Beyond Democracy: The Fight for Rights in the Arab Spring and the UN

While dictators spoke at the UN, dissidents from the Arab world and China convened for a candid discussion on human rights.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.) 

Former Iranian political prisoner signs a declaration at “We Have a Dream: Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution” on Sept. 22 in New York. Credit: We Have a Dream: Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution.

If the Arab Spring is all about the desire for democracy, then Nasser Weddady offers a chilling reminder: a democratic process placed tyrants like Mahmoud Ahamdinejad and Bashar al-Assad in power.

“The fight in the Middle East and North Africa is not so much for democracy,” Weddady, an anti-slavery activist and civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress, said Sept. 21 at “We Have a Dream: Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution” in New York.

“The game, my friends, is one of civil rights, individual rights,” he said.

While Iran, Syria, China—regimes denying citizens those basic rights—took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly (GA) last week, dissidents from those countries formed a panel at “We Have a Dream,” a two-day conference organized by 20 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) wishing to counter the UN’s disregard for its responsibility to preserve international human rights.

Hillel Neuer, director of UN Watch, opened the summit by noting how this year’s GA “is not like every other year” because of the “murderous regimes” recently overthrown by the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Yet, “too many tyrants, too many dictators, too many totalitarian regimes remain” and stood at the podium “down the street” at the UN, Neuer said.

Moderating the panel of dissidents, Stanford University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley said the Arab Spring “is a start, but I feel we have a long road ahead, a long road from democracy to dictatorship.” Weddady, who grew up around Mauritanian dignitaries but now has trained more than 350 youth activists with the American Islamic Congress, said a major step on that long road for “nascent” democratic movements in the Arab world entails equipping youths with strategic planning skills, and teaching them how to set up institutions as well as the basis for a vibrant civil society that combats dictatorship and fundamentalism.

“The youth of the region knows what democracy is about,” Weddady said.

“Democracy is not merely about the act of casting a vote in a ballot box,” he said.

Radical Islamic elements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Weddady said, are powerful but also experiencing internal crises and a lack of unity. It’s “equally dangerous” to dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat or to consider them an “omnipotent force that will take over Egypt,” he said.

Syrian cyber activist Rami Nakhleh, who set up a revolutionary Facebook page and fled to Lebanon ahead of a prison sentence, said that after the Arab Spring, he has “a faith that my country will be free.” Syria’s problem, he said, is that “we don’t have an accountable government.” However, with the increasing power of social media, governments like Assad’s “can’t kill peaceful protesters and get away with it.”

“They do not follow any laws,” Nakhleh said of Syria. “They do not respect any laws.”

Ahmad Batebi, jailed in Iran after being photographed holding a shirt splattered with the blood of a fellow protester (a picture that famously made the cover of The Economist in 1999), said that he “dreamed of dying” during his 10 years in prison. Now, instead, Batebi said he dreams of democracy for his people. The laundry list of Iran’s human right violations—executing children, throwing journalists in jail, hanging gays, sponsoring terrorism around the world, and more—represent “the Iranian regime, not the people of Iran,” Batebi said.

Regarding the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, a precursor to the Arab Spring, Batebi said, “Nobody took this issue seriously and did nothing.” But today, the movement is “absolutely and independently alive,” he said.

“No dictatorial government regime will change its tune with just talk and discussion and dialogue,” Batebi said.

Yang Jianli, a former Chinese political prisoner and founder of the Initiatives for China grassroots democratic movement, was asked when the equivalent of the Arab Spring might reach China. Jianli said China’s “savvy” regime is successful in dividing protests and preventing them from crossing provincial lines, but added that, “I don’t think they will be successful forever.”

Jianli lamented China’s presence on the UN Human Rights Council.

“An institution that reflects the best that we can be retreats from conflict with the worst,” he said.

To this day, not all the names of victims in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre are known, as “the ghosts of their sacrifice are still suppressed by the Chinese regime,” Jianli said.

Ninety-seven votes are needed to knock China off the Human Rights Council next May. The voting will be a “true test of sincerity and commitment for each democracy,” Jianli said, because with each democracy’s support, China would certainly be off the council.

In the Middle East, Brinkley said of the Arab Spring that, “I fear this is not going to turn out well.” Weddady said youth activists offer a “glimpse of hope,” but that he is cautious in his optimism. The key to implementing democracy, according to Weddady, is a “show rather than tell” strategy—empowering young social entrepreneurs who will set up communities to advocate for religious rights, a free press, women’s rights, and everything else that has been denied to the citizens of the region.

“I want a society that respects my individuality, my rights as a human being,” Weddady said. “I want a society where my conscience is my domain.”

Jacob Kamaras is the Editor-in-Chief of JNS.

Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under World.