Panel Celebrates Human Rights Anniversary

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December 11, 2008

In 1999, Chinese police seized activist Rebiya Kadeer on her way to meet with American congressional staffers, and swiftly charged and convicted her of sharing state secrets. She spent the next five years as a political prisoner.

Chinese authorities actually imprisoned Kadeer for her political activism on Uighur autonomy and women's rights, she says. Kadeer maintains she was tortured, stripped of her human rights and mocked throughout her detention primarily because of her ethnicity and causes. She is an ethnic Uighur, a Eurasian people primarily from what is now western China whose autonomy campaign aims are similar to that of the Tibetans.

Sitting on Georgetown University's Gaston Hall stage on Dec. 11 to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Kadeer said similar human rights violations still occur on a grand scale every day throughout the world.

Because of her ordeal, she remains an outspoken advocate of human rights for Uighurs and other oppressed groups, despite the fact that her husband also was imprisoned for nine years by the Chinese government and two of her 11 children currently are jailed there.

"I believe that freedom is more powerful than authoritarian countries like China," she said through an interpreter. "I am a witness to that."

Kadeer came to Georgetown for a panel convened by Anthony Arend, director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service program, to observe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights anniversary, which the U.N. General Assembly unanimously approved in 1948 in the years following World War II and the Holocaust.

But Arend and other panelists said the world actually has little to celebrate when it comes to human rights.

"We're at the lowest point in the history of our republic, and it's a very sad point," Arend stated.

Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA, concurred with a scathing rebuke of the Bush administration's human rights record. The president's tenure has been "a direct assault on human rights," he said.

"It's hard to overstate the damage that has been done, not just to the practice of human rights, but to the very idea of human rights," Cox said. "It's been an attempt to say that there are exceptions to human rights, that we can define who those exceptions are and that international human rights laws don't apply to us."

The United States has lost its moral authority when it comes to human rights protection, but has an opportunity to reclaim it through the next administration, Cox said. But, he acknowledged, the path is long and requires strong leadership.

"It will take everything that we have to get back to where we want to be and go beyond where we've been," Cox said. "That will depend on everyone in this room … It's going to take a new generation of activism."

Amnesty International recruited musicians from around the world to spur that activism, especially among younger generations. The panel screened a music video, "The Price of Silence," performed by 16 international artists. Set in the U.N. General Assembly room, the chorus is a call to action:

"We are all in this together
Brothers and sister, we can do better!
Raise your voices to the sky
The price of silence is much too high."

Andres Levin, a Grammy-nominated music producer, produced the song, seeking out artists such as vocalists Natalie Merchant of America, Stephen Marley of Jamaica, Emmanuel Jal of Sudan, Yungchen Lhamo of Tibet and trumpeter Hugh Masekela of South Africa. Released on Dec. 9, the song debuted as a top iTunes download and is available on YouTube and LinkTV.

"Music is one of the most abstract art forms. When done well, with passion, it can convey a message like no other art form can," Levin, also a panelist, said.

Following the panel, Levin teamed up with Cucu Diamantes, a Cuban-born singer-songwriter, to perform three songs about love and power.

"We have to be more conscious of human rights than ever before," Diamantes said. "Music can help raise our consciousness."

Source: Blue & Gray (December 11, 2008)