Supporting Political Prisoners with Irwin Cotler, Elham Manea, Dennis Chau, Jewher Ilham

Full Transcript

Dennis Chau: So, on that, just not putting trade relations above basic human rights when you’re thinking of signing these new trade agreements, as countries do. Not putting trading relations above basic human rights.

Moderator, Irwin Cotler: I think what Dennis has said about the importance of not putting trade above human rights is a phenomenon that we have been witnessing, not only in Vietnam, but in the phenomenon of a mercantile diplomacy, that puts trade interests and, not only at the expense of human rights, but preempts the advocacy on behalf of human rights.

Let me turn to Jewher and ask you, how do we mobilize the democracies?

Jewher Ilham: I think it’s very important to start with younger generations. So, I believe now in societies, younger generations are not involved in politics enough. A lot of people would assume that “politics is too far away from my life,” but as we know, democracy is part of politics but also, a main part is about human rights and it’s strongly connected, and I do suggest educating, starting from younger generations from high school, from college students, with media training, and letting them have more access to the outside world will be a very helpful way to help with democracy.

Moderator: I’m glad you mentioned the importance of [the] voice of young people. I think in the last year alone, one of the more encouraging signs has been the manner in which young people have been taking to the streets and raising their voices at considerable risk to themselves.

The movement in Hong Kong is a movement of young people. In Chile, we saw young people in protest. In Lebanon, and I can go on. So while there’s been this resurgent global authoritarianism, while there’s been this assault on human rights and the silence of democracies, we have been seeing, in the last year, the phenomenon of young people willing to brave this repression, and to speak up, and to act, and that I have found has been one of the most encouraging developments that we have seen, and I’m glad you mentioned that, because young people can play and are now playing an important role in the case and cause of human rights. Elham?

Elham Manea: I’ll just join my two colleagues in this respect. Let me just say something. I have stopped expecting anything from governments. In politics, as you said, [the] realist approach seems to be dominant in the way they conduct their policies. I understand that.

What I learned over the time is that you have to take them to task, and that means that we work as civil society actors, all the forces, within and outside, working together and making sure that these violations [that are] taking place are not taking place in silence. And shaming, shaming the government, because that can be also effective. And, with all due respect, if I look at the United States during the Cold War, there was a well-known saying that I usually quote – I’m not sure which president said it – yes he’s talking about a Latin American president, “yes, he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Right?

After the Cold War, you had the war on terrorism. You have certain interests that are dominating relationships; oil, trade. All of these are factors, I’m not going to ignore them, but while that is the case, I will insist: these are universal human rights and I’m holding you to task for whatever you say you’re representing, and within our countries – specifically, I’m talking about the Middle East and [the] MENA region – change will only happen if we demand it.

So, we’re not going to sit waiting for someone to hand us handouts. These are our rights, we’re fighting for them.

Moderator: You know, Elham, when you mention these words and the words of our fellow panelists, I’m reminded and recall an incident that took place, and speaks to the issue that all of you have been speaking to, and the responsibilities of the international community in matters of universal human rights, and regrettably at the retreat of democracies.

This occurred a little over a year and a half ago, when the then-foreign minister of Canada, Chrystia Freeland, called for the release of the Badawis from the Saudi Arabian prison. Immediately after her call, which was not the first of its kind from the Canadian parliament or the Canadian government, it resulted in the Saudi Arabian leadership erupting in anger; ejecting the Canadian ambassador from Saudi Arabia, recalling the Saudi Arabian ambassador from Canada, suspending all trade and investment with Canada, and recalling the 15,000 Saudi Arabian students who were studying in Canada. Really, punishing innocent Saudi Arabian students and doing detriment to Saudi Arabia’s own self-interest, when all that Chrystia Freeland had done, and you reminded me, Elham, with your words, was call for the protection of universal human rights.

But the disturbing part of all this was, that after this occurred, after the Saudi Arabian eruption for Canada seeking to do nothing else but to implement universal human rights, not one democracy came to Canada’s defense. And, as I wrote at the time – because two months later we witnessed the brutal murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi – as I wrote that it was the silence of the democracies when Canada called for the implementation of universal human rights, that took us down the road to the brutal murder of Khashoggi, because it allowed the Saudi Arabian leadership – and this is true elsewhere and not singling up but in the resurgent global authoritarianism – to believe that they can act with impunity. To believe that the international community will not hold them to account. To believe that the democracies will remain silent in the faces of these assaults on human rights.

And what we’ve seen here in the panel today, are the faces and voices of those who are speaking up on our behalf for these universal human rights, and who have been imprisoned for doing so, and where these universal human rights have been criminalized. Whether they be freedom of religion and belief, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, expression and alike.

And so, it’s our responsibility – I’ve said this before, but it bears constant reaffirmation and most importantly action – it’s our responsibility to speak on behalf of those who cannot otherwise be heard. To act on behalf of those who have put, not their livelihood, but indeed their lives on the line, and to become their voices and their faces, not only on behalf of their individual cases and causes of false imprisonment and criminalization of human rights, but on behalf of universal human rights, on behalf of the promise of the UN Charter 75 years ago, on behalf of the conscience of humanity.

And I want to thank each of you for sharing your experiences, your stories, for letting us be a looking glass, through you, to the pain and plight of the political prisoners on whose behalf you have been advocating and serving as a reminder to all of us here and the international community, that this remains our individual and collective responsibility.

Thank you all.


Speakers and Participants

Dennis Chau

Rights activist and son of Vietnamese political prisoner

Irwin Cotler

International Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada

Jewher Ilham

Author, rights activist, and daughter of Uyghur scholar sentenced to life in prison for promoting peace

Elham Manea

Professor of Middle East affairs and family spokesperson for Raif Badawi


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