U.N.Seems Impotent on Human Rights / Joel Brinkley

Sunday, October 2, 2011
The following column by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel Brinkley, syndicated in
newspapers across America, appears on page E-5 of today's San Francisco Chronicle.

United Nations -- Listening to dissidents from around the world speaking at a conference here, you come away thinking there has to be a school somewhere for evil, vicious despots. From Africa to Asia, Europe to Latin America, the gambits these men use to quash dissent sound remarkably similar, state to state.

Some strategies used throughout recorded history still pertain.

Iranian dissident and former politial prisoner Ahmad Batebi (right), addressed the UN Watch-led summit of dissidents while the United Nations gave its podium to his oppressor.

"I'm 33 years old, and I spent almost 10 years in prison, 24 months in solitary confinement," bemoaned Ahmad Batebi, an Iranian dissident, his manner mournful but determined. But Fidel Suarez Cruz, a Cuban dissident, was red-faced, veins pulsing in his neck, as he cursed his captors. "I lived in solitary for two years, denied any sunlight or artificial illumination."

Even with that, most dictators also are adapting to the modern era; they have learned from the Arab Spring.

"Now, the first thing they do is destroy the ability of people to communicate, to organize themselves," said Rami Nakhleh, a Syrian dissident who calls himself a cyber-activist. (He now lives in Lebanon.) And Suarez Cruz demanded: "We should denounce crimes against connectivity!"

These and three dozen other dissidents, victims of authoritarian regimes, spoke at a two-day conference that U.N. Watch and 20 other nongovernmental organizations staged at the United Nations, coincident with the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting. The dissidents issued passionate pleas from the heart, but almost to a person they called for help from the one body that has proved itself incapable of responding — the United Nations, friend to democrat and dictator alike.

Tibetan nun Ngawang Sangdrol was imprisoned at age 13 by the Chinese government and brutally tortured. She addressed the UN Watch-led summit of dissidents while the United Nations gave its podium to her oppressor.

"My first time in prison, I was 13 years old," said Ngawang Sangdrol, her voice quavering. She's a Tibetan nun who has spent one-third of her life in jail, where her Chinese captors, she said, beat her with iron bars and tortured her "with electric shock."

"So I urge the U.N. to push for a political solution for Tibet."

Young Ae Ma, a North Korean dissident, pleaded: "I would hope that the U.N. would arrest Kim Jong Il," the North Korean tyrant.

And Yang Jianli, a prominent Chinese dissident, implored: "The United Nations must readjust its eye to the light and remove China" from its membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

The problem is, China also sits on the U.N. Security Council and has the authority to veto any initiative of significance that passes through the United Nations. And so it goes, year after year.

As one of its first acts, in 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without a single dissenting vote, proclaiming: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights" — a proud moment for mankind.

But as we now see, that declaration was an aspiration, a yearning. The United Nations has proved itself incapable of bringing it to life. After all, those dictators and despots are equal members of the world body. The secretary-general is powerless to differentiate between Sweden and Sudan.

Right now, however, more people are standing up angrily demanding freedom and dignity than at any time in memory, perhaps in history. It's not just the Arab states; they are serving as an inspirational example for the entire world. "The revolts in the Middle East have definitely had an impact," Suarez Cruz said. "That's why the governments are growing more repressive."

Now, angry people are raising their fists in a score of other states: Iran, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, Belarus, Vietnam, Uganda, Venezuela, China, Burma ... the list stretches on and on. People from all of those states are turning to the United Nations, desperate for help.

"There are 2,000 political prisoners in Burmese jails," Thaung Htun, a Burmese activist, bewailed. "They recruit child soldiers and rape women" for punishment. "Summary execution is common. The secretary-general needs to establish a commission of inquiry for war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Neither the United Nations nor any other body can deliver freedom to the world's oppressed. But given the hopes and dreams that so many people have vested in the United Nations, why can't its leaders give these people a forum, at the very least? Sure, it's great that so many of them got to speak at an NGO conference. But the world should hear them, too, so that perhaps someone, somewhere, can help.

I'd like to see some of these people up on that green marble stage addressing the General Assembly. Moammar Khadafy, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all have stood there, spitting hatred and venom. Why not give their victims a day of their own?

© 2011 Joel Brinkley Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. To comment, go to http://sfgate.com/chronicle/submissions/#1

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