Issue 312: Dissidents with a dream speak out at UN


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Organizers of the Global Summit against Discrimination and Persecution say they want to impress upon world leaders that human rights are universal. Among some of today’s speakers is John Dau, founder of the John Dau Foundation, an NGO that focuses on providing healthcare to South Sudanese: “Don’t say things, do things. You are here to represent the whole world, and there are atrocities being committed, anywhere, China, Zimbabwe, Abyei, Kordofan, Blue Nile—these atrocities are being committed as we speak. What are world leaders waiting for? Do they want to see another Darfur?
Voice of America, Sept. 23, 2011

(Source: Democracy Digest, Sept. 26, 2011)

The vulnerability of authoritarian regimes and the vital role of international solidarity were the two key themes arising from a forum of leading dissidents and democracy activists during last week’s UN General Assembly, writes David Lowe of the National Endowment for Democracy. By contrast, the testimony of former political prisoners and survivors of torture confirmed the resilience of the human spirit and the drive for freedom.

While the world’s leaders and diplomats were busy making speeches, attending receptions, and annoying New York City commuters during the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly last week, an all-star cast of former political prisoners and dissidents in exile from the world’s most brutal dictatorships convened a few blocks away to give solemn testimony to an audience of NGO representatives and human rights activists.

The ‘We Have a Dream’ forum (above) was organized by a coalition of organizations led by the Geneva-based UN Watch, and which included, among others, the Lantos Foundation, Advancing Human Rights, Freedom Now, and the Daniel Pearl Foundation. The panelists were connected to a worldwide audience that was able to pose questions to them via Facebook and Twitter.

A l’occasion de l’assemblée générale de l’ONU,UN Watch orgnanisait un sommet contre les discriminations et les persécutions. Notre invitée en a profité pour dénoncer l’injustice que subit aujourd’hui Asia bibi, condamnée à mort au Pakistan…
France 24(video), Sept. 22, 2011

Much of the testimony from a broad geographical spectrum of men and women was harshly graphic: accounts of cruel family separation, horrific prison conditions, life-threatening denial of critical medications, physical and mental humiliation, and beatings that have left lifelong deformities. The Vietnamese writer Tran Khai Than Thuy reported that she had made several unsuccessful suicide attempts, saying she saw it as the only way to end her suffering, and she and others described their fear of losing some or all of their mental capacity. It was frequently observed that all of the regimes administering this persecution are in good standing at the U.N. and more than a few have been rewarded with seats on its Orwellian-titled Human Rights Council.

Two themes dominated the conference: the sensitivity of autocratic regimes to criticism and the importance of outside pressure. As Chinese human rights activist Yiang Jianli pointed out, when a prisoner knows that he has the support of people on the outside, his spirit is immediately lifted. He was one of many who attributed their release to international campaigns fought on their behalf.

Not surprisingly, there were many references to the past year’s events in the Arab world and the importance of offering support to those in struggle. Some brought direct word from the region. Syrian dissident Rami Nakhleh contrasted the situation in his native country with three decades ago when Hafez al- Assad, the current president’s father, crushed the Hama uprising. “Today is not like 1982,” he said, since “no dictator today can commit a crime and let it remain in the dark.”

The We Have a Dream Global Summit is a non-governmental initiative taking a thoughtful look at discrimination and persecution… Many summit speakers are survivors of the oppressive regimes gathering at Durban III, joining up to speak truth to power. Presentations hit on abuses and injustice ignored at Durban III: political prisoners in Iran, proposed legislation to murder gays and lesbians in Uganda, North Korean concentration camps, Cuban totalitarianism, Syrian war crimes, and Zimbabwe’s abject repression…
—Thor Halvorssen, The Huffington Post, Sept. 21, 2011

This growing connectivity was repeatedly invoked and used to good effect when, in a dramatic intervention, celebrated blogger Yoani Sanchez was linked in to the conference from her Cuban outpost. The timing could not have been better, since it occurred right after the audience heard a chilling account of the years of torture endured in Castro’s prisons byFidel Suarez Cruz, who was held in isolation for over seven years, beaten, and kept in punishment cells for arguing the case of an ill prisoner denied medical attention. Offering warm greetings of solidarity, Sanchez noted how despite the draconian controls the Castro brothers have placed on the internet for all but “reliable functionaries,” technology has allowed her and some others to project their voices outside the island, which she used to appeal for help for a nation “detained in the 20th century” where, regrettably, “the path to ending censorship is a very long one.”

The next day Bertha Antunez, who went on hunger strike in 2004 on behalf of her imprisoned brother, reported on the activities of Cuba’s courageous women of the resistance. She called upon the international community to support these women who risk their lives to struggle for the dignity of their fellow Cubans despite constant persecution by state security. “If the world remains silent, there will be more deaths and the regime will continue to repress and humiliate our people.”

Several of the speakers warned against compromising with regimes seeking to entice the world to engage with them. Dr. Thaung Htun, who has been fighting for democracy in his native Burma for nearly four decades, described the military regime’s recent constitutional changes as “old wine in new bottles.” Dr. Htun, who represents the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) at the UN, called on that body to appoint a special envoy to investigate human rights abuses that continue despite so-called “reforms.”

Ahmed Batebi, the former Iranian student leader and political prisoner who gained international fame for his appearance on a 1999 cover of The Economist (right), holding up the blood-splattered shirt of a fellow protester, noted that “no dictatorial government will change its tune by just talk and dialogue. And no such regime will change simply on its own.”

While sober in its description of past and present atrocities, the tone of the conference was remarkably upbeat in its speakers’ optimism that authoritarian regimes, as demonstrated by the Arab Spring, are inherently weak and cannot last forever. Several noted similarities in the tactics of regimes, one pondering how autocrats participating in the General Assembly were no doubt getting together to plot strategy. Listening to the testimony of fellow former political prisoners, Zimbabwe activist Grace Kwinjeh, a victim of brutal beatings in Robert Mugabe’s jails, concluded that it is “almost as if our leaders have been exchanging notes and tactics on how to repress us.”

Ahmad Batebi, an Iranian dissident granted asylum by the U.S., characterized Ahmadinejad’s speech as “repulsive lies and conspiracy theories” in an e-mail from Geneva-based UN Watch.
Bloomberg News, Sept. 22, 2011

There were numerous expressions of solidarity with the causes of fellow dissidents, as participants shared experiences and offered mutual support. “I am strengthened by what I have heard here,” said Kwinjeh. “We do not often get platforms to speak out on behalf of those who can’t speak out on their own. I have hope because I know that I am not on my own.”

“After listening to the speakers for the past two days I’m full of rage,” declared Ugandan gay rights activist Jacqueline Kasha, adding that “listening to the speakers has given me hope and reason why I have to stand up. Dissidents,” she continued, “are not cowards; they want to stand up for their communities. And they know that you are a better activist alive than dead.” She was scathing in her criticism of the UN and much of the world’s media for ignoring the rampant use of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African states where “women are forced to fight a war about their bodies.”

Op-Ed by Speaker Rebiya Kadeer:

As the U.N. General Assembly’s 66th session proceeded this week, I participated in the We Have a Dream Global Human Rights Summit just down the street, which brought together human rights defenders from all over the world. Our final declaration was a rallying cry based upon the U.N.’s own Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It included the demand that China and other authoritarian states be removed from the U.N.’s key human rights bodies. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 23, 2011

One of the final speakers, Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, paid tribute to all those conference attendees willing “to speak truth to dictators,” noting that authoritarian governments are virtually the same everywhere in the way they persecute their people. “Together,” she said, “we can become the voice for the voiceless who can’t speak out against their rulers without fear.” She emphasized the importance of speaking up not just for one’s own people but also for people persecuted anywhere. “It is my firm belief,” she concluded, “that we will be victorious.”

The conference ended with participants issuing a stirring Declaration of Dissidents for Universal Human Rights, which recalls the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago and of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East in recent months, and gives notice to the world’s remaining tyrants and dictators that “your time has passed.” Noting that the declaration’s authors come from diverse faiths and cultures, the excuses of rulers to claim exceptions to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are unequivocally rejected. The declaration calls upon the UN General Assembly to remove tyrannical governments from positions of power in the UN’s human rights architecture: China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia from the Human Rights Council; Iran from the Commission on the Status of Women; and Saudi Arabia from the Executive Board of UN Women.


Also hitting the Hill media circuit today: Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who will take part in a debrief on what was, according to the advisory, an “unprecedented” event that took place in New York last week: the “We Have A Dream” Global Summit Against Persecution and Discrimination, which “brought together human rights dissidents and former political prisoners a stone-throw from their oppressors in the adjacent United Nations General Assembly.
CBC, Sept. 26, 2011

As the authors of the document point out, and as repeatedly demonstrated during the previous two days, “We, survivors of repression in our own countries of origin recognize that human beings can be trampled, but their spirit can never be crushed.”


Op-Ed by Speaker Yang Jianli

That is one of the many reasons why I will be joining an international coalition of dissidents and human rights organizations in New York this week. Led by UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO that works the UN’s corridors on behalf of human rights victims across the world, we will hold a parallel summit to combat discrimination and persecution. It’ll take place within a stone’s throw of the UN’s headquarters on the banks of the East River.
New York Daily News, “The UN’s red carpet for tyrants: We’re hosting our own assembly where repression isn’t welcome,” Sept. 19, 2011


Op-Ed on Summit

At one end, the tyrants, thugs and terrorism-enablers are here for the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly… At the other end, you have their victims. More than 20 survivors of genocide, torture, mock executions and similar horrors come together today for a summit to highlight continued human-rights abuse. They includes former Iranian political prisoners and a former inmate of North Korea’s gulags, but invitations to speak in the hallowed halls of the UN have not been extended to any of them…
New York Post, Sept. 22, 2011


A number of human rights organizations have taken the opportunity to hold their own meeting on human rights in the shadow of the UN summit. Among them are UN Watch, an organization that keeps a close eye on the UN… At a hotel across the street from where President Obama resided this week, dissidents and human rights activists assembled from Cuba, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Syria, China and many other countries, whose leaders are in New York and that supposedly represent them at the UN… — Sweden’s Norrköpings Tidningar, Sept. 26, 2011


Op-Ed by Summit Speaker Ahmad Batebi

This week, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address the United Nations General Assembly for the sixth year in a row… Incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison, a hellish place run by the regime’s secret police, I was subjected to a decade of torture and abuse. Were I to meet Ahmadinejad, I would tell him about the occasion when my head was shoved into a drain full of excrement. I’d tell him about the mock executions I was subjected to. I’d tell him about how I was forced to watch my closest friends being viciously beaten, and how their cries for mercy still ring in my ears. I’d ask him how he feels about the permanent scars his regime has left on my body and soul. I’d ask him if he can understand the pain I felt earlier this year, when I learned that one of my former cellmates, the noted Iranian writer Siamak Pourzand, had committed suicide, rather than live one more day under clerical rule. I don’t expect to meet Ahmadinejad this week. Yet I will pose those questions at a summit that brings together human rights defenders from the most repressive states in the world — China, Cuba, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iran’s close ally and imitator, Syria… Fox News, Sept. 21, 2011


UN Watch