Session 1: Women's right-The Struggle for Human Dignity
Mukhtar Mai was the first speaker. Her infant son suffered a grave accident earlier in the day and so she had to hurry back to Pakistan after her talk. Moderator Tom Gross thanked Mai for agreeing to take the floor and speak today despite being overwhelmed by her son's injury.
She gave an emotional account of her experience, from being sentenced to gang rape, to bravely overcoming adversity and financial hardship to build a school that now educates hundreds of women, and providing shelter, help to victims of sexual violence.
“I went to court, but the Pakistan Supreme Court decided against me and acquitted the criminals,” said Mai.
Still, she is determined to fight for justice. “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.”
Marina Nemat gave a dramatic account of her experience as a young teenager in an Iranian prison, where she was repeatedly tortured and raped, forced to marry her prison guard to avoid execution.
“When I was growing up under the rule of the Shah, we didn’t have political freedoms, but we had personal freedoms. Iran had secular laws, a woman could become whatever she wanted."
"But in 1979, we didn’t gain political freedoms, and we lost our personal freedoms."
On being tortured, she said: “If the devil himself appeared and asked me to sell my soul, I would have done it.”
“They can take away everything, but they can never take away the person you really are."
“The next time an Iranian official is given a microphone on the international stage, I would really like to see a torture victim given a microphone for the same amount of time on the same stage.”
“Silence is a weapon of mass destruction.”
Colette Braeckman discussed her experience as a journalist in the Great Lakes region of Africa, particularly in the Congo.
“The rape of women is not part of the culture of the people that live in Great Lake Regio. It is, alas, a modern day practice that has spread like an epidemic."
“When I went to Congo, I discovered the horror. Women were mutilated. Women were being destroyed physically and morally."
“We need to support the state and local authorities so that armed men can be brought to account. Create more tribunals. So people know that if men rape, they will be brought before the law.”
Session 2: Slavery Genocide and Concentration camps - In Our Own Time?
The second session captivated the audience with accounts of slavery and human rights atrocities occurring in Mauritania, North Korea and Sudan.
Abidine Merzough instructively presented the history and reality of slavery in Mauritania. As Abidine exclaimed, although Mauritania is an ‘Islamic Republic,” by title, its conduct and impunity towards slavery is far from true to the principles of the Islamic religion.
Regarding the issue of slavery, Abidine remarked:
“Mauritania is the only country in the world that has had five laws that aim to abolish traditional slavery. But this has been without any effect. These laws merely aid to stop criticism by the int’l community. The country merely wants to save their image abroad.”
“The international community must not be allowed to be fooled or manipulated by a regime who’s main objective is to protect the slavers… Today’s Mauritania does not deserve to be elected Vice President of today’s HRC. We must denounce this.”
“We call for reforms in the educational system. It is through education that we will be able to free the slaves.”
Dong-hyuk Shin delivered an emotionally gripping account of his experience as a child and teenager born and raised in a North Korean prison camp. He concluded his presentation with a call to action for the international community to act in preventing such atrocities.
Some of Shin’s key statements:
“As a child, the only thing I knew about my situation was what I was told by prison camp guards. They said that ‘you are all supposed to be killed, but the law has saved you instead. So you have to work hard. You must pay off all your sins that you and your family members committed until the day you die.’ That’s all I knew about why I was there.
"The key solution to this problem is you. The whole world was very sad to see the corpses of 6 million Jews that died in prison camps 70 years ago. We thought this was a thing of the past. Do you really believe this is a thing of the past? If we don’t act now, we will have to cry and feel pain again just as we did 70 years ago. This can happen to us tomorrow… We don’t have much time.”
“Please don’t just sit here. Fill it with your hearts. You’re the only hope for them.”
Chol-hwan Kang also recounted his incredible experience as a survivor from a North Korean prison camp. His insightful perspective into the inner-workings of North Korea shed light on a country that often basks in obscurity.
As Kang remarked:
“The reason for why North Korea maintains a long dictatorship is because the international community was indifferent to the grave situation of the political prison camps and other human rights situations in N. Korea.”
“There is a difference in the new leadership. Kim Jong-Il’s leadership was a concentrated power controlled by Kim Jong-Il himself. But Kim Jong-Un does not have a long period of power succession, so he does not have complete control of the regime. On the surface the power seems to be concentrated on the new leader, but there is his uncle, his aunt and other family members.”
Although unable to attend the conference personally, Mukesh Kapila, Aegis Trust expert on the Sudanese genocide, provided a gripping cinematic account of his work in war-torn Sudan and South Sudan. His documentary took us on the ground in Sudan and South Sudan, with first hand accounts and interviews with victims plagued by the aggression of Khartoum.
In his movie, Kapila remarked that:
“The international community, the African Union, the United Nations that has invested so much in the peace process between Sudan and South Sudan must realize that all the efforts are in vain if they continue to neglect the people of the Nuba mountains.”
And in a prepared statement read out in the conference, Kapila stated that:
"There is much more that the African Union and United Nations can do. History teaches us that without justice and accountability, peace cannot be made or sustained. Although justice is still to be done in Darfur, there is an ample primae facie evidence for additional crimes against humanity in Nuba and Blue Nile. The UN and AU should formally investigate them to consider another case to the International Criminal Court. This will add to the pressure on Khartoum leaders already indicted.”
Session III: Authoritarianism and Human Rights: The Police State and Its Victims
Dicki Chhoyang opened with a quote from Mao Ze Dong, the founding father of China, “where there is repression, there is resistance.” Chhoyang sees this resistance growing in Tibet in her role as Foreign Minister.
She focused on the phenomena of self-immolation stating:
Since February 2009, 102 Tibetan men and women across all age groups and members of society self-immolated in a final act of protest that could not be silenced by the Chinese Democratic Party.
She quoted from the suicide notes of an 18-year-old student Nangdrol: “the pain of not enjoying any basic human rights is far greater than the pain from self-immolation.”
“China’s reaction to self immolation has been further repression”, criminalizing this harrowing act of protest.
"China wants Tibet but not Tibetans."
“The issue of China and Tibet is not a problem between the Chinese and Tibetan people. It is between the Chinese government and the Tibet people."
"We firmly believe one can be a friend of China and care about Tibet."
On moving forward she stated:
"Unfortunately, China is now devoid of any moral authority in how it’s handling the issue of Tibet. We must hold China accountable as a member of the United Nations.”
She pleaded that the dialogue between the Tibet and Chinese administrations be restored.
“We have to hold this discourse beyond classrooms and meeting rooms and show that nonviolence does pay in the end.”
She concluded: “Tibet is being reduced to a Disney world, a façade, a tourist attraction. We are fighting for our right to exist as a people.”
Randa Kassis spoke of the plight of civilians in today’s Syrian conflict:
“There is a pro-regime group and an anti-regime group and both sides are quit rigid. Neither side is thinking of civilians: civilians will always lose.”
She blamed the spread of fundamentalist and extremist religious beliefs for the strength in Assad’s regime.
“When we wish to defend civil society we need to adopt the idea of a secular society that can provide protection for many minorities. This is the only way they can protect themselves.”
“There have been 70,000 victims so far and as the revolt continues the numbers will sky rocket. The military solution is not a genuine solution. There is only one outcome: to adopt a political solution."
"The international community must commit itself to the civilian population and begin negotiations to arrive at a compromise between the major players in the region."
Regis Iglesias spoke of the painful memories of his 18-year jail sentence on anti-State charges. He, alongside 75 other activists, was held in captivity in overcrowded, sweltering jail cells:
“In 30 days, I glimpsed the sunlight only once. I was constantly subjected to interrogation in freezing officers to get me to convince to the illegitimate slander they were accusing me of. I was badly beaten by jailers, given little to eat, and the filth and lack of hygiene made me vulnerable to all kinds of diseases.”
Of his work with the Christina Liberation Movement, Regis explained that they are working to break the privileges the Cuban oligarchy is desperately trying to preserve. He claimed the founder of this party, Oswaldo Paya, was assassinated: “Weknew from the moment the crash took place from witnesses and the injured that it was murder. I am asking that an independent commission be sent to Cuba to discover the truth.”
He also pleaded for international support in regard to the human rights crisis in Cuba and explained:
“We want our brothers in democracy to know that in Cuba, in the midst of the most terrible repression, people continue to struggle without hate in their hearts."
"So many Cubans have generously paid for the fight for freedom with their lives."
"National interest should not dictate whether or not we have bonds of solidarity. Help us get back the sovereignty stolen form us by tyranny."
Rosa Maria Paya implored the global community to launch an international investigation into the death of her father, Oswaldo Paya, the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement.
She refuses to recognize the reforms being issued by the Cuban government as anything more than procedural changes, adding:
“I want to be clear about something: the lack of human rights is the principle reason for the suffering, poverty, and social problems of our people.”
She also requested international support in her fight for the fundamental human rights of Cubans:
She quoted her late father to express the freedoms they deserve: “Freedom to dream, to decide, to love, to build with our imaginations and our efforts the society that we want, the society that we the Cubans choose.”
“A country should not have to choose between being economically successful and being a state of human rights.”
“The Cuban civil fighters have not a single weapon, we are holding out both arms to all the people of the world. The first victory we can claim is that we do not have any hate in our hearts."
"I want to tell those who persecute and try to dominate us, you are my brother. Let us see the truth together.”
She concluded poignantly: “God help us all.”
Session IV: From Moscow to the Middle East: The Silencing of Critical Voices
Kacem El Ghazzali took the floor to speak about the repression of freedom of thought and expression in Morocco. He explained: “In the Arab world, we have only one kind of thought. Anyone who tries to escape this dogma will not succeed. I live in a society that is a machine that produces copies of one another.”
Kacem founded blogs because “discussions about religion are not allowed.” He likened being an atheist blogger to committing suicide. Kacem recounted the painful physical attack he endured by his high school teacher after he gave an interview focused on his atheism. He could not understand why the police would not punish his abusers.
Kacem was told to “apologize to [his] people for the shame [he] brought to Morocco.” “I am a critical thinker, I cannot be a citizen of Morocco. I was shaking and crying when I applied for asylum,” he recounted.
He concluded with a poignant plea: “If there is still some humanity, civility, and justice, I’m calling on the individuals here to do their best.”
Pyotr Verzilov asked the international community to put pressure on President Putin and the Russian government to free his wife and the other members of Pussy Riot. This March is the women’s last chance to win any legal battle when they apply to be released from Russia’s labor work camp a year early.
“The whole Pussy Riot story has brought to Russia’s people and the international community painful memories of the Soviet Union’s oppression. These memories are so alive today that maybe there has been no perestroika and no fall of the USSR. We look outside and its 1937 and we are sent to prison for political opposition,” he sadly remarked.
Pyotr blames Putin for Russia’s human rights abuses. “In today’s Russia, you need the opinion of only one man on any issue. Only one man’s opinion matters.”
“Putin was most recently irritated by a group of five girls with an obscene band name who protested the political propaganda of the Russan Orthodox Church. For this, he thought it was reasonable to separate my wife from our five year old daughter Gera for two years. It seems the great Russia of today gets its inspiration from the religious countries of Saudi Arabia and Iran instead of from the West.”
Pyotr showed a photo of his wife Nadya in forced prison garb at the remote labor prison camp where she now lives. This prison has seen no change since Stalin’s presidency, accurately describing what is happening with Russia’s politics today. Pyotr’s wife remarked that both “the guards and the prisoners long for justice.”
Her fellow band mate advised “nothing in Russia can stay the same for this country to survive.”
Lukpan Akhmedyarov drew connections between Kazakhstan’s rich oil supply and the diminishing free media. “Oil is not a natural resource but a curse because for the past 20 years my country has fallen victim to an immoral leader,” he said. Lukpan spoke of the 16 killed in the 2011 Zhanaozen oil factory protest. “It rid the world of its delusions that Kazakhstan is a rising democracy and given way to the reality of how we live.”
Today there are have 9 TV channels, 20 newspapers, and 12 radios in Kazakhstan but they all belong to the government. The authorities have violently attack the independent press and four journalists are now in prison. Lukpan was one of the 12 journalists violently attacked in 2012. “Two young people knifed me, hit me with their guns, but I survived. I am just one of the many attatcks against journalists,” he recounted. He was attacked because his newspaper covered the oil protests and tarnished Kazakhstan’s image in the West. The attackers were concerned only of the profits lost.
Lukpan sadly reported that each year freedom of the press worsens. “Kazakhstan’s membership in the UN’s Human Rights Council is most unsettling. Democratic reform has not followed the reports,” he concluded.
Concluding remarks by John Suarez, Directorio Democratico Cubano at 2013 Geneva Summit for Human Rights