NEW YORK, September 21, 2011 — An international coalition of NGOs, human rights activists, and political dissidents met in New York this morning for the first session of the Global Summit against Discrimination and Persecution.
Held in parallel to the United Nations’ 65th session, the summit features former political prisoners from China, Iran, and the Sudan. Other speakers come from Cuba, Uganda, Vietnam, and Burma, all sharing stories of persecution and perseverance. The event gives platform to their continuing struggle for freedom while governments from around the world meet nearby at the United Nations General Assembly.
The coalition of 20 NGOs include the Lantos Foundation, Advancing Human Rights, the American Islamic Congress, and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer opened the summit by honoring the legacy of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist whose kidnapping and death by terrorists in Pakistan gripped the world just four months after 9/11. The Daniel Pearl Foundation, a sponsoring partner of the summit, hosts concerts in over 100 countries to spread tolerance and humanity in Pearl’s memory. A letter from his family read, “The music of your foundation will ring around the world, and will resonate in sharp defiance of tyranny. Music will triumph and humanity will prevail.”
Political dissidents urged the United Nations to pay attention to the urgent situation in Syria, China, and Iran at the first panel, “Dictatorship to Democracy: Dissidents Speak.” Pulitzer prize winning journalist Joel Brinkley called attention to the hypocrisy of Durban III, which takes place at the United Nations on Friday.
With the vast majority of Arabs opposing Islamic extremism, he lamented the promotion of Islamophobia by Islamic delegations. “Isn’t it a bit ironic that some islamic states bewail the inequities they face just days after the tenth anniversary of 9/11,” he asked.
Such Islamophobia hampers the transition to democracy by shielding abusing states from international scrutiny. Pointing to the Arab Spring and Jasmine Revolution, the panel noted that the calls for democracy are unending, even as the fighting continues. They expressed great hope for seeing “a world without dictatorship.”
Syrian dissident, Rami Nakhleh, gave an update on the violent struggles of Syrians under the Assad regime. He expressed the unyielding energy of protestors and called for the international community to help Syrians by advising them and sustaining their efforts.
Social media is a major tool for dissent, as it is a battleground between protestors and the regime. “The Arab spring is born out of social media,” Nakhlel said. “Dictatorships will first pull down the ability of people to organize. People must organize to express ourselves in our real names or virtual names. The people in Syria know that the internet is monitored so we have evolved our skills to circumvent the regime’s tools to block websites and ban activists.”
Former Chinese political prisoner and founder of Initiatives for China, Dr. Yang Jianli, challenged the the United Nations to respect its own charter. “We must ask today, how the UN Charter, which speaks so eloquently to the aspirations of people to live free lives, is so ignored by its signatory states?” Instead, he said, “China cynically sits on the body supposedly committed to expanding the reach of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration.”
Ahmed Batebi, an Iranian student whose blood-stained portrait on The Economist resulted in a nine year sentence, called to the alarming statistics that Iran remains the number one executer of children in the world. (His letter to the United Nations is linked on Fox.) He recounted his own experiences of torture and described the ongoing persecution of religious minorities, homosexuals, and women.
“During the Green Movement, Iranians were using many filters to access technology, when Europeans should have been a little more forceful in pressuring Iran, when the world should have been listening,” Batebi said. “But we remain ignored. I have a dream for all governments around the world to know that no dictatorial government will change by talk and dialogue alone.”
Representing the American Islamic Congress, Nasser Weddady shared the many stories of Arab reformers. He cautioned that the struggles in the Middle East are long-standing and that the “warning bells of Tunisia” actually started in Iran following the controversial elections of 2009. “Democracy is not merely the act of casting a vote in a ballot box,” he argued.
The only effective way to confront extremism and one-man rule is to promote individual civil and political rights. Weddady pressed that democracy promotion alone will not stop regimes. The nascent movements comprised of young people need strategic planning skills to build vibrant civil society. The American Islamic Congress invests in young social entrepreneurs who spread democracy and tolerance through small businesses. He says that the flourishing of these organizations will mark whether progress is taking place.