While Burmese opposition leader Aung Sun Sui Kay and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu addressed the monied crowd this morning at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, a younger generation of dissidents across town hailed the rise of social media and called upon the United Nations and its member states to do more than pay lip service to human rights.
Speaking at the We Have A Dream summit, Iranian activist Ahmed Batebi said (in translation), “No dictatorial regime will just change its tune because of discussion and dialogue.”
Nasser Weddady of the American Islamic Congress, suggested that the UN’s reliance on dialogue and statements of support actually helps dictatorial regimes: “[They] bank on the indifference of the international community” and the willingness to limit themselves to vague statements, he said.
Chinese dissident Yang Jianli, who participated in the Tiananmen Square protests and was later imprisoned in China for five years, agreed. “There is an acceptance that it is better to accommodate evil and hope that it changes itself than to try to confront it,” he said. He condemned in the strongest terms China’s seat on the UN Human Rights Council, noting that “China has never lacked for citizens of conscience in its prisons.”
Syrian cyberdissident Rami Nakhleh knows more than his share of Syrian prisoners of conscience: he told the audience, “Almost every single dear friend of mine is in jail now” after the last six months of protests against the Assad regime.
But Nakhleh noted that, especially in the Middle East, external actions may have unintended consequences. “[Assad’s] propaganda was like propaganda from any dictator. He said [the protests] were a foreign plot.”
Nakhleh praised the rise of social media as a way to counter what he said was the “first thing” any dictator will do to suppress opposition: limit their ability to organize. “Social media allows us to organize, to express ourselves, either in our real names or our virtual names, to protect ourselves,” he said.
But doing so is not without consequences he added: “Many people are in jail or have been tortured because they uploaded a video to YouTube or posted a status on Facebook.”
Photo credit: Megan Carpentier.