Welcome with Hillel Neuer

International lawyer, writer and Executive Director of United Nations Watch, Hillel Neuer, opens the Geneva Summit on behalf of the Summit coalition of 25 NGOs at the 9th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

Full Remarks

Distinguished members of the diplomatic corps, representatives of the United Nations and international organizations, human rights heroes from around the globe, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the 2017 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, to our ninth annual session. My name is Hillel Neuer, I’m the executive director of UN Watch, one of our 25 co-sponsors today. Today’s event is organized by a coalition of 25 human rights and non-governmental organizations from around the globe.

From Africa, we have Collectif Urgence Darfour, Darfur Peace and Development Center, Freedom and Roam Uganda, and Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices. From Asia, we have North Korea Watch, Tibetan Women’s Association, the World Uyghur Congress, Viet Tan, and Initiatives for China. Groups focused on the Middle East in our coalition include Human Rights Activists in Iran and Stop Child Executions. Groups from Latin America include Kadhal, Directorio Democrático Cubano and Iniciativa por Venezuela. 

Groups based here in Europe: Liberal International and the International Federation of Liberal Youth, Ligue Internationale Contre la Racisme et l’Antisémitisme and Ingénieurs du Monde from France, Foreign 2000 from the Czech Republic, Freedom Rights Project from Copenhagen, Human Rights Without Frontiers from Brussels, and UN Watch based here in Geneva, Switzerland. 

From the United States, we have Human Rights Foundation, The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights. And from Canada, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. 

I want to begin by thanking our host country Switzerland which has been open to our Geneva Summit every year. We don’t take that for granted. Not every country would allow this event to take place. We bring speakers from around the world from difficult parts of the globe and we’re in a time when countries are beginning to close their borders, and you know if this event were held today in the United States, and indeed we held a summit in 2011 in New York, and if we held it today in New York, several of our speakers come from countries that were on this travel ban and wouldn’t be able to be here. So I want to express thanks to Switzerland for being open and to encourage that kind of openness, to be able to distinguish between oppressive regimes and the brave men and women who defy them. 

Now we’re here today, and we opened yesterday at the United Nations to urge the UN Human Rights Council, which meets next week for its annual session. World leaders, heads of state, prime ministers and foreign ministers from nearly 100 countries will be here across the street next week beginning a session that is meant to address urgent human rights situations and to protect and promote human rights around the globe. Now in a number of cases, the Human Rights Council has taken action and we salute all of those delegates who are here today, who have been responsible for that action. 

We have seen the Human Rights Council create a commission of inquiry on North Korea, to renew a mandate on Iran, to put a spotlight on Sri Lanka. But sadly too many other countries have gotten a free pass. Too many other countries have never been addressed in a meaningful way at the Human Rights Council. And sadly we just had recent elections and the countries which will take their seats again at the Human Rights Council include some of the worst regimes. Saudi Arabia where women cannot drive a car or need a man’s permission to go anywhere has just been reelected as a member of the Human Rights Council. Cuba, a country we will hear a lot about, has been reelected as a member. China, where 1.3 billion people are denied basic rights and freedoms has just been re-elected to the Human Rights Council. 

And you know, as we look around the globe, we need a Human Rights Council that will act, because in the past year we saw human rights violations around the globe. We saw in Turkey when there was an attempted coup and the counter-coup saw tens of thousands of individuals fired from their positions. Deans of universities, all deans were fired, thousands of teachers, public servants, police officers, all kinds of individuals were fired for being suspected of not agreeing with the Erdogan regime. 

In Russia, the government continues to be complicit in the genocide in Syria and to spark war and bloodshed in Ukraine, and to crush dissidents at home. Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the leading Russian dissidents, was just poisoned recently and fell into a coma. He came out of a coma and is now going abroad for medical treatment. These kinds of things continue to happen. 

In Iran, dissidents continue to be imprisoned and basic human rights denied. In Venezuela, people have been led to starvation, people have been having to flee the country to buy food and the democratic leaders are thrown into prison. In Cuba, the attempts of Rosa Maria Paya to call for a basic referendum to allow for a democratic constitution are crushed and dissidents are thrown into prison. 

And so there’s many reasons for us to be depressed and to lose hope and when you’re sitting here, as many of us do, human rights activists, diplomats, and see what’s happening around the world, many reasons to lose hope. But yesterday I gained hope. Yesterday we opened for an event of the United Nations and I heard from our human rights heroes from whom you will hear today. I heard yesterday from El Sexto Danilo Maldonado Machado, Cuban artist and dissident, who dared to criticize the regime and was thrown into prison, released, thrown into prison again – each time he speaks out. He is just an artist who speaks his mind. He was just released from prison four weeks ago and before we knew that he was getting out we invited his girlfriend, who fought for his freedom, to come and I said to Alexandra if Danilo gets freed, I want both of you to come. And they’re both here and we’re going to hear from them very soon. And Cuba has never been addressed, not in a resolution, not in the commission of inquiry, not in a special session. But we’ll hear from Danilo and we’ll see his art later on today and we’ll know why Cuba’s an urgent issue. 

And we’re going to hear as I heard yesterday from Biram Dah Abeid who is the leading voice fighting slavery in Mauritania. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there is slavery in Mauritania. You may not know about it at the Human Rights Council. Mauritania was elected a few years ago as Vice President of the Human Rights Council but Biram Dah Abeid is the courageous man who fights it. They threw him into prison, he just got released in July, he was named one of the unsung heroes of 2016 by the Christian Science Monitor, and he’s here with us today and he has inspiring words which I just heard yesterday to fight against slavery. 

Dang Xuan Dieu from the oppressed Catholic minority of Vietnam who’s with us here today is one of the leading figures for democracy in Vietnam. They threw him into prison for six years. He refused to wear the prison uniform, he defied the regime. He just got out four weeks ago. He’s here with us today and you’ll hear from him what it’s like to be a dissident defying dictatorship. 

And with us, I heard yesterday from Can Dündar, one of Turkey’s most prominent, courageous journalists who defied the regime and President Erdogan for daring to write an article that exposed Erdogan’s arming of groups in Syria. Erdogan declared him to be treasonous and he said he will pay the price. Erdogan said this man will pay the price and he threw him into prison – 92 days of solitary confinement when during his court case a man perhaps hearing the words of President Erdogan came to assassinate him and Can Dündar’s wife was there and was able to stop the gunman and he was saved. He’s now been exiled and we’ll hear from him and we’ll be inspired. 

And you know when I saw a few days ago that President Donald Trump, the President of United States, said that CNN and CBS and ABC and other news networks are the enemy of the people, I condemned those remarks and I said I just met with someone who was declared by his president to be an enemy of the people. Don’t say those words. Words carry consequences. Beware. And here in Geneva sadly, Turkey, not only has it never been addressed, not only was there not an emergency session when thousands of teachers and deans were fired and human rights restricted and journalists thrown into prison, not only has it never been addressed in any special session, commission of inquiry or resolution, but Turkey here a few months ago was a member of the core group that introduced a resolution on internet freedom in a country that often downs the internet. How absurd. 

And we’re going to hear, as I heard yesterday, from Chito Gascon, the chair of the Human Rights Commission of the Philippines who dares to take on his President Duterte, who has declared war on drug suspects and boasts about killing drug suspects as young as 9 or 12 years old. And we’re going to hear from Kwang-Jin Kim, North Korean defector who was with the regime as a banker but now has a story to tell and he takes on the regime of North Korea and exposes their abuses. The Human Rights Council has addressed North Korea but they need to do more and we’ll hear from Mr. Kim why that is the case. 

And we’re going to hear from Antonietta Ledezma who I just heard from yesterday, and this week marks two years since her father Mayor Antonio Ledezma was thrown into prison for the crime of defying the Chavez Maduro regime and speaking out for democracy. And we’re going to hear from her what’s happening in Venezuela and be inspired. 

And we’re going to hear from Niyama Lhamo who escaped Tibet six months ago, leaving behind her mother and her little daughter to tell the story of her uncle, a Buddhist religious leader who died in prison. We’re going to find out why he died in prison and what’s happening in Tibet – a case that is never addressed at the Human Rights Council. 

And we’re going to hear from President Mohamed Nasheed. We heard from him yesterday and he talked about the torture that he went through and how he will go back to the Maldives. He was a human rights icon, became the president, was ousted, and is now in asylum in the UK but he wants to go back notwithstanding how he’s been thrown into prison time and time again, tortured time and again. He’s going back. 

And we heard from Zhanna Nemstova, whose father Boris Nemtsov, leading dissident of Russia, was killed steps away from the Kremlin. And I mention Vladamir Kara-Murza, a member of her association, she created the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom to perpetuate her father’s legacy. And her father warned her, if you take this path, before he died, before he was killed, he warned her to take this path, you will lose your job and you’ll have many difficulties but she has chosen the path to fight for freedom and she makes her father proud. And we’re going to hear from Anastasia Zotova who married the political prisoner Ildar Dadine who’s behind bars for the crime of making a peaceful protest against Vladimir Putin. We heard good news recently that he might be released. We hope that will be soon, we’ll hear from her. 

And last but not least we’re going to give our women’s rights award to Shirin a Yazidi woman who suffered the fate of many thousands of Yazidi women who are abducted by the Islamic State, by ISIS, and turned into a slave, and she survived and she didn’t just survive, she fights back, and she wrote a book to tell her story to demand that the world stop ignoring the plight of at least 3,000 women and girls who continue to be abducted by ISIS. 

Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here in this room is a United Nations of moral heroes and when I heard from them yesterday, as you’ll hear from them today, I think you will rise to the mountaintop. And what we want is for the real United Nations, when it meets next week, to live up to its founding dream of the United Nations Charter, the founding dream of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we want the United Nations to look like the United Nations of moral heroes that we have here today. 

Before I introduce our keynote speaker, let me remind you that you’re all invited – we have a lot of young people here in high school, students, and we welcome all of you, it’s great to see you – we invite you all to share what you hear on social media on Twitter, and Facebook, Instagram other social media that I don’t even know of because I’m too old but share it if it’s on Twitter or Facebook. You know on Twitter our hashtag is #GS17 or Twitter handle @GenevaSummit. If you share it, the Geneva Summit will share your posts. Take pictures, share what you hear. I’ll invite you all to please turn off your cell phones for the remainder of the session and I want to introduce our keynote speaker, our opening address this morning. 

Professor Irwin Cotler is the former Minister of Justice of Canada and former Member of Parliament. When he was elected in his riding in Montreal, where I come from, he got more than ninety percent, which he commented is kind of like the numbers that Assad might get in Syria, but he got into such a beloved and admired person in his hometown, in his home community, and he served for over 15 years in Parliament, was Minister of Justice and has had a career as a human rights lawyer defending many of the people we have here today defending, he’s defended Nelson Mandela and many other political prisoners. Today just having retired from Parliament he created the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights to continue his vital work and he’ll tell you more from himself. And I had the privilege to be a student of Professor Cotler at McGill University and, as I said yesterday at the United Nations, much of the good work that we’ve been able to do at UN Watch, whatever good work I’ve been able to do, I learned from Professor Cotler and it gives me great pleasure to introduce our keynote speaker. Thank you. 

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