The United Nations and the Struggle for Human Rights: A report on
the 2016 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy
By David E. Lowe
Rosa Maria Paya, 27, promotes solidarity with her fellow Cubans through pro-democracy activism. She has tirelessly strived to call the world’s attention to the Cuban government’s role in the 2012 death of her father Oswaldo Paya, who founded the Christian Liberation Movement three decades ago to challenge the regime’s one-party rule.
Ensaf Haidar is the wife of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up an online platform for political and religious debate.
Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-Canadian actress and the current Miss Canada, who portrayed a student killed in a poorly-built school that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, was kept from competing last year in the Miss World contest by the Chinese government.
These three young women were among the featured speakers earlier this week at the 2016 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, a gathering of dissidents, human rights victims, activists, diplomats, journalists and student leaders sponsored by a coalition of 25 human rights NGOs. The conference was organized by the watchdog group UN Watch on the eve of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s main annual session.
According to the web site of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council is “an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and for addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them.“
In an Orwellian twist, the countries whose dismal human rights records were documented at the Geneva Summit by the three women from Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and China actually sit on the 47-member Human Rights Council.
As Nobel Laureate David Trimble pointed out during his keynote address, they do so for the protection it affords them from international scrutiny. Offering reflections on the 10th anniversary of the Council, Lord Trimble noted the farcical nature of many of the Council’s proceedings, such as the 2009 session in which Kaddafi’s Libya praised Castro’s Cuba for its commitment to free expression, or when four years later China hailed Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. (The latter returned the favor by citing China’s positive treatment of ethnic minorities.)
The conference heard dramatic testimony from witnesses who have experienced abuses far from the spotlight of international attention. Lee Young-guk, one-time bodyguard to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, offered the startling contrast between the luxurious lifestyle of the current ruler Kim Jong-un, which includes 14 vacation homes, immense swimming pools, and lavish entertainment, with the subhuman treatment of those he and his father have imprisoned.
Men and women who serve as political prisoners are subjected to frequent beating and starvation along with no less than 14 hours a day of brutal labor in which they are required to meet quotas or be subjected to even harsher conditions. Only by bringing Kim Jong-un before the International Criminal Court will the world learn about his criminal regime.
Another country whose story has gone mostly untold is the east African nation of Eritrea. Dr. Daniel R. Mekonnen is a human rights lawyer, scholar, and former Eritrean judge who was exiled for exposing gross human rights violations committed by his government. Dr. Mekonnen chaired the coordinating committee that organized the largest ever mass rally of pro-democracy Eritreans, which took place last June in Geneva. He expressed his “heartfelt gratitude” to the summit’s organizers for affording him an opportunity to participate in this “global fight to end impunity,” describing the gathering as one of the few forums in the world where the story of his country could be told.
Although the kind of death threats he received from government supporters when he was organizing the demonstration makes his work “challenging,” he asked his audience, “Who ever got their rights for free?” Dr. Mekonnen affirmed his determination to fight for a system based upon the rule of law and expressed confidence that those carrying out this work would ultimately prevail.
Optimism came from another unexpected quarter. The summit heard from Polina Nemirovskaia, a human rights researcher at Open Russia, the movement launched by Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2014 to strengthen the country’s civil society. Ms. Nemirovskaia, who specializes in protecting the rights of political prisoners, recounted the story of how she became involved in politics against the warnings of her parents.
Despite her cynicism about the system, she became an active supporter of Boris Nemtsov, whom she came to respect as an honest politician. His shocking murder a year ago in the shadow of the Kremlin, which some insiders believed surprised Putin himself, “would have been the perfect moment to make a change.”
Instead, Nemirovskaya said, it marked a different kind of turning point, as the Kremlin now makes no effort to hide what it is doing, putting innocent people in prison, including peaceful protesters.
But she has seen more and more people desperate for change, and she offered a number of concrete cases in which her movement has been successful in challenging the system and getting prisoners released. The Kremlin, she contends, is fighting a losing battle and they know it, “which gives us reason for hope.”
The conference heard from another activist challenging the system, in this instance from the outside. Darya Safai became aware of the plight of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran very early in her life, reprimanded on a school playground at the age of nine for laughing out loud.
She was also prevented from riding a bike or swimming. Why is it, she wondered, that women have to disguise themselves through a mandatory dress code or get the permission from their husbands to travel or to work?
Safai, who was imprisoned by the regime during the 1999 student uprising and now lives in exile, founded the group ‘Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums’ in 2014 to advocate for Iranian women whom the regime now prevents from attending sporting events.
Although she believes the fight for equal rights will ultimately overcome the regime’s extremism, she debunked the notion that it has liberalized during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani. To the contrary, under his rule, three million files have been opened by the religious police and 40,000 cars have been confiscated because female passengers were not thought to be wearing their hijabs properly.
Her sports campaign was necessitated by the regime’s new restrictions on stadium attendance by Iranian women, for whom its security forces have set up checkpoints for entering vehicles. Iran now shares the company of Saudi Arabia in restricting women in this way.
Another repressive country thought by many to be moderating in the face of U.S. engagement is Cuba, a notion forcefully challenged by democracy activist Rosa Maria Paya. The daughter of the late Oswaldo Paya, whose petition campaign for basic freedoms and multi-party democracy in Cuba made him a target of the Castro regime, Paya contends that he paid for his activism with his life. She called for an international investigation into his death in July 2012 when, according to a key eyewitness, his car was rammed from the rear by a vehicle with official Cuban government plates.
Paya ridiculed the idea that the recent U.S. opening to Cuba has led to the empowerment of civil society. In February 2016, she asserted, the same human rights violators who have stifled freedom of expression and movement, imprisoned their critics, and engaged in extra-judicial killings are still in total control of what she described as a “captive nation.”
Their motive in reaching out to the United States and the European Union is to attract financial investment, which they monopolize. Why should Cuba be any different from China, which continues to repress its people despite substantial foreign investment? Although the regime has tried to force her family into exile, Paya refuses to leave the island and abandon the struggle. Death, she proclaimed, is not more powerful than love.
Noting that it is time for her people to determine their own destiny, Paya asked her international audience to join in giving power to the people and not to the powerful. Quoting her late father, she made a plea “to help us globalize solidarity, or human rights everywhere will be in danger.”
The summit presented two awards. The award for Women’s Rights was given to Vian Dakhil, the only female Yazidi member of Iraqi Parliament, and to Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, the German psychologist who created a clinic in northern Iraq for women victimized by ISIS.
The Courage Award was presented to two key opposition figures in Venezuela imprisoned by the Maduro regime, Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma and opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. In presenting the award to members of their family, UN Watch official Celia Michonik noted that because of the deep commitment of their families and supporters around the world, the voices of these courageous men will not be silenced.
UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer implored the diplomats in attendance to push for a resolution before the Human Rights Council on Venezuela, something he pointed out that has never been done. Venezuela is yet another serial violator of human rights that sits on the Council.
Throughout the conference, pleas were made on behalf of political prisoners. Former prisoner Jigme Golog, a Tibetan monk imprisoned three separate times and subjected to brutal torture, appealed to the audience not to forget those of his people suffering at the hands of a “terrorist state.”
Acclaimed international human rights lawyer and former Canada Justice Minister Irwin Cotler called attention to cases of political prisoners ranging from the Bahai in Iran to the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Mauritania. He paid tribute to the courage of activists around the world who advocate for those unable to testify in their own behalf.
Referring to the “intense and inspiring” presentations by those who have paid the price for their human rights advocacy, UN Watch’s Hillel Neuer told the audience that if those who heard these eloquent voices left the conference simply to return to business as usual, then “we have failed.”
Paraphrasing Hillel the Elder, the ancient Hebrew sage, Neuer brought the 2016 Geneva Summit to a close by urging each each member to ask: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”