peter?

Peter Bhatti: In Pakistan, as of the creation, indigenous minorities are continuously suffering day by day and when my brother was assassinated, he was assassinated because he helped victimized people and oppressed people in Pakistan and my brother was assassinated by…and I decided myself that despite all problems my brother faced, I had to continue his legacy for the people of religious majorities of Pakistan and even other vulnerable peoples of Pakistan, because if we do not raise our voice, who will speak about them? So, I decided despite all that, of my life and my family to continue working on behalf of the victimized and oppressed people of Pakistan.

Moderator: These are not easy decisions to make. I mean, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve seen the world in the past couple of years really shift. Now, we’ve seen a lack of moral leadership from Heads of State and from institutions, which, on the one hand, is depressing, but we’ve also seen a real rise and citizens like each of you taking a stand and doing something with their own power, and social media has really helped this course. And Lyubov, you’re a prime example of somebody who has taken that power and is really using it effectively. Lyubov, tell us about your YouTube channel and the impact it’s having in Russia.

Lyubov Sobol: On YouTube, I have been working with Alexei Navalny, a national Democratic opposition leader for nine years and we have some Twitter accounts, a Facebook account, Instagram not checked up, the channels on YouTube channel with one and three million subscribers now, and we use some social media because we are blocked on TV, and all discussion in Russia is on Twitter and on Facebook. There is no discussion about food, lifestyle and so on, like in Europe. We just, I discuss some society problems, politics and so on, because this discussion is blocked on TV, on State newspapers, but people want to know the truth. We do some investigation and then we release it on our YouTube channel and people support us.

Moderator: So, effectively you were blocked on Russian TV.

Lyubov Sobol: Yeah, we are on the blacklist. It’s me, Navalny and so on. We are blocked on TV.

Moderator: So you took that power into your own hands, and now on this huge YouTube channel are really telling Russians the truth that they don’t hear elsewhere, and you said you have a million subscribers on one channel.

Lyubov: We have two YouTube channels with 1,000,000 subscribers and three million subscribers.

Moderator: And so that’s a great example of how you can really use social media to spread the word. But then Peter, you know, in your case, in Pakistan it’s almost the opposite because social media has been sometimes used by these extremists to spread fake news, and when we saw in your presentation mob killings, all it takes is like a short clip for somebody to put that on Facebook for it to spread across the Internet, and then you see these violent mobs in Pakistan going to hurt people who are accused of blasphemy, even though there’s no evidence. Can you tell us a little bit about this sort of mob rule and the use of fake news in Pakistan?

Peter Bhatti: It is so unfair that especially if somebody is accused of blasphemy, even falsely accused. I give some examples already that the mindset of the people took control in their own hands, and they don’t wait for the person to bring injustice through a course or a lawyer. They want to take revenge from themselves, and this is gathered in mobs, and for example, if one person is accused of blasphemy and it was announced in the mosque, all the people get together to take revenge from that person that has insulted of the religion of our prophet and they’re not asking for any witnesses or anything else, and that person not only is a victim or affected, the whole region of that area are affected by the mob because they want to kill whole areas, all families. That’s why our villages are being burned, all Christian colonies are being burned, even church properties are going to be burnt to the ashes and there is no safe place remaining in that country.

Moderator: So, a short video can be used to spread fake news that gets taken out of control and a mob goes not just after the person, but after an entire village?

Peter Bhatti: Yes.

Moderator: Which means that I mean, in addition to leaders, we need to be holding tech companies accountable for what they’re doing, and as Nury mentioned, you know, oftentimes these tech companies are also providing countries like China, the tools for surveillance are being used in other countries. 

Peter Bhatti: And, also I believe that there are some sections of extremism. They are doing this and our government tried their best to control this one, but sometimes they took law and order in their own control and it is far harder to control the Government of Pakistan. My suggestion to the audience and people in the media is that it is time to stand with the Pakistani people, those who want to promote human rights and religious freedom, support us. If the investor community not stands with the people, even the government, those who want to make it changes…I give you one example, maybe only last week – forced conversion is very common in Pakistan. About 12 to 18 years, young Christians and other religious minorities are being kidnapped and forcefully raped and converted to Islam. The government of synth, one to bring the law, that it can be possible to isolate that. Others are ladies. Those can be converted, but extremists made a big show in the country said “No, no, you cannot do that”, and the judge gives a ruling against that last that OK if any woman is junk or nine or ten years in the first period, she is able to marry and once it gets married she has to be connected to Islam and if she wants to go back she can go back either. So, the women’s families cannot do anything about that girl, because they are already converted and once they are converted there officially their husband and nobody can change.

Moderator: So, the countries have effectively been hijacked by extremists. You know, so we have just heard a little bit about the blessing of social media and technology and the curse, but Kaveh in your new in your case, in Iran as a case of no news when they were the protests last year in November, I mean, the government just shut down the entire Internet, which really is kind of unheard of. We’ve seen that in very rare instances. What was that like for Iranians who are in the country? What were you hearing?

Kaveh Shahrooz: Well, unfortunately, I wasn’t hearing much while the protests were happening. Subsequently, in talking to family and friends and then seeing people’s reactions on social media after the Internet hadn’t been restored, I mean, there was this incredible sense of frustration and anger that the Iranian regime had taken the step. Now, this was not entirely unexpected. The Iranian regime has been talking for some time about getting your on-off the Internet and connecting Iran via an intranet, which they can then control and basically cut Iranians off from the world. And unfortunately, this seems to be a regular tactic now used by a lot of authoritarians. I think you know; I would encourage any of you that are in positions of power and influence to really focus on this issue. The democracy movement nowadays desperately needs to be connected by the Internet for two reasons. One, it helps activists organize and two, it helps them get the images and stories out to the world. And so what I think our democratic leaders should be thinking about, what our tech companies should be thinking about is how to avoid authoritarian regimes being able to do what the Iranian regime has done and plans to do more of. How do we keep people connected? I know there are technological solutions out there. I’ve heard rumblings. I’m by number means an expert on this. But I know the solutions now are out there and I hope those of you that are in positions of influence that have technical knowledge will work on this because that’s critical to keep democracy movements alive around the world.

Moderator: So, I mean, even when we are connected, fake news and propaganda have been around for years. I mean, you see it in Russia all the time, in Russia today and other channels, but you know, there was an interview very recently by the Iranian Foreign Minister that he gave to NBC, where he was presenting Iran’s version of what happened to the plane, as well as the missile strikes. What did you make of it?

Kaveh Shahrooz: You know Iran’s Foreign minister is in the business of the spread of false news. He smiles and he lies simultaneously and constantly. In that interview, for those that had the pleasure of not watching it and not hearing his lies, basically, he said that he thought US, Canada, and Boeing were involved in some sort of conspiracy to keep the black box. Now, the black box is held by Iran. Iran refuses to cooperate with international authorities to release it. It was entirely consistent with what the Iranian regime and a lot of authoritarian states do, which is they push false narratives into the atmosphere and they allow social networks and their lobbyists in the West to keep pushing these stories, and what they’re hoping to achieve is just create confusion, and the solution for that again I think is for people in this room, not to give in to that kind of confusion, is moral clarity. I think it is easy: it’s easy to find out the truth. So, look at credible sources and push the truth out there and counter these, as best as you can, on social media, imprint, and elsewhere, really, those of us that live in the democratic world, have that obligation.

Moderator: And, so just in closing, because we have a great program to get through today, the Human Rights Council is amazing next week. To each of you, what is one single thing that you want them to do next week that will help you? Lyubov.

Lyubov Sobol: I think that I said it yesterday and I want to say it now, I think that foreign officials and foreign politicians must not take money from Putin and his inner circle, because Putin thinks that he can buy anyone, and I think it’s the main thing.

Moderator: Okay and Peter?

Peter Bhatti: I believe that the United Nations should talk to the Pakistan Government to repeal all the discriminatory laws, which are the root cause of persecution of religious  minorities in Pakistan and stand with the people, who are raising the voice of minorities. So, if they can protect that voice or stand with them, then more voices can be heard, and it can make a change. So far, very few voices are left in Pakistan.

Melissa: And Kaveh?

Kaveh Shahrooz: All I say are two quick things. One, there ought to be an investigation at the Human Rights Council over what happened in Iran in November when Iran shut off the Internet and killed 1500 people. And secondly, what I will say is that there is a special repertoire assigned to Iran by the UN Human Rights Council, but that special repertoire has never had access to Iran, has never been allowed in the country, to talk to prisoners and to visit Iran’s detention facilities. So, I think the international community ought to make it clear to Iran that if you ever want to be on the Human Rights Council, if you ever want to be on UN women or any other UN body, you have to cooperate and not a special repertory does its job.

Moderator: Thank you very much. That’s where we leave it.

Speakers and Participants

Peter Bhatti

Brother of Pakistani Minister who was assassinated for supporting Asia Bibi

Lyubov Sobol

Russian opposition leader and prominent social media influencer

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