Last week, I was on the schedule to deliver testimony at the United Nations Human Rights Council. I was invited to be part of UN Watch’s campaign to stop Hugo Chavez’s bid to elect Venezuela to a seat on the council this November.
NGOs are allotted two minutes to say their peace and contribute to the debate about rights. I sat down to deliver my speech and no sooner had I mentioned the word “Cuba” in the context of human rights violations than the Cuban delegation began to create a scene, going so far as to bang their fists on the table and kick over a chair, to force the council president to interrupt my speech on a point of order (watch the heated exchange in the video below).
Here is what I was able to say:
My name is Thor Halvorssen and I come from Venezuela. In 2004, my mother was shot by the security forces of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Through the Human Rights Foundation, which I founded and direct, I have carefully monitored the Venezuelan state and have established that its current government is among Latin America’s worst human rights violators.
In Venezuela, exercising free speech is fraught with risks. Political dissent is criminalized. Property is capriciously and unlawfully seized. Opposition politicians are disqualified from elections thanks to false accusations. Journalists are harassed and media critical of the government is simply shut down. Judges are fired and even sent to prison when the president dislikes their rulings. More than 150,000 people have been killed in Venezuela since Lieutenant Colonel Chávez was elected president in 1999. Add to this the more than 5,000 who have died in the country’s disgraceful prisons, many of them waiting trial and therefore possibly innocent of the charges that put them behind bars in the first place. No such murder rate had ever existed in Venezuela — or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The government has proven that it is incapable of protecting the most basic human right, the right to life.
While all of this has taken place this council has remained silent.
Madam President, despite all of this, Venezuela is now seeking election. When it was founded in 2006 the council promised that only those countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” would be elected. To elect Venezuela would shame and embarrass this council and would allow Venezuela to shield its horrendous record of abuse and equally problematically, to validate other authoritarian governments such as Syria, Iran and one that disgracefully sits on this council today, Cuba. Electing Venezuela would deny this council the chance to shine a light into the darkness that envelops Venezuela and it will blunt actions to protect 29 million Venezuelans who are at the mercy of a malicious [and incompetent government] …
At this point the Cuban representatives of the 53-year Castro family dynasty began their kinetic table-banging. They asked that my words be struck from the official UN record. A debate ensued between Cuba, China and the U.S. as to whether to include my remarks. I was given the floor back by the council’s president so that I could “finish” my statement and I was able to get this line out:
Madam President, this year, four authoritarian governments — China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia — will step down. You have a golden opportunity to avoid more human rights violators …
It was as if a crime had been committed. Cuba, Russia, China and Pakistan all loudly protested. The council’s president immediately cut me off. Cuba stated it would not permit such language in the council. Russia aligned itself with Cuba and stated that the Human Rights Council had its own agenda. Russia accused me of violating procedure. China went further and demanded that I be prohibited from continuing with my presentation as it was out of the scope of what I was “permitted” to say. In other words, mentioning human rights violators like Cuba or China (the only country with an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate), at the Human Rights Council, in the time allotted to an NGO focused on human rights, is considered an unseemly deviation from the agenda.
I went to Geneva to leave testimony (for posterity, given the demonstrable inefficacy of this august UN body), but I didn’t expect that the dictatorships represented in the room would behave like a perfectly choreographed set of villains, as one would expect dictatorships to behave. I was unable to finish but I didn’t have to — they proved my point.
Outside the council, several country delegates approached me and thanked me for my “courage.” How pitiable that it is considered courageous, inside the United Nations, which sits in a free country, Switzerland, to say a few words that could upset governments that should be pariahs. And to think that those who came over to me said they had to do so discreetly fearing that the Cuban delegation “might give us a lot of trouble.” No less than two European powers are afraid of a bankrupt police state in the Caribbean whose main exports are broken dreams, exiled political prisoners and failed revolutionary ideas. No wonder the Human Rights Council is so dysfunctional. The only delegate to interact with me on the floor of the council was a diplomat from Sweden.
Venezuela will most likely succeed in obtaining a seat on the council this coming fall. And on Venezuelan state television they will boast of membership at the highest UN body addressing human rights — making it clear to any observer that the UN will not address human rights matters there. Remarkably, they have not once lived up to the dictates of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which has published findings of political persecution. Already, Venezuela has indicated it wishes to leave the highest human rights court in the Western Hemisphere — the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. Why? Because it loses, time and time and time again. At the UN they will take Cuba’s seat as chief interrupter.
The experience was a powerful reminder that those who fear freedom of speech are those with something to hide. The truth, in Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela, is a frightful thing to the criminals in charge.
Thor Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and founder and CEO of the Oslo Freedom Forum. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.