International lawyer, writer and Executive Director of UN Watch Hillel Neuer gives the opening address at the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Hillel Neuer. I am the executive director of United Nations Watch. On behalf of the 25 NGOs cross-regional coalition that is co-sponsoring today’s event, welcome to the 10th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
It’s a milestone for us to mark ten years of bringing human rights heroes from around the world to bear witness to what is happening in their countries one week before the United Nations opens its annual session of the Human Rights Council where it is obliged to address urgent situations of human rights abuse and to take action and to make recommendations and to adopt resolutions.
And we also mark another anniversary. We mark the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Indeed it was seven decades ago in the aftermath of the Nazi atrocities that Eleanor Roosevelt, René Cassin, and other eminent figures gathered here on the banks of Lake Geneva to reaffirm the principle of human dignity. They created the Commission on Human Rights and they adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which remains a beacon for dissidents around the world including those who are about to speak today. Now over time, this Commission changed. Today known as the Council, it became a body of governments and not eminent idealists. Too often, these governments are dictatorships and serial violators of human rights. Today, sadly the Human Rights Council includes not only a number of democracies but also dictatorships and non-democracies, including China, including Iraq, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, including Venezuela, including Cuba, including Pakistan, and other countries, and what I think we can do today is we have an opportunity to imagine.
We have an opportunity to imagine what would the world be like, what would the United Nations be like, if we were back in 1948 when those leading the Human Rights Commission represented the anti-Hitler alliance, when the founding chair of the Commission on Human Rights was Eleanor Roosevelt who with her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought Hitler and won, and when the vice chair was René Cassin, the great French legal philosopher who was with de Gaulle resisting, refusing to collaborate. What if the members of the Human Rights Council today included such eminent idealists and not the regimes that oppress them?
Today, we have the right, we have the opportunity to imagine, and I think today we can ask the question when we think about China. Why is China a member of the Human Rights Council when more than 1.3 billion people are denied any form of basic human rights: freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and when human rights defenders like Yang Jianli and like Mr. Lam who dared to speak out for democracy were suddenly abducted, arrested, put in prison in solitary confinement, and I think we have the right today to ask what if instead of the Communist Party of China sitting on the Human Rights Council, instead we had human rights heroes like Yang Jianli from whom we’ll hear soon and from Mr. Lam, the bookseller from Hong Kong who dared to sell banned books and for that was abducted and found himself in detention and yet he managed to get out and he’ll be with us here today.
And we have the right to ask why is Iraq on the Human Rights Council when that country violates human rights? And today we can imagine what if we had people like Farida Abbas Khalaf, someone who was victimized in the worst way, abused by ISIS, and yet today she stands tall. She wrote a book about it, she travels the world, she speaks out for her people, the Yazidi people, and she’s courageous and we’ll hear from her soon today.
And we have the right to ask why has the Democratic Republic of Congo just been elected to the Human Rights Council even after the case was made on how they abused human rights and we’ve seen protesters being killed in the past few days and Mr. Kabila refuses to give up power in violation of the constitution and as a country that is neither democratic nor republic, and today we have the right to imagine what if instead of Kabila representing his country on the Human Rights Council, we had human rights heroes like Madame Julienne Lusenge, who will receive our women’s rights award later today, who for two decades has stood up when her country has become the rape capital of the world. She stood up to fight for women’s rights, to fight against sexual violence, to speak out for children, creating a network of 40 women’s groups; people who have been attacked with axes in their head, and she continues to fight. And what if Julienne Lusenge was sitting on the Human Rights Council with the nameplate of the Democratic Republic of Congo?
And we have the right to ask why is the Maduro regime of Venezuela once again and again re-elected to the Human Rights Council after they have completely violated the human rights of their people, when the New York Times reports that babies are coming to hospitals around the country starving and the country that has killed more than 130 protesters in the past year and through opposition leaders in prison, like Mr. Antonio Ledezma, the democratically elected mayor of Caracas, brutally and violently arrested from his office, taken to prison, held under house arrest, arrested in prison back and forth. He escaped a few months ago. We heard here from his daughter Antonietta and now we’ll get to hear from him. And we have the right to ask, we have the right to imagine, what if instead of the dictatorship of the Maduro regime which is destroying the country, instead of them representing Venezuela at the United Nations, we had human rights heroes and idealists like Antonio Ledezma? And today we have the right to imagine that.
And repeatedly again here in Geneva, year after year, the Communist regime in Cuba continues to be elected at the Human Rights Council. They are one of the most active members, introducing, I believe, more resolutions than any other to shield dictatorships, to corrupt the language and the idea of human rights. They are extremely active in the most pernicious way here in Geneva at the Human Rights Council. And what if instead of the Castro regime sitting at the United Nations, instead, we had someone like Guillermo Fariñas Hernández who gave eleven years endured in prison because he dared to defy the Castro regime, who conducted 25 hunger strikes for the cause of freedom and human rights at a time when the country beats and arrests human rights defenders and opposition leaders and was responsible for the death of Oswaldo Paya which they’ve never allowed an inquiry into that and we have doctor Eduardo Cardet in prison. What if instead of the Castro regime, we had Mr. Guillermo Hernández representing Cuba? Today, we have the right to imagine that.
And we just saw the reelection of Pakistan even as Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, remains on death row for the crime of blasphemy for having done nothing but take water from the well, and it’s a country that has severe problems on women’s rights and other major abuses. And there’s a military establishment that controls the country and one person who dared to defy that military establishment and it was attacked and they tried to abduct him just in recent weeks. Mr. Taha Siddiqui, what if instead of Pakistani governments and that military that controls it sitting at the Human Rights Council in that seat, we had someone like Taha Siddiqui, a brave and courageous journalist whom we all must support, and we’re going to hear from many other speakers from around the world today and they will be an inspiration and I want to introduce now our keynote speaker to deliver the opening address and say a few words about someone who’s been an inspiration.
Mr. Luis Almagro is Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, which comprises 35 countries from Argentina in the south to Canada in the north. He was elected in 2015 under the mandate of more rights for more people, he’s a career diplomat who served as foreign minister of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015, elected to the Senate in 2014. His time at the helm of Uruguayan diplomacy was characterized by human rights activism at home and abroad, the strengthening of his country’s image as an increasingly democratic, diverse, tolerant society. He was named by Foreign Policy magazine a leading global thinker.
Mr. Almagro, you know here at the United Nations, traditionally when we speak of the position of Secretary-General, it is often said that it’s more secretary than general but with you, it’s the opposite. In your position at the Organization of American States, you have been a general in the fight for democracy, human rights and freedom in your hemisphere, and nowhere more than in the case of Venezuela. As that country was plunged into economic chaos and humanitarian crisis, many of its neighbors looked the other way. They proposed dialogue between the opposition and the government, ignoring the regime’s blatant violations of constitutional order and its refusal to negotiate seriously. But you led the way as a remarkable exception becoming an eloquent advocate time and again for democracy and human rights for the people of Venezuela. You stunned many by proposing that the OAS formally review that country’s adherence to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a treaty that binds OAS members to norms and provides for collective action when they are violated. Mr. Almagro, you have been a shining hope for the people of Venezuela who are long-suffering and you have been a model worldwide of moral leadership in international diplomacy. It’s our honor to invite you to give today’s opening address.
10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 19, 2018