The 11th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy was convened at Geneva’s Palexpo on Tuesday, 26 March, attended by estimated 800 human rights advocates, pro-democracy activists, political opposition leaders and victims of despotic regimes all over the globe. Deep concerns were expressed about the resurgence of authoritarianism everywhere, even in formerly liberal societies.( https://www.genevasummit.org).
The general mood of anxiety over the decline of democracy and human rights was well expressed by the director of UN Watch, Mr. Hillel Neuer, when he stated that little can be expected to be okay at a time ‘’when countries like Eritrea and Saudi Arabic… join the UN Human Rights Council’’ to promote rule of law and democratic values in the world.
The Burundian democracy activist, Ms Ketty Nivyabandi, narrated disturbing details about the human rights abuses in her country, most of which sounded too familiar to Eritreans, but urged all pro-democracy activists to never let down. To this end, she quoted a Burundian proverb which goes: ‘’how long the dark hours of night may be, the sun will for sure rise in the morning and make it bright.’’
British-Somali Nimco Ali, who is a poet and human rights activist against female genital mutilation of which she was a survivor, said there are 200 million women in the world living with grave consequences of the FGM and that ‘’ there can never be true prosperity when the most vulnerable citizens in our society are subject of most brutal forms of violence’’. She is this year’s award winner of the Geneva Summit.
This year’s Geneva Summit, organized by an alliance of 25 NGOs, was addressed by prominent human rights activists intellectuals and political figures. Also taking the podium to tell harrowing stories were former prisoners and families of imprisoned political and social activists. The wife of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger now languishing in prison for seven years, was one of the panelists with her three children. They are currently in Canada as political refugees.
There were no victim-presenters from the hard-pressed states of Eritrea, Ethiopia or the two Sudans. Attending the conference were a few Eritreans, among them EPDP foreign relations head, Woldeyesus Ammar, and the human rights advocate Mussie Ephrem from Sweden.
Earlier in the morning hours, the opening address of the Summit was presented by Mr. James Kirchick, journalist, author and visiting fellow of the Brookings Institute, who spoke on the challenges facing liberalism today. He said, “Democratic nations and democratic peoples must stand for the liberal idea, which means we must stand for human rights.” His must read address is printed below. Good reading.
In my work as a journalist reporting on struggles for democracy and freedom around the world, I have met an inspiring array of people. 13 years ago in Zimbabwe, when that country was in the depths of its repression under the dismal regime of Robert Mugabe, I interviewed a blind radio cricket commentator, purportedly the world’s first blind sports broadcaster. After criticizing the politicization of the country’s national cricket team live on air, he was visited at his place of work by government agents, who escorted him to a secret room where they beat the soles of his feet until they bled. A few weeks later, in South Africa, I met an exiled, former Zimbabwean policeman, who, after refusing to partake in organized election fraud, was seized upon by colleagues who mutilated his genitals with a knife.
In Cuba, I have visited the home of Berta Soler, leader of Las Damas de Blanco, or The Ladies in White, a coalition of wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers of political prisoners. Their peaceful, Sunday protests are regularly met with violence by state security agents, who drag the women by their hair through the streets. “The problem that Cuba has had isn’t the embargo,” Soler told me. “It’s the system that’s not working. Fidel and Raúl just sold a story that’s not true, internationally and domestically.” That corrupt and oppressive system persists in Cuba, and is working overtime to maintain an equally unjust system in Venezuela.
Near the Demilitarized Zone which divides North and South Korea, under dead of night and withstanding sub-zero temperatures, I joined a group of North Korean defectors in launching giant hot air balloons ferrying thousands of pro-democracy leaflets and a giant poster for the comedic film, The Interview, over the border into the world’s most repressive state. In the past, Pyongyang called the defectors who organize such covert launches “human scum” and promised to “physically eliminate” them. The man who organized this operation, the son of a former high-ranking North Korean regime official named Park Sang Hak, has been targeted as “Enemy Zero” by that government, which dispatched a double agent to kill him with a poison-tipped pen in 2011.
Belarus has been described as the “last dictatorship in Europe,” and it was there in December 2010, also in sub-zero temperatures, I witnessed the brutal aftermath of a stolen election. Special police units deployed by President Alexander Lukashenko mercilessly beat unarmed demonstrators, young and old, with truncheons. I witnessed one police officer repeatedly club a person who was trapped against a wall. Visiting the country 6 months later, I attended a performance of the Belarus Free Theatre, an acting troupe that must perform its politically subversive plays in abandoned buildings and in forests, and which advertises its performances via text message, sometimes just hours in advance.
And in Serbia, I covered the first, successful gay pride parade in that conservative, Orthodox Christian country. Though the demonstration transpired relatively peacefully, it required the protection of some 5,000 police officers, who had to guard marchers from violent protestors rioting across the city.
The individuals I’ve told you about just now speak a variety of languages, hail from diverse cultures, have different skin colors, pray to different gods – or no god – and represent an assortment of political and social causes. Yet despite these superficial differences, they all share something in common, something which, to my mind, is far more important than the many things which distinguish them: They are committed to the liberal idea, the belief that all human beings are endowed with fundamental rights which no government can take away. Some believe that these fundamental rights are granted by God. Others are convinced that a higher power has nothing to do with the matter. Whether one thinks that our rights to expression, self-determination, and freedom of conscience are God-given or not, however, has no bearing upon the fact that they are humanrights, by which they are rights inherent to us because we are human.
This liberal idea is a relatively new one. For most of human history, the notion that men – never mind women – possessed rights that were inviolable and safe from the whims of a king, or a regent or a tribal chieftain or some other absolute ruler was nonexistent. As my Brookings Institution colleague Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post, before the liberal idea took hold in the 18th century:
Generations of peasants were virtual slaves to generations of landowners. People were not free to think or believe as they wished, including about the most vitally important questions in a religious age — the questions of salvation or damnation of themselves and their loved ones. The shifting religious doctrines promulgated in Rome or Wittenberg <https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation> or London, on such matters as the meaning of the Eucharist, were transmitted down to the smallest parishes. The humblest peasant could be burned at the stake for deviating from orthodoxy. Anyone from the lowest to the highest could be subjected to the most horrific tortures and executions on the order of the king or the pope or their functionaries. People may have been left to the “habitual rhythms” of work and leisure, but their bodies and their souls were at the mercy of their secular and spiritual rulers.
It was only in the 19th century that slavery was abolished in the United States, and only in the 20ththat African-Americans and women were given full voting rights. Today, across most of the world, the freedoms that we enjoy in places like Geneva, or Washington, or Tokyo are a distant dream.
The liberal idea is a precious idea, and it is under threat from all sides like at no time since the Cold War, when Europe was divided into free and unfree halves and international communism posed an ideological and systemic challenge to liberal democracy. Though the global conflict between the communist and non-communist worlds may have brought us, on more than one occasion, to the brink of nuclear Armageddon, I believe that the struggle to protect and expand the liberal idea will be more difficult over the coming century than it was in the previous one. Today, the rulers of countries that used to be communist, like Russia, or ones that are nominally communist, like China, have shorn the failed economic model of the command economy yet maintain and regularly enhance authoritarian political practices. They offer a seemingly attractive bargain to not only their own citizens, but to those around the world: surrender some of your democratic freedoms in exchange for political stability, economic growth, and cultural cohesion.
The leading state exponent of this new ideology of authoritarianism is China, which is using its economic prowess to harness technology in troubling and, frankly, Orwellian ways. Facial recognition technology, a pervasive social credit system that could have been lifted from an episode of the dystopian TV series “Black Mirror,” the Great Firewall of China – such tools smother individual initiative and enforce societal control. Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jingping has removed presidential term limits, effectively making him president for life. With its Belt and Road economic development program, Beijing is flexing its muscles around the world and gaining political influence in regions traditionally hostile to its wiles, like Europe. According to the U.S. State Department, anywhere from 800,000 to 2 million Muslim Uyghur citizens are languishing in re-education camps. If China were just a giant Switzerland, we would have no reason to fear its rise. But in its current form, China presents a threat to the liberal world order and the liberal idea.
Repressing their citizens at home, authoritarian states like China are using their long reach to attack critics abroad. In some cases, like Russia’s poisoning of the ex-spy Sergei Skripal on British soil last year, the tactics are audacious and deadly. Since publishing a paper two years ago documenting the extent of Chinese political influence in New Zealand, the academic Anne-Marie Brady has had her home and office broken into, her car damaged, and she has received threatening letters, emails and phone calls. “It is meant to scare me,” she recently told the Guardian newspaper. “To cause mental illness or inhibit the kinds of things I write on – to silence me. So I win by not being afraid.”
The individuals whom we will hear from today are similarly not afraid. Many of them have served time in prison for expressing their political beliefs or engaging in the sorts of peaceful, democratic activism which those of us who live in open societies take for granted. We are honored to be joined by the family of Raif Badawi, a Saudi advocate for freedom. After creating a website and discussion forum called “Free Saudi Liberals,” he was convicted by his country’s government of “violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought.” Originally, the Saudi government recommended Raif be tried for apostasy, a crime punishable by death, merely because he liked a Facebook page which stated that “Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists are all equal.” Raif’s plight is especially meaningful to me; we are the same age, and “propagating liberal thought” is basically what I do for a living. Yet for Raif, it brought upon hundreds of lashes and a prison sentence.
At the age of 7, Nimco Ali was subjected to the barbaric practice of FGM, or female genital mutilation. This non-medical procedure affects an estimated 3 million girls every year around the world. It is gruesome and misogynistic; and is meant to exert control over women, deny them autonomy, and put them in their place. Nimco has devoted her life to stopping FGM and will explain to us how we can help her in this important task.
Yiang Jianli was a dutiful member of the Chinese Communist Party who became disillusioned with that country’s authoritarian system while witnessing the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square, when the regime massacred thousands of his fellow students who were peacefully demonstrating for democracy. He has been imprisoned for his political activism and now resides in the United States.
These are just some of the voices you will hear from today. Different causes, different races, different countries, different languages, different traditions, different cultures, different political convictions. But they all share the same fundamental belief in human freedom. Don’t let anyone tell you that certain cultures are immune to democracy, or individual rights, or the liberal idea. The best argument against that hidebound prejudice are the testimonies you will hear today.
Indeed, if there is one message I wish for us to glean from today’s discussions, it is an acknowledgement of the universality of human rights, which is really just an expression of the universality of the human experience. Across the world, and especially in the West, we are seeing a rise in what’s commonly referred to as “identity politics.” This is the belief that one’s identity – whether racial, religious, national, sexual, gender – is the key determinant in one’s life. Identity politics has the tendency to create unbridgeable divisions between people, emphasizing superficial differences over universal similarities.
The salience of identity as a determinant in global political trends is growing. If the major world conflicts of the latter half of the last century were over economics, today, they are increasingly determined by identity. According to the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who 30 years ago was prophesying The End of History, “Identity politics is no longer a minor phenomenon, playing out only in the rarified confines of university campuses or providing a backdrop to low-stakes skirmishes in ‘culture wars’ promoted by the mass media. Instead, identity politics has become a master concept that explains much of what is going on in global affairs.”
While our diverse identities are important to recognize and respect, we must not let it overwhelm our sense of what it is that unites us. By arguing that humans are ultimately defined by their irrevocable traits, the more extreme forms of identity politics are fundamentally opposed to the liberal idea; they are anti-Enlightenment. One hears the arguments of Western practitioners of identity politics replicated in the words of dictators who say that ideas like freedom and individual rights and democracy don’t apply to their cultures. But as the people in this room can attest, the rights of man are non-negotiable.
It is often said that a society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members – the aged, the infirm, the poor. The same metric applies to a world order beset by various forms of dictatorship – how do we treat the most vulnerable people, and the most vulnerable states? At a time when democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise – when the world’s democracies are becoming less democratic and less powerful, and the world’s authoritarian states are becoming more internally repressive and externally assertive – it is all the more important for democratic nations, and democratic peoples, to work together. That is what we all are doing here today. Democratic alliances like the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and bilateral relationships between democratic countries, must be strengthened if human liberty is to flourish. Leaders of democratic countries must support these alliances and institutions, and speak out forthrightly in defense of liberal values wherever and whenever they are under attack.
With great freedom comes great responsibility. As a citizen of a free country who has been provided with a public platform, I believe that it is my responsibility to speak out when the fundamental rights of my fellow human beings are being repressed, especially when those fellow human beings are denied the right to speak for themselves. Freedom of expression is the most fundamental right of a liberal society – the right upon which all others are contingent. The founders of my country, the United States, understood its centrality, which is why they enshrined it as the First Amendment to our Constitution. Those of us who live in free societies are incredibly lucky to have this right; most of the world’s population does not.
Earlier this month in Washington, where I live and work, I listened to a speech from the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Hers is a small country in Eastern Europe, which for decades was occupied by the Soviet Union. Today, it is a dynamic, open, tech-savvy liberal democracy which tops global rankings for democratic participation, transparency, female participation in politics and the workplace and other leading indicators of societal advancement. Reflecting on a previous visit to the U.S. capital, she recalled walking along The National Mall, the grand park in downtown Washington where our monuments to presidents and war memorials are located. She recalled reading “the thoughts displayed on the walls of these monuments, and then I told myself, this is the place you have to always remember should life bring you among the decision makers in politics.”