Everyone has a role to play in the struggle for human rights: Executive Director of Advancing Human Rights,David Keyes
The Executive Director of Advancing Human Rights and the co-founder of Cyber Dissidents.org, David Keyes is one of the pioneers in online activism. He has gone an extra mile to help free political prisoners, with his outstanding courageous ideas that include chatting with the Iranian Foreign Minister on Facebook, renaming the street in front of the Embassy of China in Washington DC, after Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese literary critic and Human Rights activist who was jailed by the Chinese government for calling for political reforms and for ending single party rule in China. In this exclusive interview with the Oslo Times Chief International Correspondent,Prabalta Rijal, Keyes shares his struggle for securing human rights against some of the most extremist regimes in the world and his vision for enabling a just environment for the posterity of human kind. Excerpts:
What was it like for you to be a part of the Oslo Freedom Forum?
The forum was a wonderful opportunity to meet dissidents from around the world. The similarities in their experiences speak of a commonality of tyranny and the universal desire for freedom. The speakers were brilliant and brave. Their stories need to be heard.
Can you tell us about your experiences while trying to rename streets in front of embassies, by the names of imprisoned or killed dissidents, how successful was this in advancing human rights campaigns?
The great chess champion, Garry Kasparov, told me over lunch last year about how the US Congress renamed the street directly in front of the Soviet embassy in DC, “Sakharov Plaza.” It really irked the Soviets. as you’d imagine. As soon as I heard the idea, I said, “That’s brilliant. I’m going to do that again today.” Garry and I wrote a piece in The Wall Street Journal announcing the idea. I went to Congress with Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in the gulag, and presented the idea. Congressman Frank Wolf loved the idea and committed to doing it in the Lanton Human Rights Commission. Since then, amazing things have happened. 31 members of the US Congress signed onto the idea. The DC City Council expressed support. A few months ago, the House Appropriations Committee voted to change the name of the street directly in front of the Chinese embassy “Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” after China’s jailed Nobel Prize winner. The Chinese government reacted furiously denouncing the idea as an outrage. The Washington Post wrote eight articles about the initiative and The New York Times, Washington Post, Telegraph and most other major papers joined. A Washington Post editorial said this was a fantastic idea.
Perhaps most exciting, The Telegraph reported that Liu Xiaobo’s wife laughed joyously when she heard about “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.” That was really the point– to raise dissidents’ names and make the regime pay a price for their brutality. Making dissidents happy is smart foreign policy.
And, apart from the street in front of the Chinese Embassy being renamed after Liu Xiaobo, which other streets has this campaign been able to rename?
Buzzfeed covered our efforts aimed at the Iranian regime. The street in front of every Iranian mission across the world should be named after one of their many political prisoners. Majid Tavakoli is a good place to start. This young student has been jailed for years for nothing more than advocating freedom.
That is the kind of regime Iran is. It jails bloggers, women’s rights activists, opposition, freethinkers and critics. It is terribly afraid of its own people. We’re also hoping to rename the Russian embassy’s street in DC, “Magnitsky Plaza,” after Sergei Magnitsky, the tax lawyer who died in Russian prison after exposing Putin’s corruption.
You have always been very vocal about the need to topple the Assad regime, why do you think it’s taking so long to topple this regime? What kind of actions do you think the west needs to take in making this possible?
I think it’s a combination of factors. First, the Assad regime has shown incredible brutality–murdering civilians without compunction. The dissidents knew the brutality of this regime all along because they were rotting in prison for questioning Assad. Unfortunately, many in the free world spoke of Assad as a reformer instead of the vicious tyrant he has always been.
Second, the free world has shown that it is not committed to removing Assad from power. Western support to the opposition has been extremely limited. The opposition to Assad was largely peaceful and largely secular in the beginning of the revolution. Now years later, radicals have filled the void. Some even speak of working with this mass-murdering tyrant against the Islamic State. This is a terrible idea. Both need to be defeated. If the West continues to sit on the side-lines, the Islamic State will continue to grow. Hundreds of thousands of more civilians could be killed by the Assad regime. A decision needs to be taken that Assad cannot continue to rule Syria. Moderate opposition forces need to be supported in a serious way.
Movement.Org’s web portal, according to an interview you gave in 2012, began as a platform to support, map and analyze defection at the highest level, which could help in toppling the Assad regime from within, can you tell us how this idea evolved?
We took over Movements in 2012. Up to that point, it had done mostly conferences for online activists and written how-to-guides to help them. We did some mapping of senior Syrian defections with Google and Al Jazeera. Over the past two years, we have evolved Movements into something very different. Now it is a crowd-sourcing platform linking activists from closed societies with people around the world with skills to help them.
What kind of role do you think a social platform like Movement.Org can play in the fight against dictatorships?
I think this is the future of human rights. There are so many people that need help and so many people that can help. The key is to finding new and innovative ways of connecting them.
Dictatorships have all the power. They hire expensive PR firms. They have militaries. They control their media. They have powerful cyber-armies. How can we fight back? By making sure that every democratic dissident and every political prisoner has the backing of PR experts, technologists, writers, translators, artists, lawyers, policy-makers and much more. Everyone has a role to play in the struggle for human rights.
We’re seeking to tip the balance away from the dictators and toward the dissidents. Technology is not a panacea, but if used properly, the Internet and crowd-sourcing can be extremely powerful.
How relevant do you think are the experiences from the non-violent revolution in Eastern Europe for the ongoing struggle for democracy in countries like Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Ukraine?
A lot can be learned from the Soviet era. How did these dissidents operate without the Internet? How did they galvanize hundreds of thousands to stand in solidarity with them in the West? How did the names of Sakharov, Havel and Sharansky become so famous?
I think one commonality is that tyranny is brutal and unstable. Those who spoke of the stability of Assad and Mubarak didn’t know what they were talking about. There’s nothing stable about dictatorship. The dissidents knew this. They warned the West. Just like when Andre Amalrik asked if the Soviet Union would survive until 1984. Sadly, many in the West didn’t listen to the dissidents’ pleas then and they don’t today. There are, of course, meaningful differences in culture. I think there is a lot more illiberalism in the Middle East today than there was in Eastern Europe. Transforming dictatorships into democracies can take a very long time. Liberalism needs to be built slowly over time from the bottom up. Elections alone are never enough. You can’t expect to hold elections right after decades of tyranny, which decimated opposition and allowed radicalism to fester and expect a good outcome.
But most of all, we need clarity in the free world— not to compromise on our deepest values. A simple principle should govern our approach today. To paraphrase the Soviet dissidents, we must trust states as much as they trust their own people. Also we should listen more closely to Sakharov who said that in the end the moral choice also ends up to be the most pragmatic one.
You were even called a warmonger by Iran, what actually led to that statement by the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javed Zarif?
I confronted Zarif on his trip in New York. I attended a small lunch with him and after I approached the foreign minister and asked if he thought it was ironic that he enjoyed posting on Facebook when it was banned in Iran. He laughed and said “Ha! Ha! That’s life.” I asked him when Majid Tavakoli, one of Iran’s most famous political prisoners, would be freed. He told me he did not know who Tavakoli was.
I published this exchange in The Daily Beast and thousands of Iranians confronted the foreign minister on social media asking how it was possible that he did not know who Tavakoli was. Many media outlets in the West covered the story and a few days later Tavakoli was temporarily freed on furlough. When the media attention died down, he was re-imprisoned.
On his Facebook page, Zarif slammed me as a warmonger, how absurd! Since when is asking about political prisoners tantamount to being a war-monger? Actually, I think the whole episode proved that pressure from the free world can have an impact on the Iranian regime. I asked one question of one diplomat and wrote one article about it. Imagine if the entire world was mobilized on behalf of those thousands of dissidents languishing in Iranian prison.
This is a tremendously dangerous regime. It brutally represses its own people, exports terrorism and undermines stability. A country that doesn’t trust its own people cannot be trusted by the world. With or without nuclear weapons, it is the nature of the regime, which is the biggest problem. I think a lot more can be done to raise the price against the regime and stand in solidarity with the Iranian people.
In your opinion why do you think the west has kept its silence against human rights violations in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, is it just because of the oil?
Oil is part of it. But not all of it. I think there’s been a muddling of morality and a loss of confidence on our part. We no longer have the clarity of the Cold War when we knew that we were in the right and they were in the wrong. Today people speak very mildly about the Iranian regime. They believe the lies. Iran is conducting a charm-offense and sadly convincing many that they want nothing more than peace and freedom. But all tyrants lie. And we mustn’t fall prey to their lies.
Second, we have lost confidence in the strength of our values. At the height of the Cold War, Scoop Jackson stood up to the Soviet Union and conditioned economic benefit to free emigration. Think about that. With tens of thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at America, this senator made human rights within the Soviet Union a priority. Both President Carter and President Reagan would start meetings with Soviet leaders by listing political prisoners and dissidents. It drove them mad, but we knew that we were in the right. We knew that Soviet tyranny was corrupt from within. We understood the link between freedom and peace.
Put mildly, this is not the approach today. We negotiate with Iran and say human rights can wait. Leaders of the free world go to Saudi Arabia and fail to bring up human rights with the king. This is inexcusable. What are we afraid of? We say Putin is too powerful to confront, but is he more powerful than Brezhnev was? Of course not!
If peace and stability are our goals, we should spend a lot more time worrying about opening closed societies and helping people achieve basic human rights.
Do you have anything that you would like to share with our readers ?
I hope everyone goes to Movements.org and offer their skills. There are former political prisoners from Egypt, Syria, Iran, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia desperate for help. They want their stories told. They want to highlight their family who is still jailed. They want to speak with journalists and policy-makers. Every little bit helps. It is another crack in the wall of tyranny.
Indifference to evil is also evil. And all of us have a role to play in the struggle for human rights. No matter how small. We’ve had a comedian offering to make fun of a dictator and songwriters creating songs for activists in Russia. This is a beautiful thing that can be replicated over and over. In many ways, leaders of the free world have failed the dissidents. But there is no need to wait for our leaders to do the right thing. At Movements.org now average people can do their part to defend human rights in the darkest corners of the globe.
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