Human rights defenders and activists gather at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance, and Democracy

Just a day before the “Durban II” Review Conference, the U.N.’s talkfest to address racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, human rights defenders and activists from around the world gathered in Geneva this morning to address the issues they wish the conference would itself address. Brought to the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance, and Democracy by a broad coalition of more than thirty NGOs., including UN Watch, these activists spoke out for victims of genocide and challenged the world’s authoritarian regimes.

Opening remarks were delivered by Nazanin Afshin-Jam, former Miss Canada and co-founder/ President of “Stop Child Executions.” She stated that Ahmadinejad’s presence at Durban II will be a “slap in the face” to the international community. She called on countries that believe in freedom and democracy to stand in solidarity with the people of Iran and walk-out when Ahamdinejad is set to speak.

She went on to cite Ahmadinejad’s statement that the freest women in the world are the women in Iran when, in fact, Iranian penal code provides that women are worth half as much as men. She described how Iranian police beat girls simply because they wear their boots over their jeans.

Afshin-Jam recounted Ahmadinejad’s remarks at Columbia University, where he said there were no homosexuals in Iran. Is this because they are executed, she asked. She went on to cite various other abuses of the Iranian government, including its imprisonment of HIV activists who are accused of conspiring with foreign governments.

Afshin-Jam was followed by Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, Counsel for genocide victims and dissidents. Cotler moderated the first panel discussion on “Racism, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity,” and also shared his thoughts on the subject. He said that the first and enduring less of of the Holocaust and following genocides is that they begin with words. He too expressed his regret that Ahmadinejad will be a welcome guest at Durban II, despitehis incitement to genocide.

On a positive note, Cotler pointed to the judgment of the International Criminal Court to prosecute Sudan’s leader Al-Bashir. At the same time, he regretted that the Darfur atrocities are still ongoing. He said the importance of the present summit is to empower the powerless victims of the world.

Next to speak was Gibreil Hamid, Presdient of the Darfur Peace and Development Center. He began by deploring the fact that 99% of Darfuris are dependent on relief organizations, which have recently been thrown out. He stated his concern that Darfuris are a forgotten people.

At this point Darfuris in the audience rose with passionate calls of “Justice, justice!”

Mr. Hamid continued to speak about the atrocities of the Sudanese governments against black Africans, including the recent government death sentences for another ten of them accused of attacking Khartoum. This is ethnic cleansing and genocide, he said.

He complained that the Arab and Muslim governments agreed to speak about Palestine or Afghanistan at Durban II, but will not tolerate a word about Darfur. Are we not human beings, he asked? He said that Darfuris are treated as second class even if they are Muslims, because they are not Arab.

Tustsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide and founder of an organization to aid refugees, Esther Mujawayo spoke about her feelings of despair that genocides continue to happen over and over again.

She recounted the horrors of the genocide she witnessed. She noted that being Tutsi is not even a feature one can see.  The Tutsis were targeted simply because they were Tutsi.

She repeated President Obama’s statement that behind the statistics of Rwanda, are the individual faces of the genocide’s victims. She displayed pictures of her own family, all but a few of whom were killed in 1994. She spoke of the emptiness, guilt, and anger she felt being one of the fortunate to survive.

She went on to deplore the inaction of the international community, who did nothing to halt the genocide. Mujawayo said she could pardon countries for this failure, but only if they would do more, 15 years later, to help those who survived. There are so many who escaped, but are not physically and emotionally handicapped, she said.

Mujawayo recounted how many of the surviving women were constantly raped and infected with HIV. In the end, the rapists were given retro-viral drugs, but not their victims. She called on Switzerland to grant asylum to a young survivor who was found by the Red Cross amidst the bodies of his family members.

President of SOS Racism, Dominique Sopo reiterated that genocidal violence starts with words, for example, when people begin dehumanizing other people by giving them animal names like “rats” for Jews or “cockroaches” for Tutsis.

He explained that racism is a cultural construct. To combat it, one has to look back at its progression through history with an eye, not to seeking revenge, but to building a common future. He said France should examine the Algerian War. He also decried the populist attitudes against foreigners in certain countries, including in Switzerland.

Sopo then spoke about the perversion of the anti-racist agenda by the world’s dictators. They themselves are racist, sexist and homophobic, yet suggest that all good comes from the South and all bad from the North. He cited the example of how Al-Bashir called himself a victim of Western imperialism after his indictment for genocide, when, in reality, he was the perpetrator against the victims of Darfur.

He argued that Durban II has become ridiculous. “It is unbelievable that Darfur is not an issue” of the conference, he said. “Why are we holding this conference then?”

Elen Bork of Freedom House moderated the next panel discussion on “Resisting Authoritarianism: Human Rights, Democracy and the Dissident Movement.” She said it is appropriate that this discussion follows the one on genocide, because it is under authoritarian governments that genocide is committed.

Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo spoke about his experience as a dissident, activist and political prisoner in Cuba. He discussed his defiance in the face of the Castro regime as he continued to organized activities for his pro-democracy group in Cuba, despite the repression and intimidation he faced. Not only was he sentenced to twenty years in prison, but his family was also targeted. His wife was fired from her job and his daughter was expelled from school and confined to a hospital.

Castillo condenmed Durban II as an example of people refusing to denounce injustice. He said the conference is like giving an “oxygen booth to dictatorships so they can continue to trample on peoples’ lives.”

Castillo was followed by Zimbabwean lawyer and human rights advocate, Marlon Zakeyo. He described his journey as a human rights defender, which began when he joined a student movement seeking democracy and justice for his country.

Commenting on the present political situation in Zimbabwe, he said the new government should only be viewed as a transitional one, the result of a pact between political elites. The voices of the masses of Zimbabwe were not heard.

He deplored the massacres unleashed on the Zimbabwean people since 2000, not to mention the atrocities of 1982-1987. He warned that there is no guarantee that Zimbabwe will not lash back into the “dark days.” He discussed the precarious situation of human rights defenders who face enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, calling this “state terrorism” by the government of Zimbabwe.

He deplored the overcrowding of Zimbabwean prisons, filled in large part with political prisoners, where diseases, such as cholera and HIV/AIDS are rampant. There is no freedom of expression or free media, he said.

He called on the U.N. to send a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe.

Egyptian dissident and former prisoner of consciences Saad Eddin Ibrahim said he is humbled to speak on this panel, considering he only had to spent a few years as a political prisoner, when some of the others had been imprisoned for longer. He thanked his human rights defenders who were responsible for his freedom, singling out Irwin Cotler, who he claimed wrote the best legal brief on his behalf. It was a brief that found its way to the high court of Egypt, leading to his release before his full 7 year sentence.

Ibrahim said he was struck by Mr. Mugabe, who manages to stay in power, “negated by all freedom fighters around the world.” He deplored the wining and dining of Mugabe by President Mubarak in Egypt. “I can’t beleive this would happen in my own country,” he said. But, it’s not so surprising: “If your house is made of glass, you can’t treat other people otherwise.” Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Mugabe are all brothers, who stand in solidarity with another and get away with undermining international law, he said.

“How could Libya be elected chair of the Durban Review Conference,” he asked rhetorically, responding that Libya has the African, OIC, and Arab League votes i.e. the U.N. majority.

“I am astonished not only by autocrats, but sometimes the ambivalence of democrats,” he stated. He condemned Hillary Clinton’s remark that human rights will not stand in the way of improving relations between the U.S. and China, as well as her reference to Mubarak as a good friend of her family. “These things encourage dictators and autocrats to do oppression as usual.”

Next to speak was Burmese dissident Soe Aung, who has been active against the military junta for the last 20 years, beginning with the 1988 student-led uprising.

Aung saluted Burmese Nobel Laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi who has lived in detention for over thirty years. He decried the abuses of the military government, who employs the highest number of child soldiers in the world and spends more on the military itself than on health and education combined. Many political prisoners are still languishing in the country, including the main opposition party members and leaders, he said.

He shared his personal experiences as a freedom organizer, witnessing fellow activists die in the streets. He spent three years in the jungle, seeing colleagues die of malaria or in clashes with the military. He had to cross a minefield, along with members of an oppressed ethnic minority. He recounted how he thought to himself that if he could survive the minefield, he could make it through anything.

Aung went on to deplore the actions of the junta during the recent cyclone. 140,000 people died, while those who tried to assist the victims were imprisoned and international assistance was forcibly delayed. He condemned the government for failing to recognize the results of the election, where the opposition won 80% of the vote, or to convene the parliament.

Aung encouraged the EU to maintain sanctions against the military regime and work together with the people of Burma. He closed his talk by quoting Ms. Suu Kyi: “Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

Professor Gonzalo Himiob Santome, counsel to victims of human rights violations in Venezuela, took the floor to decry the violations committed by Venezuelan government officials, police, and the military to maintain the power of President Hugo Chavez.

Those who oppose the government are blacklisted and denied visas and identification documents, including those who voted against Chavez, he said. Venezuela also blacklisted all human rights defenders, including lawyers like him who brought cases against the government to the International Criminal Court. Criminal investigations were not only opened against the lawyers he said, but also the victims of violations. More than 19,000 oil workers were also denied severance payments and illegally arrested for going on strike.

In addition, dissident officers and public officials have been jailed for expressing views that contradict the government position even in minor ways or failing to comply with Chavez’s demands. Moreover, the government shot activists and falsely accused student movements of criminal charges in at least 500 formally recognized cases. Criminal charges have also been pursued against popular opposition leaders.

Mr. Santome then spoke about the rise in anti-Semitism in Venezuela, which he blamed largely on Chavez’s hate-mongering against the Jewish State. He noted that one of Chavez’s advisors denied the Holocaust and that a synagogue in Venezuela was robbed and desecrated with the painting of anti-Semitic slogans on its walls. He also complained that Chavez invited Sudanese President al-Bashir, indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, to Venezuela as a friend.

*Summary incomplete. To be continued…

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