Wednesday, February 20, 2013
5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy: Closing Statement
The 5th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy today is an opportunity for reflection. Unfortunately, the human rights situation around the world has not improved over the past five years and in many instances worsened. The question is why?
Cuban democratic opposition activist, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, when awarded the Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought on December 17, 2002 observed that “The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people. The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized.” The past decade has demonstrated that he was right.
Freedom House in its 2013 report “Freedom in the World” documents the seventh consecutive year in which there have been more declines than gains in freedom worldwide. Worse still the report demonstrates that there is “a stepped-up campaign of persecution by dictators that specifically targeted civil society organizations and independent media.”
These have been years of challenge for human rights and democracy activists around the world. Listening to the testimony today, in 2013, from journalists, human rights activists and victims of rights violations in Cuba, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Mauritania, Morocco, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, and Tibet should shock the conscience of any reasonable person.
Elie Wiesel’s aphorism: "For the dead and the living we must bear witness" has been put into practice over the course of these five summits and especially today: genocide, slavery, concentration camps, extrajudicial killings, brutalization of women, rape as a military weapon, and the silencing of dissenting voices.
At the same time, despite the horrors there is cause for hope. During the first session this morning “Women’s Rights: The Struggle for Human Dignity” Marina Nemat , a former prisoner of conscience in Iran who had been repeatedly tortured and raped made an observation that went to the heart of the challenge for human rights when she remarked that “Victim-hood is not a perpetual state. A victim can become a torturer and a torturer can become a victim. The tables can be turned. They will turn for me. One day they will place the cable in my hand and I will put it down. Justice and revenge are two very different concepts.”
Too many believe that immoral and unjust means can lead to moral and just ends. This is the key idea that combined with the impulse for revenge can lead a victim to become a torturer in a cycle that generates greater levels of barbarism and inhumanity.
Breaking the cycle of bloodshed and revenge involves pursuing justice and accountability, in other words ending impunity. To do this the right for victims and their loved ones to know the truth is a fundamental concern to end impunity. This is a theme that has been heard throughout the day and especially from Marina Nemat, Colette Braeckman, and Mukesh Kapila.
Mukhtar Mai, the first speaker this morning outlined her harrowing account overcoming great horrors including being sentenced to gang rape and managed to build a school to educate hundreds of women; and she continues her struggle for justice, not revenge, stating “If a woman’s life is in danger, we can help them out. I want to make a change, and this will happen with education.”
This is part of what activists for nonviolence call a constructive program. The other common point heard throughout the day is that “military solutions are not real solutions.” Syrian activist Randa Kassis explained that in Syria: “a military solution is not a real solution. There is only one real solution and that is a political solution.” Marina Nemat repeated several times that the primary problem in Iran was not the nuclear program but the systematic violation of human rights and that she was against military action in Iran. Former Cuban prisoner of conscience Regis Iglesias explained that he did not hate the dictatorship in Cuba but at the same time he did not fear it and was seeking change using nonviolent means.
Rosa Maria Payá, whose father, Oswaldo Paya Sardiñas, died under suspicious circumstances along with Harold Cepero on July 22, 2012, recognized the commonality between the different activists who had spoken earlier in the day in favor of nonviolent change. During her presentation she quoted her father from his Strasbourg Address to the European Parliament in December of 2002, “The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together.”
Another theme during the Summit is the importance of citizenry to be active and vigilant. Marina Nemat explained the importance of holding politicians accountable, “If you don't maintain democracy it is going to die. It is up to every single one of us to pressure politicians to do the right thing.” Dicky Chhoyang of the Central Tibetan Administration called on free peoples to “Have the courage to stand and be the change we want to see happen.”
This leads inevitably to the need for freedom of expression and critical voices to expose injustice and hold the politicians accountable. The Moroccan blogger Kacem El Ghazzali outlined the importance freedom of expression and of religion within the Islamic world and the challenges still faced in Morocco. Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova one of the jailed pussy riot musicians also spoke about the madness of Putin’s Russia, the absence of freedom of expression, and the linkage between the Russian Orthodox Church and the authoritarian regime in Russia. Lukpan Akhmedyarov has offered a vivid example of the denial of freedom of expression in Kazakhstan and the consequences of authoritarianism.
Marina Nemet is right; silence is a weapon of mass destruction as is indifference to injustice. However the opposite is also true making noise and denouncing injustice using nonviolent means and not succumbing to hate is a weapon of mass construction.
However, throughout the day we have heard from speakers of different parts of the world and of different religious traditions or even non-religious traditions that injustice and human rights violations need to be confronted by nonviolent means without succumbing to hating one’s adversary.
Therefore Regis, Rosa and I invite you to sign a petition demanding an independent and transparent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Oswaldo Paya Sardiñas and Harold Cepero Escalante on July 22, 2012. The document is available in draft form for your signature.
Thank you very much.