NED’s Carl Gershman speaks in Africa for human rights while perpetrators obfuscate at Durban II

“Our meeting today just happens to coincide with the opening of the UN’s Durban Review Conference in Geneva.  I regret that this conference, like the first Durban meeting, will be an exercise in obfuscation, scapegoating, and evasion, and that some of the worst violators of human rights will use it as a forum to point the finger at others and to decry everything but the real offenses.  This has a deeply corrupting effect on the entire UN system and on the international legal and moral norms that have been established over the past six decades.”  — Carl Gershman, President, the National Endowment for Democracy, at “Johannesburg + 10: The All Africa Human Rights Defenders Conference,” April 20, 2009, Kampala, Uganda.


The Importance of African Human Rights Defenders to
The World Democracy Movement

Remarks by Carl Gershman, President, the National Endowment for Democracy to
“Johannesburg + 10: The All Africa Human Rights Defenders Conference
April 20, 2009       Kampala, Uganda

            I’m very honored to have been invited to give the keynote address to the 10th anniversary conference of the All-Africa Human Rights Defenders.  It was more than a half-year ago that Hassan Shire Sheikh visited the NED and we talked about what I might say today.  He thought I should reflect upon the contribution that the African human rights defenders make to the World Movement for Democracy, the global network of democracy activists whose secretariat is housed at the NED and is represented here today by Ryota Jonen.  I’d like to do that, because I feel that their contribution is very significant.  But before I do, I’d like first to reflect upon the contribution that Africa itself has made to American democracy as well as to my own personal development as a political activist committed to democracy in America and around the world.  In both cases that contribution has been profound, if not always well understood or fully acknowledged.

            It’s not possible to speak about the evolution of American democracy over the last two and a quarter centuries without focusing on the place in American life of Africans who were brought involuntarily to the New World as slaves.  How America dealt with the issue of slavery and, after its abolition, with the legacy of racial segregation and discrimination, has always been the central problem of American democracy. 

This year the United States is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln whose rise to national leadership in the 1850s was intimately connected with the stand he took against slavery.  For Lincoln, slavery contradicted and undermined everything the United States was about as a country and represented to the world – its democratic character, its egalitarian values, its belief on human dignity and freedom.  In his first great speech, delivered in 1854 following the passage by Congress of a bill that allowed the expansion of slavery, Lincoln said that he hated slavery not just because it was a “monstrous injustice,” but “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world” and “enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites.”  He subsequently made the famous statement, which continues to reverberate today in countries where people are fighting for freedom and human rights, that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Since it cannot “endure permanently half slave and half free,” Lincoln said, it will eventually have to become “all one thing or the other.” 

For Lincoln, the struggle against slavery raised the larger issue of America’s democratic purpose.  When he was travelling to Washington in 1861 to assume the presidency, he delivered a short, extemporaneous speech in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been signed 85 years earlier, in which he said that the principles contained in that document gave liberty not just to the people of America “but hope to the world for all future time” that “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.”  This was not just Lincoln’s view but reflected the mass sentiment at the time in the free states.  The civil war that the United States was about to enter, the bloodiest war in our history, was fought fundamentally over the issue of slavery and in the belief that a larger principle was at stake.  Some two years into that war, an Ohio sergeant wrote in his diary that the war had to be prosecuted, no matter how long it lasted, “for the great principles of liberty and self-government at stake, for should we fail, the onward march of Liberty in the Old World will be retarded at least a century, and Monarchs, Kings, and Aristocrats will be more powerful against their subjects than ever.”

Again, it was the enslavement of people from Africa that caused this sentiment to swell in America, leading to the abolition of slavery and propelling America a giant step forward in the development of its democracy.  Of course deep racial problems remained, and it was not until a century later that the civil rights movement propelled America to take another giant step forward with the abolition of Jim Crow, the system of legalized segregation in the Deep South.  It was an African leader, the Kenyan Tom Mboya, who captured the essence of what had happened in the 1960s when he wrote in 1969 that American society had “been forced to undergo a genuine social revolution in response to the black struggle.”  It was a struggle that, like the anti-slavery movement a century earlier, had mobilized broad social forces in the mainstream of American society to redress what the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, in a path-breaking study, had called “the American dilemma” — the contradiction between the American creed of equality for all and the unequal condition of American blacks.  Barack Obama built his presidential campaign in a similar way, using the vision of an America overcoming racial division to inspire a new movement to broaden and deepen American democracy.

The article that Mboya wrote in 1969 was a response to his African-American “cousins,” as he called them, some of whom were so alienated from the United States that they had become militant nationalists, even to the point of calling upon American blacks to return to Africa.  Drawing upon his own fight against tribal division in Kenya, he urged the American black to transcend nationalism and racialism and to seek liberation by merging “his blackness with his citizenship as an American.”  Barack Obama’s political success four decades later was a vindication of this vision of American post-racialism, even as Mboya himself succumbed to an assassin’s bullet, a victim of the very tribalism he had warned against. 

And so now we have an American president who is the son of a Kenyan, which adds yet another dimension of inter-connectedness to the close link between Africa and American democracy.  The fact that Obama’s father came to the United States in 1959 as part of a “student airlift” organized by the same Tom Mboya, who wanted to prepare a new generation of African leaders to meet the challenge of self-government, is but further proof of the powerful and enduring bond between Africa and America.

            What else could it be that would cause someone like Congressman Don Payne to put his life on the line to save a failing African country, as he did a week ago in his visit to Somalia, other than this deeply human bond that ties the fate of our democracy to yours and that is grounded in so much suffering and blood, but also in so much hope and faith?

            I myself have not been untouched by this unique relationship.  I got my start in the 1960s in the civil rights movement, which shaped my generation.  I worked for a civil rights leader named Bayard Rustin who was a democratic socialist, a pacifist, an intellectual, and a brilliant organizer.  It was he who organized the March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech.  Dave Peterson, whom many of you know well – he’s Mr. Africa at the NED –, also worked for Bayard, though Dave, a relative youngster, came along a little after I did. 

            But it’s not Bayard whom I want to talk about today.  It’s his mentor, A. Philip Randolph, whom I also had the honor of working for, though at something of a distance since he turned 80 in 1969, the year I started at the A. Philip Randolph Institute.  Like Rustin, Randolph was a democratic socialist, and he was also a trade unionist, having organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1937. Working from this institutional base, he launched the March on Washington Movement in 1941 that integrated the defense industry, subsequently persuaded President Truman to integrate the armed forces, and effectively laid the foundation for what later became the civil rights movement.  The journalist Murray Kempton once wrote that “It is hard to make anyone who has never met him believe that A. Philip Randolph must be the greatest man who has lived in the U.S. in this century.  But it is harder yet to make anyone who has ever known him believe anything else.”

            Malcolm X once conveyed his grudging respect for Randolph when he said that “All civil rights leaders are confused, but Randolph is less confused than the rest.”  They debated frequently, and Malcolm would sometimes challenge Randolph by saying that whatever blacks got they would have to take, to which Randolph once replied by reciting a passage that he often used in his public speeches.  He said: “At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats.  You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold.  If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything; and if you can’t hold anything you won’t keep anything.  And you can’t take anything without organization.” 

Randolph spoke as a trade unionist and a democrat, his basic message being that what blacks needed to advance their democratic rights and economic interests was not militant rhetoric but organization.  It’s a message that should resonate among us today as we meet to consider how to defend human rights in Africa.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the subsequent Johannesburg and Human Rights Defenders Declarations are important not just because they establish international norms but also because they inspire people to take effective action to defend and implement those norms.  Without such action that is made possible by organization and political influence, such declarations would be words of little consequence and possibly even a rhetorical façade giving cover to real abuses by cynical autocrats.

Compare, for example, the fate of three Congolese human rights defenders who were arrested last month after making critical statements about the government at a press conference, with that of Birtukan Mideksa in Ethiopia, a former judge and opposition leader who was sentenced in 2007 to a second life prison sentence for the crime of not retracting a statement she made characterizing her earlier release as the result of a politically negotiated settlement and not a formal legal pardon.  The three Congolese activists were quickly released following the mobilization of protests by national groups as well as international condemnation.  But Birtukan remains in solitary confinement because the national groups lack political space and are weak, and the international community has been silent.

The lesson, I think, is clear.  Organization matters, and this is especially true in Africa.  One of the most important democratic developments anywhere in the world since the NED was founded 25 years ago has been the emergence in Africa of a mass movement of civil society, with human rights defenders at the forefront.  According to Larry Diamond, this development has been the principal factor accounting for Africa’s “second liberation” —  the growth since 1990 of the number of democracies in sub-Saharan Africa from three (Botswana, Mauritius, and the Gambia) with a total population of just three million to more than twenty African democracies in 2008.  The pressure for this transformation came from the bottom up, generated by an enormously diverse array of civil society actors: women’s and civic-education groups, think tanks, bar associations, trade unions, student associations and other youth groups, religious bodies, election-monitoring networks, development and environmental organizations, journalists and community radio broadcasters, groups building peace between different ethnic and religious sectors and promoting a dialogue between police and the community, others that fight corruption and advance the rule of law, and of course human rights organizations that not only advocate for human rights and monitor abuses but also engage in human rights education and training, provide legal assistance, help refugees and – like the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network – provide refuge and protection for activists and journalists in the most dangerous situations.

Such groups have done much more than foster the transition from one-party dictatorships to multi-party systems with regular elections.  They have also tried to hold elected governments accountable and to help Africans understand the importance, as our friend Maina Kiai has said, of looking “beyond the forms and facades of democracy” – the imperial presidencies, the passive and self-serving legislatures, the partisan electoral commissions, the corrupt officials, the less than independent judiciaries – to real democracy, what Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, famously called “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Thinking about the vital role of African civil society activists reminds me of a comment made by the late Samuel Huntington at a meeting we organized nearly two decade ago of democracy assistance foundations.  When Larry Diamond spoke about the need to support democracy in Africa, Huntington demurred, saying that democracy required a certain minimal level of economic development and that this precondition was lacking in most of Africa. While we couldn’t reach agreement about the possibility for democracy in Africa, we ended up agreeing that the NED should support African democrats.

Well, so we did, and what happened was that these democrats produced electoral and even liberal democracy in half the countries of sub-Saharan Africa – against all the odds and the expectations of so many specialists.  This sends a message of hope to democrats everywhere, especially those in the most difficult circumstances.  I can say without any hesitation that there is no greater source of inspiration to people fighting for democracy around the world today than the courage and determination demonstrated by African democrats in one country after another. 

            And that’s not the only way that democratic activists in Africa contribute to the global struggle for democracy.  Within the World Movement for Democracy, African democrats were the first to organize a regional network.  The African Democracy Forum has now inspired the creation of a similar network in Latin America, and it is the model that democrats in other regions can try to emulate.  It was also an African human rights activist, Nigeria’s Ayo Obe, who became the first Chair of the World Movement’s Steering Committee and helped the movement gain traction and credibility among activists around the world during the early days when it was still more an idea than a reality.

African democrats are also in a unique position to reshape the global debate on democracy and human rights.  The adoption of the Johannesburg Declaration in 1998 was eloquent testimony to the failure of governments to take meaningful action to redress the terrible violations of human rights that take place on a daily basis in Africa and which were spelled out in the Declaration, from torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions to efforts to silence human rights defenders through censorship, intimidation, imprisonment, the denial of freedom of assembly and association, and the use of laws to suppress human rights organizations and activities. 

Our meeting today just happens to coincide with the opening of the UN’s Durban Review Conference in Geneva.  I regret that this conference, like the first Durban meeting, will be an exercise in obfuscation, scapegoating, and evasion, and that some of the worst violators of human rights will use it as a forum to point the finger at others and to decry everything but the real offenses.  This has a deeply corrupting effect on the entire UN system and on the international legal and moral norms that have been established over the past six decades. 

No one is better placed to counter this corruption than African human rights defenders.  It is your alternative African voice that can begin to introduce truth and accountability into an international discussion that is otherwise sterile, mendacious, and even sinister.  Your words and even more, the actions you take at great risk to your own safety and well-being, have the potential to resonate within the international system and encourage the representatives of democratic governments to show that they have the courage of their convictions.

In the end, there is no alternative to solidarity – among the human rights defenders themselves, and between them and their allies within the international community.  Ultimately people must find their own way to freedom, but if their cause is just, they deserve support based on shared values.  This is how I understand a memorable observation by A. Philip Randolph, on which I’ll close.  “Salvation for a race, nation, or class,” he once said, “must come from within.  Freedom is never granted; it is won.  Justice is never given; it is exacted.  Freedom and justice must be struggled for by the oppressed of all lands and races, and the struggle must be continuous, for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationships.”

That’s a call to action as well as a reminder that we share a common humanity.  With that in mind, let us proceed together – Africans and Americans, and democrats the world over.

UN Watch