Geneva Human Rights & Democracy Summit

In 1992, shortly after the Iron Curtain was pulled from the European stage, American economist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed we as a species had reached “the end of history”, as all previous forms of governance; Fascism, Communism, Absolute Monarchies etc., had fallen beneath the strength of the Capitalist Liberal Democracy. He claimed that this structure of governance was the final possible form collective power dynamics could assume, and as such, we had finally progressed towards humanity’s end goal.

Within twenty-five years Fukuyama would be proven wrong, as the waves of rigid, nationalistic and oligarchic authoritarianism would lap at the shores of democracy. Popular movements governed by the fetishization of power and idealized visions of the past have started to crawl back into the public consciousness, with free speech paying a heavy toll against the onslaught of centralizing autocrats.

A gloomy tone was struck at the recent Geneva Summit for Human Rights & Democracy, with the introductory speaker thanking the nation of Switzerland for hosting the nine year old conference as the UN’s headquarters, New York City, may not have admitted many of the speakers due to the USA’s recent (rescinded) travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations.

Defiant words were spoken as the UN was criticized for allowing nations like Saudi Arabia, Cuba and others to become part of the Human Rights Council. The Russian government was deemed “complicit in the genocide in Syria” and President Trump was condemned for declaring the media as “the enemy of the people.”

In somewhat stark contrast to the theoretical structure of the Summit, praxis was lauded as the main form of opposition against authoritarians. Disruption and truth were suggested to serve as the tools necessary to facilitate change. In particular, journalists and those with power were encouraged to keep the flames to leader’s feet, lest they become too powerful. Points were made echoing the thoughts of Noam Chomsky in his Responsibility of Intellectuals. Shouts of ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ would not have been out of place.

Speakers Biram Dah Abeid (L) and Nyima Lhamo (R). Photo: Bregje Kooiman

The speaker’s list was a smorgasbord of dissidents and their relatives; discussing, above all else, the growing power of authoritarians and the brevity with which they act. Rulers such as Nicolas Maduro, Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin were singled out for their mixture of soft and hard power and their deployment of ‘controlled anarchy’ to stifle dissent.

Speakers included the daughters and wives of Russian dissidents, formally imprisoned journalists and the exiled democratically elected President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed.

Nasheed’s case is an interesting one. The only democratically elected President of the archipelago since the fall of the Sultanate, Nasheed carries with him a certain Gracchine charm: His calm, soft-spoken, yet rousing demeanor inspired in the audience a sense of hope. Yet hidden behind his glossy eyes and Tiberian stoicism lingered a Gaiuc fury; fury at the rise of authoritarians, fury at the elite who permit them, and fury at the people who support them.

President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives. Photo: Bregje Kooiman

Nasheed was elected President of the Maldives in 2008, in the first free and fair elections the country had seen since the fall of the First Republic. A centrist liberal democrat with a strong passion for environmentalism, Nasheed won the love of the people with stunts such as holding a parliamentary hearing underwater, to illustrate the difficulties of governance when the sea levels consume the low-lying island nation. However, this adoration was quickly lost four years into his first term, when the ‘Opposition alliance’ began to grow at an exponential rate, absorbing all other political parties and eventually the military itself. Nasheed resigned from his position on 7 February 2012.

Nasheed has since maintained he was forced to resign “at gunpoint”.

British documentary filmmaker James Jones. Photo: Bregje Kooiman

Coupled with the shocking human right’s violations were condemnations leveled at the supposedly liberty-loving West who allow – or in some cases, support – these oppressive regimes. Particular outrage was directed towards the US and European allies of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

British documentary filmmaker James Jones, who had filmed the PBS  Frontline documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered, described the horrific extent of Saudi Arabia’s autocracy: a regime which publicly executes those with ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ opinions, imprisons those who criticize the monarchy or Wahhabism (the state doctrine/religion) and lashes people who so much as film the large slums that lie outside the cities.

An ideological comrade, James Jones’s criticism of Saudi Arabia was paired with Can Dundar’s pointed attack on the government of Turkish President Erdogan. A journalist formerly imprisoned on ‘terrorism’ charges (due to his reporting on Turkey’s links to the Islamic State group), Dundar was by far the most pessimistic of all the speakers, expressing disappointment in the failed military coup in July; both at the purges which resulted from the coup and the intent of the coup plotters in the first place, as they would have merely swapped an Islamist Presidential Dictatorship with a Secular Military Dictatorship.

Despite his pessimism and somber remarks, Dundar offered the most uplifting moment of the entire Summit, with his statement that authoritarians control the military, the police, the government, the vote, “and all we have”, he said, “is this” as he held up a pen.

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