From the UN Watch blog, April 19, 2009:
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 ..., 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, President 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 then 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 are 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 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, sexists 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?” he asked.
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 denounced 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 said.
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. He called this “state terrorism” by the government of Zimbabwe.
He deplored the overcrowding of Zimbabwean prisons, filled in 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, which has not been done.