WSJ on Human Rights: Human Rights Beyond Ideology

June 5, 2009

This Editorial in the Wall Street Journal talks about a conference on human rights, organized by a Venezuelan who “gets it”.

Human Rights Beyond Ideology

June 5, 2009; Page W13


Twenty years ago, as Soviet communism was collapsing and new democracies were springing up everywhere, there were bright hopes for the spread of human rights. But while this year marks the anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling, yesterday was also the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in China, a reminder of just how unyielding authoritarian governments can be.

Tiananmen was very much on the minds of the 200 human-rights activists who gathered in this tidy capital city where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year. But the Oslo Freedom Forum, organized by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, was unlike any human-rights conference I’ve ever attended. As at other such gatherings, racism and gender discrimination were on the minds of plenty of participants. But there was no desire to blame such problems on the U.S. or other Western nations. The emphasis was on promoting basic rights in all nations at all times.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Thor Halvorssen, a human-rights activist and the conference’s 33-year-old founder. “We all should want freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from torture, freedom to travel, due process and freedom to keep what belongs to you.” Unfortunately, he explains, “the human-rights establishment at the United Nations is limited to pretty words because so many member countries kill or imprison or torture their opponents.”

Indeed, the U.N. Human Rights Conference held in Geneva last month was a disgrace, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denouncing Israel as a “racist regime” and saying that “Zionism” was dominating the media and financial systems of the West. The U.S. didn’t send a delegation to Geneva, and a number of the European representatives walked out during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s rant.

The Oslo Freedom Forum, by contrast, was a serious gathering of grown-ups. Even Oslo’s leftist newspaper Klassekampen (Class Struggle) overcame its initial skepticism, declaring the forum “an impressive assembly of people.”

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Yelena Bonner, the widow of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, couldn’t attend due to ill health, but all sent videotaped statements. Ms. Bonner challenged delegates to combat the “anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment growing throughout Europe” since she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize here on behalf of her husband in 1975. Vladimir Bukovsky, a scientist who was tortured by the KGB for years, warned that many of Russia’s old oppressors were “safely in power again” in new guises.

The conference also brought together activists from far-flung corners of the world. Palden Gyatso, a diminutive Tibetan monk, told horrifying tales of being imprisoned for 33 years and being tortured by Chinese captors who wedged electric batons into his mouth and destroyed all of his teeth. After his talk, he was embraced by Harry Wu, a survivor of 19 years in China’s network of labor camps, which still contain untold numbers of prisoners.

Although quiet and reserved, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane kept his audience riveted as he told of how he’d been raised in an elite Mauritanian family that kept slaves even after the practice was officially abolished in his land in 1981. While living in Paris as an adult, he became infuriated at the world’s indifference to slavery and teamed up with a former slave from Mauritania to provide legal help to escapees and also conduct covert rescue operations of those still in bondage. Mr. Ethmane’s talk was followed by presentations from two powerful speakers from Kurdistan and Uzbekistan, both women who had served time for democratic activism.

Some voices at the Oslo meeting are seldom heard in the West. Victor Hugo Cardenas of Bolivia prides himself on his indigenous background but is an implacable opponent of leftist President Evo Morales, a protégé of Hugo Chavez. Mr. Cardenas, a former vice president of Bolivia, called Mr. Morales a “false indigenous icon” who was deploying “shock troops” to silence critics. Indeed, he said that some of Mr. Morales’s thugs had recently attacked his house and beaten members of his family. “But you will hear little of this from our media, much of which is bought by the Venezuelan money of Hugo Chavez,” he thundered.

The Norwegian hosts seem keen on repeating the event next year. The forum certainly attracted the right enemies. During the conference, Norwegian papers reported that the Cuban Embassy had emailed a lengthy denunciation of the forum, accusing Mr. Halvorssen and former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares of being CIA agents. The embassy also wrote that Mr. Valladares was a “terrorist,” and it accused the Human Rights Foundation’s Bolivian representative of “providing the bulk of the funds for the terrorist gang” that had supposedly plotted to assassinate President Morales.

Mr. Halvorssen expressed both amusement and exasperation at the charges. “They accuse me of working for the CIA in countries I’ve never visited,” he told me. “As for Ambassador Valladares, he was Amnesty International’s first prisoner of conscience from Cuba. Amnesty doesn’t usually protect CIA agents.”

4 Responses to “WSJ on Human Rights: Human Rights Beyond Ideology”

  1. Susan Says:

    For your information :

    Santiago Manuin was shot to death by Peru police yesterday at Bagua. President of the Condorcanqui Amazon defence group, he won the Queen Sofi a of Spain award for his work in defending the environment of the Amazon Basin. The kind of person that Twobreakfasts calls “not a first class citizen”. UPDATE Sunday evening: Well, that Mark twain quote is apt, I’m glad to say. Manuin is still alive but in a bad state, having taken eight police bullets and several emergency operations. Man of steel, it seems. ¡Que te recuperes, Santi!

    This is the link to a Google News page in English filtered for English language news on Bagua and the repercussions. You’ll get all the latest stories from Reuters, AP, AFP, NYT etc on it. Better than me trying to update the story constantly.

    Peruanista has a slideshow of photos that are not for the faint of stomach.

    Simon Rosemary makes me vomit by quoting the racist Aldo Mariategui of Correo who links the protestors at Bagua to Hugo Chávez. Seriously you dickhead, how low can you go?

    Finally, site friend Amazilia (via a Mexfiles translation) hits the nail on the head with this observation in the post “Peruvian Failure”. Very well said, Amazilia

    Once again Peruvian society has failed. The death of Peruvian citizens in confrontations that could have been avoided is a symptom of our failure. Moreover, the indifference and even the justification by many commentators and bloggers, who are able to accept these deaths as necessary to maintain order and development means that we are still very far from being a country that can progress.
    Well I thought that was “finally, but this is important. Comercio is reporting that of the 38 police officers taken hostage last night, 22 have escaped/were rescued, nine have been killed and the rest are missing.

    Civil rights, what civil rights ? S.

  2. concerned Says:

    From Veneconomy…

    “(05/06/2009 01:42:13 p.m.) Retired military officers called to have Constitution respected
    and to respond against the Cubanization of the Armed Forces and the establishment of a Communist regime in the country, according to a manifesto read by retired General Rafael Montero Revete at the relaunching of the Military Alliance for Venezuela. The document concludes by calling all to save Venezuela from disintegration and to recover democracy and freedoms.”

    Now may be a good time to unite for the common goal of saving Venezuela.

  3. dillis Says:

    Deanna, I agree, forget the UN. China can veto anything they don´t like so nothing worthwhile ever gets approved. They are all talk, no action. Zimbabwe, Sudan, Iraq, etc…

  4. Deanna Says:

    Unfortunately, many of the members of the United Nations, are human rights violators and decisions made at the UN forum are usually by consensus of the members. That’s why human rights is better defended by NGOs, rather than official governmental institutions, including international organizations because any activities done by NGOs is not at the behest of Member States, as they are at the UN.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: