International lawyer, diplomat and Executive Director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer delivers opening remarks at the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for his remarks.
Excellencies, courageous defenders of human rights gathered from around the globe, ladies and gentlemen, friends.
Welcome to the 2023 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. My name is Hillel Neuer, I’m the Executive Director of United Nations Watch – one of 25 human rights NGOs that is cosponsoring today’s event.
We meet this morning on the occasion of two anniversaries; across the street from us, at the United Nations, we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was adopted in 1948, right after the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust and World War II, in response, as written in the preamble, to “barbarous acts which outraged the conscience of mankind.” Its purpose was to reaffirm faith and fundamental human rights in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women. Seven decades later, our task here today is to bring the promise into reality, to protect victims of oppression, and to hold their abusers to account.
That is why we are here today, marking another second anniversary. This is the 15th year in a row that our coalition has organized the Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights. A gathering of dissidents, defenders of human rights, former political prisoners, and family members of current political prisoners. We must stand with these courageous people because seven decades after the Universal Declaration, it seems all too often that the dictators, the authoritarians, are getting more and more shameless, from Havana to Harare, Nicaragua to North Korea, Moscow to Beijing. We’re witnessing repression, gross abuses, and atrocities committed around the globe.
Now, for most people, it’s natural when facing the jackboot of oppression to be cowed into silence. That is human nature. But the individuals you will hear from today, directly or through their family members because they’re in prison, are exceptional. They chose not to be silent. Instead, at great risk to themselves and to their families, they’ve chosen to take on dictatorships and abusers, to dedicate their lives to upholding the principles of freedom, justice, and human rights – the freedoms that we all hold dear. Our principals.
In China last week, they sentenced Guo Feixiong known as the Barefoot lawyer, a self-taught advocate for human rights victims, for the oppressed. No other lawyer would take them on in China. Guo Feixiong, they just sentenced him to eight years in prison. Today we’ll hear from his son Peter. China is repressing a fifth of humanity, 1.5 billion people, we need to hear about it. In Tibet, they’re forcibly assimilating the youth in schools, and we’ll hear from Gyal Lo about that. In Hong Kong, they’re crushing one of the last great outposts of democracy in Asia. We’ll hear from Frances Hui, a young activist who’s been on the frontlines. In Xinjiang, they’ve herded more than a million Uyghur Muslims into camps. And we’ll hear from survivor Kalbinur Sidik and activist and our partner Dulkon Isa, himself a personal victim of persecution in China.
In Russia, one month ago today on April 17, they convicted Vladimir Kara-Murza, my friend, who stood here five years ago, receiving our Courage Award. He’s one of the country’s most prominent dissidents who dares to speak out and protest Vladimir Putin’s regime. He spoke out against the war and they threw him into prison a year ago and just a month ago convicted him to 25 years in prison for treason, because he spoke out. In a moment you’ll hear from his wife Evgenia.
Now, in Zimbabwe, in Africa, they’re throwing journalists and activists in prison. We’ll hear from one of the most famous former political prisoners, Fadzayi Mahere.
Also in Africa, but it’s not only there, there’s Female Genital Mutilation affecting millions. We’ll hear it’s not only in Africa, it’s also in Europe, and we’ll hear from Marie-Claire Kakpotia, a survivor who’s fighting back to stop this atrocious practice.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban terrorists a year and a half ago swept the country banning women from work and schools; girls can’t go to school. Nila Ibrahimi managed to escape, she’s only 16 years old. She managed to escape their clutches, and we’re going to hear from her in a moment. She’s here to bear witness.
In North Korea, the dictator Kim Jong Un spends all his nation’s resources on producing nuclear weapons; people don’t have food, they’re spending the money on nuclear weapons to threaten and blackmail the world. The people are suffering poverty and oppression, atrocities in the prison camps, the labor camps, and one of the survivors of this oppression who managed to escape, Songmi Han, she wrote a book about it, she’s fighting back, she’s fighting for her people and she’s here with us and she’s going to tell the story.
In Iran, they just hanged two individuals for blasphemy on social media. All they did, something on social media, they were hanged. And they’re threatening to hang three more protesters in Isfahan. This is a regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran, that is beating, blinding, torturing, raping women for the crime of protesting for their basic human rights. They’re poisoning school girls because they protested back in the fall. And with us here today is a woman who five years ago, dared to remove the compulsory hijab, the headscarf, she protested on the streets, she became famous – known as the Girls on Revolution Street. They threw her into Evin Prison, the notorious prison, they threw her into solitary confinement. She managed to get out, she escaped, she’s with us here today. Her name is Shima Babaei, she’ll be receiving very soon our Women’s Rights Award.
We’ll hear from leading international voices against the Iranian regime; Hadrien Ghomi, of the Assemblée Nationale, of the French Parliament; Alireza Akhondi, of the Swedish Parliament; Ali Ehsassi, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Canadian Parliament; and we’ll hear from Dr. Nargess Eskandari-Grünberg, the Mayor of Frankfurt, when she was 17-18 years old, she too back in the 80s protested Ayatollah Khomeini, the regime, fighting for women’s rights. They threw her into prison. She was there for a year and a half. She managed to get out. Today, she’s the mayor of Frankfurt, one of the most important cities of Europe, and she used her position to name a street, just recently, named the street where the Iranian Consulate sits in Frankfurt, Mahsa Amini Street, the name of the woman who was arrested for improper hijab and who died in custody. Now that’s Mahsa Amini Street in Frankfurt.
Vladimir Putin is crushing Ukrainians, bombing them day and night, he’s crushing those who dare to speak out at home. We’re going to hear from renowned Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, who wrote a diary of the invasion when he was in Ukraine. We’ll hear from Anastasia Shevchenko, the first person to be convicted in Russia under the undesirable organizations law because she dared – her too, like Vladimir – to confront Putin’s regime.
In Cuba, there was a crackdown a year and a half ago. A thousand people were arrested, many students, because they dared to march for democracy. They have fake trials, thrown into prison. We’ll hear from someone who himself a journalist, Abraham Jiménez Enoa, he dared to speak out, he was persecuted by the regime, he’s here to tell the story.
We’ll also hear – another kindred regime, the Maduro regime – they went after Hasler Iglesias, he is a young democracy activist. He had to go into hiding. They tried to arrest them, he managed to flee. And he’ll be with us here today, he’s with us to shed light on the realities of what’s happening under the Maduro regime.
And finally, not least, just a few years ago, we had Félix Maradiaga was here speaking at our Geneva Summit, from Nicaragua, one of the leading dissidents who confronts the dictator Daniel Ortega. He went back to Nicaragua, he dared to run for President against the dictator – you’re not allowed to run for President against the dictator – they throw him into prison. He was 611 days in prison and solitary confinement, suffered terrible things that he hasn’t yet told the world about. Just a few months ago, he was released. A year ago, while he was still in prison, his wife Berta Valle was here to speak for him. They’re both with us here today and Félix will be receiving our Courage Award.
These stories, we’re hearing about oppression, harrowing accounts of suffering, but also inspiration. These are people, extraordinary people, who chose not to be silent. They’re fighting for the principles that we all believe in around the world. And if you let dictatorship spread, we pay the price. It spreads. We see that, we ignored Russia and now it’s in the heart of Europe and Iran is helping Russia to kill people in Ukraine.
The dictators are uniting and the purpose of the Geneva Summit, among other things, is to allow those resisting the dictators, the defenders of human rights, for them to meet, for them to collaborate, and to unite. We the democracies have to unite. We at the United Nations need to unite against the dictators.
So everyone who’s here today, we’re here to stand with those who refuse to be silent. We must not be silent. We must listen to their testimonies. Do what we can to stand with them, show solidarity. You all have social media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, we’re putting the messages out for the Geneva Summit. Amplify their stories, share it. Take a stand.
May this Summit be a catalyst for change, a forum where ideas flourish, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Together, let us stand against oppression, challenge dictatorships, and pave the way for a world where every individual can enjoy the rights and freedoms they deserve.
Thank you, and let the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights begin.