You can raise your voice, take a mic or grab a pen: Speaking up against injustice, tyranny or authoritarianism of any kind can change mind sets, regulations or suffocating regimes. Raising the voice challenges and inspires. But yes, it needs courage to do that. Sometimes it even needs the courage to put one’s life at risk. In this sense the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy was a also summit of some of the most outspoken women and men who stand for their basic human rights in the face of tyranny and human rights violations and who stand for those, who can't stand for themselves. One of the highlight was the presentation of the Women's Rights Award to the Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad an the Courage Award to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.
If you look at what is happening in many parts of the globe, you feel close to despair: The atrocities committed in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria, the cruelties in North Korea, the human rights violations in Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and the astounding death toll in Venezuela, where every second hour an man, woman or a child dies due to violence - this list of horror, which is even far from being complete, is hardly bearable. Thus the question is: How to bear it?
As far as I have seen, there are two ways to deal with it: Either you shy away from it, don't let yourself be exposed to it, you refuse for example to watch the news. Or you face it, get yourself informed, try to find out, what is going on. Taking action can make the burden lighter.
Both ways are ok. But if you dare to face it, you might get the change to discover how many men and women there are, who do everything the can to peacefully change their circumstances and societies for the better and who risk their lives for the sake of freedom - of their physical freedom but above all: of their freedom of speech, the mother of freedom. Of men and women who dare to raise their voices for those, whose mouths are kept forcefully shut.
To see, hear, read and meet these "freedomfighters" fills you with hope. With optimism. It inspires you. And lessens your fear.
Let me thus present you those activists I met at the Geneva Summit 2015 who impressed me the most:
“I wasn’t afraid of dying, but of being forgotten”
Yeon-Mi Park (21), North Korea defector:
Picture by Geneva Summit
“I saw bodies on the streets and children dying of starvation”, she said. “ The only way to survive was a black market. My generation is called the “black generation” market.” She stated that “people were killed just because they secretly watched foreign movies or made international phone calls.”
When her father was arrested because of illegally trading metal with Chinese counterparts, her family began to plan their escape. Her and her mother fled across the boarder to China - just to experience new exploitation and humiliation: her mother was raped by Chinese smugglers in front of her daughters’ eyes.
After hiding for 18 months in China, they fled to South Korea via Mongolia. They found themselves deep in the Gobi desert, searching the night sky for the Plough to guide them over the border into Mongolia. “As we fought for our lives in the desert, Yeon-Mi said, “I wasn’t afraid of dying, but of being forgotten.”
Yeon-Mi has become a globetrotting activist raising her voice to keep her people from being taken off the international radar.
“I decided to jump off the truck and rather die than being a captive of Boko Haram."
Saa, Nigerian schoolgirl who escaped Boko Haram:
Picture by Geneva Summit
Saa wears heavy sunglasses and uses a different name to make it more difficult for the terrorists to identify her. Saa lives in the US where she tries to finish her education. Her parents however are still in Nigeria, and even though they have fled the area occupied by the terror group they are at risk of becoming victims of revenge because of their daughter's escape and activism.
Saa is one of the 270 girls who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram (#BringBackOurGirls). She gave a detailed account of how they were forced onto trucks and how she and a friend decided to jump off the truck when the convoi stopped somewhere in the jungle in the middle of the night: “I decided to jump off the truck. I rather wanted to die and my parents to find my corpse than to be a captive of Boko Haram”. During their escape her friend hurt a leg and couldn’t walk on her own. The two girls hid in the dark until the sun rose. Then Saa went to search of help. She was lucky: She met a shepherd who finally escorted the two girls back to their homes.
According to the Nigerian human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe, Boko Haram has killed over 10’000 people in the last years. Boko Hara is driven by the same ideology as ISIS, he said. “The jihadist groups are all globally connected. In this regard we dare say that there is a third world war going on.”
The global response to the genocide, however, has been totally disappointing and hardly anything as been done for the girls, who managed to escape. Emmanuel Ogebe concludes: “It’s one of the most understated genocides of the world.”
Saa urges the UN to help: “Most of my friends are still in captivity. Bring back the girls and help our country that is captured by Boko Haram. So far no serious action has been taken.”
"We are only allowed to take off the hijab and be ourselves in a stealthy place"
Masih Alinejad, Iranian freelance journalist and creator of the the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom”, which encourages Iranian women to upload images of themselves without the mandatory hijab. Masih Alinejad has been rewarded with the 2015 Geneva Summit Women’s Rights Award.
Picture by Geneva Summit
Of course, neither the Iranian government nor its mullahs were amused by Masih Alinejad's initiative to show women "topless". Even less so as the Facebook page went viral and thousands of women posted pictures of themselves exposing their hair, beautifully free hair. Masih Alinejad views her initiative as an action to free Iranian women and to give a voice to the voicless, or better: to show what otherwise can't be seen.
"I was forced to wear the hijab when I turned seven years old", she says. "In the last decades you have never really seen the real face of Iranian women. We are only allowed to take off the hijab and be ourselves in a stealthy place. If you do it in public it's a breaking-law-action. Sure, you can say: "Oh, it's only a piece of cloth." But if this piece of cloth is in the hands of those who suppress freedom, it can be a chain around the neck of women. Thus I ask female politicans around the world who visit the Iranian government or meet Iranian politicians abroad to challenge the compulorsy hijab. To ask the Iranian governmet to respect human diginity. To respect women's right to choose. To ask: "Why do we have to obey the compulsory hijab?"
Dare to ask a single question about the compulosry hijab! You might assume that the hijab is required by law. I say: Yes: Slavery used to be legal. If nobody objected against slavery, slavery would still be with us today. Like Martin Luther King, I want to say that we, the Iranian women have a dream as well: That one day our voices get heard and the compuslory hijab will leave Iran forever and that our freedom will not be stealthy anymore."
"When a judge told him that he should repent and apologize, for what the judge called 'his crimes' -- or face consequences, Raif calmly responded: I did not commit a crime to repent or to apologize for."
Elham Manea, associate professor of Politics at the University of Zürich, humanist and writer, accepted the Courage Award in the name of Raif Badawi who couldn't be present to receive the award himself.
The Saudi blogger and human rights activist has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for "insulting Islam" by creating a website for Saudi liberals. Right now there are attempts at the Saudi penal court, which is controlled by hardliners, to retry Raif Badawi on charges of apostasy. If found guilty, he would face a death sentence.
Raif Badawi's fate shakes millions of people around the world. As Elham Manea states in her acceptance speech, Raif is a symbol for all those demanding their basic human rights peacefully.
I feel it's our duty to stand with them. And it's a beautiful duty.
Sure, we can't save the world. But if each of us saves a little bit of it, in the end it will be a lot.
Thus I post Elham Manea's acceptance speech in its full lenght. It's worth a read:
"We stand united in our humanity.
Your precious courage prize, which I gratefully and cordially accept on behalf of Raif Badawi, is telling us just that.
You do not know how much this prize means to this fight for freedom, or to those men and women who are standing for their basic human rights in the face of tyranny and human rights violations.
Your prize tells us that we are not divided by culture, religion, race, gender, or color.
No. It tells us that we stand united in our humanity; united in our unequivocal commitment to and defence of universal human rights.
It tells these brave men and women that they do not stand alone in their fight for their basic human rights. They do not stand-alone. For we stand together.
Raif Badawi belongs to this category of brave activists. In fact, I consider him one of the bravest.
When a judge told him that he should repent and apologize, for what the judge called 'his crimes' -- or face consequences, Raif calmly responded: I did not commit a crime to repent or to apologize for.
The consequence the judge meant at the time was the death penalty for apostasy.
But he said: I did not commit a crime to repent or to apologize for.
It was a simple but fateful sentence.
One made of pure belief in his and his fellow citizens' right to freedom of expression, opinion and belief. These are not abstract ideas we talk about in closed conference rooms.
Their absence in a society turns the lives of citizens into a living hell.
And Raif understood this, he also understood something that we sometimes tend to forget: what he is fighting for is a right -- a basic universal right we are entitled to -- it is not a gift or a grant that the state can give or withhold as it wishes.
Because of that Raif Badawi is a symbol -- a symbol for all those imprisoned in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the MENA region because they dared to express their opinion, to exercise their right to freedom of thought, religion, and political association; and a symbol for all those demanding their basic human rights peacefully.
He stands for Waleed Abulkhair, his lawyer, sentenced to 15 years in prison for doing nothing but his job and demanding political reform. He stands for Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami, a poet, sentenced in Qatar for 15 years for writing a poem. He stands for Shaimaa Al Sabagh, who was shot in her back in Egypt while protesting peacefully.
HE stands for all of them.
We meet here today across the street from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Saudi Arabia was elected last year to this council and it pledged to live up to the highest standards of human rights.
I respectfully wish to ask: Why does the Saudi government deny freedoms of speech, religion and political association to it citizens? As a member of the UN Human Rights Council, why does Saudi Arabia imprison a young man who committed no crime, who only created a blog calling for freedom? Why does it flog a young man with 50 lashes for expressing an opinion? And as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, why does the Saudi government impose a system of gender apartheid on its female citizens?
Perhaps it is therefore a chance; this membership. For it is time the Kingdom live up to its promise, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, to respect universal human rights.
I respectfully take this opportunity to call on his majesty King Salman to free Raif Badawi and unite him with his family.
Thank you, Geneva Summit, for your outstanding contribution to the universal fight for freedom."