Welcome with John Suarez

John Suarez, Executive Director at the Center for a Free Cuba, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


John Suarez: Mayor of Geneva, Isabel Rochat, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, I’d also like to point out that today is International Women’s Day. We’re thrilled to have Dr. Massouda Jalal, the first female candidate for the Afghani presidency, former Minister of Women’s Affairs, who will also be speaking here at the Geneva Summit; we’re thrilled to have her. 

Good morning. Welcome to the second Geneva summit for Human Rights, Tolerance, and Democracy. My name is John Suarez, I’m a human rights activist and international secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directorate. The Directorate is part of a civic nonviolent resistance movement that defends pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders, and members of civil society from abuses of Cuba’s communist regime. We publish an annual Human Rights Report on Cuba as well as steps to freedom, copies of which are in the lobby. It is an accounting of opposition and civil society activities in Cuba. 

On behalf of the co-organizers and international coalition of more than 25 human rights NGOs, I am both honored and humbled to welcome all who have come near and far to join us today here at the Geneva International Conference Center, directly across from the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is now in session, and all those joining via webcast from around the world. 

The first year the summit coincided with the Durban review, and the second summit takes place now in tandem with the main annual session of the UN Human Rights Council. Summit organizers are honored to have human rights heroes such as Vaslav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, the former presidents of the Czech Republic and Poland, as chairs of the Geneva Summit’s honorary committee. As we gather here and many of us are also watching, listening and participating in the Human Rights Council session across the way and are witnessing some of the worst systematic human rights abusers, exerting undue influence and power over the council. In some cases, silencing victims from speaking and frustrating human rights activists.

I think back to both our co-chairs. In Czechoslovakia in the 1970s Vaslav Havel was a dissident playwright, followed by secret police, imprisoned for his beliefs. And in Poland, Lech Walesa, an electrician working at the Gdansk shipyards before being fired in 1976, for his activities as a shop steward would later be followed and frequently detained for his independent labor activism. All this at a time when the world was convinced that these repressive regimes would go on forever.

Both have said much that is relevant to the challenges that we face today. Months after the Warsaw Pact invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, crushing the Prague Spring and the idea of socialism with the human face, Vaslav Havel wrote a letter to the overthrown Czechoslovak Communist Party Chairman Alexander Dubcek in August of 1969, in which he stated, and I quote, “even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect, can gradually and indirectly overtime gain in political significance.” That in one sentence describes the evolution of dissident movements in communist states and their impact in shaking up the seemingly all-powerful totalitarian regime, creating cracks in its edifice and over time tearing it down. 

By 1983, Lech Walesa had played an important role in the workers’ strikes that brought the Polish communist government to the negotiating table where for the first time, in a communist state, an independent labor union, Solidarity, was legally recognized; only to face repression and attempts to destroy it through martial law. But by 1983, martial law was formally lifted, although repression continued. It was also the year when Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize. Not allowed to attend the award ceremony in Oslo, Welesa’s wife Balluta went in his place and read his acceptance speech, where he explained what motivated this movement. Again, I quote, “We are fighting for the right of the working people to association for the dignity of human labor. We respect the dignity and the rights of every man and every nation. The path to a brighter future of the world leads through honest reconsideration of the conflicting interest and not through hatred and bloodshed. To follow that path means to enhance the moral power of the all embracing idea of human solidarity.” 

Both men played crucial roles in bringing repressive totalitarian regimes in their respective countries to their end, without democrats engaging in bloodshed against their oppressors. Today in both of their countries, they and their countrymen are free to travel, express themselves, associate freely and enjoy all those rights that many in the West take for granted. 

Looking around the room and seeing human rights defenders from Azerbaijan, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Tibet, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, activists today live in societies where fundamental human rights are systematically denied and abused. They share with Vaslav Havel and Lech Walesa the knowledge of living in countries that are not free, where exercising fundamental human rights is an act of courage. One objective of the 2010 Geneva Summit is to give voice to victims of the world’s worst human rights abuses, and a second objective is to empower those who suffer repression under closed systems of government. The program over the next two days addresses both of these goals. Whether they will be accomplished is up to all of us. It is a tall order because the global human rights situation is deteriorating.

In Iran, the contested June election sparked an unprecedented wave of state sponsored violence and repression. Thousands of peaceful protesters were beaten, arrested, tortured, and killed. One of them, Nita Adja Sultan, age 27, was shot and killed on June 20th, 2009 during the protests. Her fiance, Caspian Makan, is with us here today and will address the summit tomorrow. Official numbers placed the number of killed at 36 during the protest, but the opposition places the dead at 72. In 2009, at least 270 people were hanged and in 2010, at least 12 so far. 4000 had been arrested, including journalists and reformist politicians. 

In China, according to Amnesty International, a minimum of 7000 death sentences were handed down, and 1700 executions took place in 2009. Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was arrested on June 23, and charged with inciting subversion of state power for co-opting charter 08; a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China that has been signed by hundreds of individuals throughout the country. On December 25th, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

In North Korea, the communist regime continues to deny all basic freedoms to its citizens. According to reports, any person who expresses an opinion contrary to the position of the ruling party faces severe punishment and so do their families. There are reports of severe repression of people involved in public and private religious activities through imprisonment, torture, and executions. 

In Sudan, the regime of Omar Al Bashir continues to kill thousands of innocent people with impunity. On November 24th, three prominent human rights defenders were arrested in Khartoum and tortured in custody before being released. Amnesty International considered the three to be prisoners of conscience, detained solely because of the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association. 

In Zimbabwe, elections were followed by a wave of human rights violations that resulted in at least 180 deaths, and at least 9000 people injured from torture, beatings, and other violations perpetrated mainly by government forces. About 28,000 people were displaced from their homes. 

In Burma, Nobel Peace laureate San Suu Kyi, who won the 1990 elections there, but those results were ignored by the military junta and she has been imprisoned since that time. She should have already been released, but 2009 sham trial extended her imprisonment, and indicates that the upcoming 2010 Burma elections will be a farce.

In Venezuela. The government’s response to those Venezuelan citizens protesting against the Chavez regime, shutting down independent media outlets is to denounce those using Twitter, and text messaging as terrorists. Police firing tear gas at students and a call for government supporters to prepare for battle. In the midst of all this, President Hugo Chavez welcomed into his ranks a high-ranking Cuban official, commander Ramido Valdez to address the energy crisis in Venezuela. Valdez doesn’t know much about electricity but knows how to set up the repressive apparatus of a totalitarian police state, which he did in Cuba 50 years ago. 

In Cuba, the dictatorship continues to systematically deny Cubans their human rights. Cuban blogger Yueny Sanchez, mentioned here at the summit last year, was abducted by Cuban state security and beaten up to stop her from attending a performance art happening in Havana celebrating nonviolence. On Human Rights Day, government-organized mobs assaulted the ladies in white as they marched for the release of Cuba’s prisoners of conscience. At least 24 Cuban patients died of exposure at Mount Solra, a government hospital, in January of this year. And when Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo initiated a water-only hunger strike to demand that prisoners be treated decently in December of 2009, prison officials responded by taking away his water for more than two weeks when he was already extremely weak; trying to break his spirit and failed, but contributed to his death on February 23. 

Regrettably, the chief international body charged with protecting human rights is failing to live up to its mission to stop these and other abuses. The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council has acknowledged in a recent report by 17 of its 47 Member States, supported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the International Commission of Jurists, fall short in its handling of country situations, and the efficiency of the process involved in highlighting violations, and in its reactivity to crisis situations. Strong politicization of the council driven by block-based voting patterns, has led to inaction in the face of atrocity and abuse.

We saw the sad spectacle last week within the council. First with the Secretary General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, denying the documented and rampant incidences of torture executions, and mass detentions of Iranians followed by the Cuban foreign minister speech, who echoing his Iranian colleague, also denied Cuba’s horrible human rights record; and to add insult to injury went on to blame the United States for the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo as well as slander the deceased Cuban prisoner of conscience.

Little wonder that the March 1 Magazine issue of Newsweek contains an article titled The Downfall Of Human Rights. The article highlights the Freedom House report, Freedom In The World, released in January, and reveals a global decline in political freedoms and civil liberties for the fourth year in a row, the longest drop in the almost 40 years that the survey has been produced. 

In his 1986 Nobel acceptance speech, writer, activist, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Weisel issued a challenge, not only to activists but to people everywhere, challenging us all when he said, quote, “I swore never to be silent. Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Amidst all the documented evils of the past year there is hope. The rise of citizen journalists, social networks, Twitter and cell phones able to document those atrocities and show them to the world, is a response to Elie Weisel’s challenge. We’ve seen its impact across the world. This meeting has a focus on internet freedom and it’s necessary because authoritarians recognize this technology is a profound enemy to maintaining monopoly control over information, which for totalitarians is a pillar of their power. New opportunities exist and human rights defenders need to brainstorm and collaborate to improve activism and to offer a counterbalance to the collaboration and coordination of repressive regimes and movements. 

The international stage can be used to put a spotlight on the world’s worst abusers. We saw this last week when 30 NGOs from this summit called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of Cuban human rights defender Nester Vegas Norbaia, barred by the Cuban dictatorship from attending this very meeting. The Cuban Ambassador protested badly when Hillel Nuer of UN watch raised the matter in an interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner. But Nestor, on the other hand, was grateful that you spoke up for his human rights. 

The Geneva summit seeks to offer dissidents and human rights activists from around the world a global platform and forum to share their personal struggles, their fight for freedom and equality, and their vision for how to bring change. This past week we saw with action, how it can be done, and how much it upsets those who would prefer that we remain silent. Let us make sure that the victims of human rights violations receive the solidarity of people of goodwill, and that the abusers be given cause to be shamed by their actions and to change their ways. 

Thank you very much.

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