Report of the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy

NEWS RELEASES – On February 20th, the International Center for Peace and Human Rights (CIPADH) attended the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. Bringing together human right activists from all around the world, the meeting is a unique opportunity to further understand the various hurdles and challenges that some populations face. This review will focus on the fight led against authoritarianism. It will study various cases, ranging from China to Venezuela passing through Turkey.


The opening address given by the moderator of the first panel, M. Javier El-Hage, from Human Rights Foundation, was a useful reminder on the current world situation and on the real-life impacts of authoritarianism. Indeed, this type of regime does not take place over night. It is, on the contrary, a long-time process that usually develops and implements itself in a given society over the course of several decades.  By referring to the political scientist Steven Levitsky, M. El-Hage demonstrated how dictatorships could be differentiated and how so called competitive authoritarian regimes like Turkey or Venezuela could, nowadays, slowly drift to becoming full authoritarian governments. Indeed, these two countries had democratic institutions. However, as the incumbents violate the constitutional and egalitarians rules, these regimes nowadays fall in a sort of political no man’s land between democracy and full authoritarianism.


The first panelist to take the floor was the female Turkish author and journalist Aslı Erdoğan, who explained how her country, which according to her was never a truly effective democracy, morphed into an authoritarian government using repression to control the population. Although, during the early years of 2000, the government appeared to have taken the path of democratization, she argued it never really happened, as political murders of journalists, for example, persisted. In 2013, the police violence against protesters marked a turning point, especially when acid was used against civilians. Since the coup in 2016, the situation worsened as the violence carried out by authorities increased. This prompted over 40'000 arrests, especially of journalists, teachers and judges, which deeply weakened legal institutions. Furthermore, they were further destabilized by the arrest of most of the judges and the unfair imprisonment of accused persons, to whom the right to a fair trial was denied. These types of practices that violate both political and legal rights are common for authoritarian regimes such as the one in China.


Even if China appears to be increasingly open to the world economy, it is still close to freedom. Yang Jianli, President of Initiatives for China, especially highlighted that despite all the country’s discourses on human rights and on freedom, the Chinese government is still becoming more and more aggressive at the international political stage. In spite of having signed the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), on October 5, 1998, the ratification has not been done yet, thus preventing the actual application of these rights in the country. As the government is still not binded by international obligations regarding human rights, it is not held accountable for torturing political opponents, incommunicado detentions of individuals who practice their right of freedom of speech such as the Hongkongese bookseller, Lam Wing-Kee. He was arrested and prosecuted by Chinese officials for having sold political books opposed to the ideology of the party. As highlighted by Lam Wing-Kee himself, by prosecuting citizens because of their opinions, the government is violating not only Hong-Kong law but also the constitution of the people's republic of China (1982) that guarantees freedom of speech and of assembly to every citizen and the press. However, countries that violate human rights like China and Venezuela are still members of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).


As explained by M. Antonio Ledezma, the mayor of Caracas who was a political prisoner, Venezuela has become an authoritarian regime that mistreats and violates the rights of its people. Even though it is the richest country in oil in the world, many citizens are today suffering from hunger and lack of basic medical assistance. This situation is the result of an electoral and political dislocation, that the country has been experiencing these past years. The situation took a turning point in 2014, after massive civil protests.  Antoni Ledezma was one of the participants, which resulted in his arrest and charging of attempting to overthrow the government. According to M. Irwin Cotler (Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights), Venezuela is an important and specific case because it was on of the first country in the world to ratify and fulfill the international obligations driven by the implementation of the International Criminal Court. Therefore, it is for him, the perfect example of a country that moved from a democracy (i.e. a stable country), to a regime that now is associated with a culture of corruption, criminality and impunity, hence becoming a major violator of a treaty that they were one of the first to ratify. M. Cotler also underlined the cruel paradox within the UNHRC, as instead of electing a country that respects and champions human rights within its territory, the council has decided to elect a “human right violator”. This is why according to both M. Ledezma and M. Cotler, the United Nations should review the members of the UNHRC in order to prevent the UN’s support of countries that violate human freedoms and right, and instead ensure that governments working towards the improvement of their populations’ quality of life are adequately encouraged.


By giving the floor to the victims of authoritarian regimes, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy shed light on the fact that some populations are still facing severe hurdles regarding human rights. Indeed, regardless of the country, the above-mentioned regimes have as main characteristics the political repression of their populations, the limitations and violations of human rights and, all coincidentally happen to be members of the UNHRC. A week away from the opening of the UNHRC, it is interesting to ask ourselves how the situation would evolve if, instead of dictators or authoritarian regime representatives, human rights activists were sitting on and running the council in the name of their respective countries.



By Line Barabant – Research Assistant at the CIPADH