The Dictators vs. the Dissidents

It’s hard to imagine a more odious pairing of political leaders than that which united in Zimbabwe last week. There, Robert Mugabe, the president of that once-prosperous southern African country, hugged and gallivanted about with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ostensibly, the two met to discuss economic cooperation. Iran has expressed interest in building a tractor plant in Zimbabwe (given Mugabe’s theft of white-owned farms and the utter devastation that policy has wrought on his country’s once-abundant agriculture sector, it’s unclear just what these tractors would till). And there have been rumors that, in return, Mugabe might supply the Islamic Republic with uranium for its nuclear program.

Whatever the "hard," or tangible purpose of Ahmadinejad's calling on Mugabe, the symbolic meaning of the visit was in evidence with the rhetoric of both men, characterized as it was with the usual victim-mongering and lashing out at the West. “Some oppressive and arrogant states deny people their rights,” Ahmadinejad, who routinely denies the Holocaust while wishing another upon the Jewish state, declared. Mugabe lauded his fellow “comrade president” and said that he was following a “just cause” in the pursuit of nuclear technology. If Zimbabweans felt underwhelmed by this performance, they can look forward next month to when the North Korean national soccer team visits to train for the World Cup in neighboring South Africa.

That same week, there was a curiously similar meeting of monsters half a world away, when Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko welcomed the forcibly exiled leader of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to Minsk. Bakiyev, whose five-year rule over the Central Asian country was marked by massive corruption, political repression, and a clampdown on independent media, had initially escaped to Kazakhstan in a deal brokered by the United States and Russia. But the Kazakhs were not keen to host a leader so despised by the Kremlin, and so Bakiyev found a helping hand in Europe’s last dictatorship. He remains there today, insisting that he didn’t really mean to sign the resignation letter that he had just two weeks ago.

So with all of these garlanded authoritarians strutting around and slapping each other on the back, it was heartening to spend these past few days in the company of dozens of incredibly brave men and women fighting despotism all over the world. In the shadow of the hall where Barack Obama received his Nobel Peace Prize last year, over a hundred human rights activists, political dissidents, and journalists gathered to listen and strategize at the second annual Oslo Freedom Forum. There were big names—Garry Kasparov, Lech Walesa—but it was the smaller names, the people you are likely to have never heard of, who were the most inspiring. Take, for instance, Kasha N. Jacqueline, a just-turned-30 lesbian from Uganda, who is campaigning against what she aptly calls her nation’s proposed “Nuremberg Laws,” that is, the subtly named “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” that would mandate the death penalty for homosexuality and impose prison sentences on those who do not inform on their gay friends and family members. Talking with Jacqueline, whose vivacity and optimism are all the more astounding considering the murderous hatred with which she must contend on a daily basis, I realized that as long as people with this sort of determination exist, tyranny is something that cannot last. Jacqueline told me that there is a bright side to the homophobia for which her country is becoming increasingly known; at the very least, she tells me, the bill has “caused visibility that we exist.”

Spotlighting individual human rights activists—championing their struggles and highlighting their successes—is the Forum’s deliberate theme. At the opening press conference, founder Thor Halvorssen stressed that his confab is the anti-Durban, as that infamous event is “more like a conference of human rights violators than a human rights conference.” He finds it unproductive to look to governments to solve problems when it is often the governments themselves that are the problem. That dichotomy between the power of the state and the conscience of the individual was made ironically clear when it was announced, just a week ago, that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s state visit to Norway would coincide with the first two days of the Forum, and that he would stay in the very same hotel as some of his most virulent critics (you can read my RFE/RL dispatch about the reaction to President Medvedev’s visit here).

This is not to say that governments cannot play a role in ending the abuse of human rights, or that they are the only perpetrators of systematic abuses. Indeed, I’ve often heard it said that the greatest force for good in the world has been, and continues to be, the United States military, a judgment I’m not prepared to dispute. But military action is rarely the most effective means of stopping human rights abuses. Given the interest that states—and, inexorably, it’s authoritarian ones we’re talking about here—have in repressing their own populations, perhaps the “human rights community” ought to take a lesson from the events in Oslo and refocus its efforts on empowering individual dissidents, rather than trying to persuade dictators to behave like democrats.

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