The United Nations’ good intentions and their attempt at preventing large-scale abuses of fundamental rights translate into limited results: Genocide Watch has recently declared the state of Genocide Emergency in Syria, Sudan, DR Congo, Ethiopia and Myanmar (Burma). When the United Nations, the only international entity with both the power to authorize the use of force and the mandate to promote peace, fails to prevent human rights violations, should we turn to smaller International conferences instead? A closer look at a few examples of International conferences will provide some answers.
A clear target, a smaller scope
The human-rights establishment at the United Nations is limited to pretty words because so many member countries kill or imprison or torture their opponents
Those are the words of Thor Halvorssen, the founder of The Oslo Freedom Forum – one of many International conferences addressing the issue of human rights violations. Halvorssen, like many others, believes that the lack of hypocrisy in International conferences is what truly distinguishes them from the UN. The Oslo Freedom Forum brings together world leaders including former heads of state, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize and prisoners of conscience (anyone imprisoned, repressed or tortured because of their race, religion, or political views), who gather to share knowledge about new technologies, creative ways of dissent and government repression strategies. Contrarily to the UN, no state representatives are present to boast what steps had been taken by their governments or denounce another nation’s actions, thus making this type of gathering unique and extremely efficient.
Other examples of such focus are to be found: the Conference on Human Rights and Technology has been running for three years, addressing the role of technology companies in enabling the rights of their users (7). The conference brought together technology companies, front line digital activists, technologists, and leading academics. In Belgium, the worldOUTgames Human Rights Conferences focuses on the latest advances in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) rights. This year’s gathering stressed the importance of international networking for countries where LGBT issues do not meet full recognition.
One obvious advantage of International conferences outside the UN system is the possibility to focus more efficiently on sub-categories of human rights violations issues, such as threats to women, the power of media, instruments of change, the use of terror and intimidation, and façade capitalism (or the role of a liberal economy in guaranteeing freedoms), which were all topics of this year’s edition of the Oslo Freedom Forum. The less formal setting also allows for greater participation, for example, through workshops. Only a few NGOs and external actors (experts, business actors, etc.) are granted access to UN meetings; in contrast, panel discussions organized by conferences cover a larger spectrum, including companies, researchers, government representatives and activists.
International conferences are private initiatives and have a loser framework than UN gatherings. Notwithstanding the advantages, the very nature of International conferences brings about questions regarding their political bias, their affiliations, and the origin of their funding. Some of the donors to the Oslo Freedom Forum have been pouring money into anti-LGBT rights campaigns in the United States; one of the main donors, the John Templeton Foundation, is known to have spent more than 1 million dollars to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2009. When asked about this, the OFF founder replied saying: ” We are grateful, privileged, and proud that we receive support, as this ultimately means that our mission is being endorsed. This does not, however, mean we agree with the views of those who support us “. It is clear however that International Conferences’ affiliation directly affects the choice of issues represented, as well as the choice of speakers.
The closer focus and the involvement of activists , which both characterize International Conferences, can also lead to a loss of objectivity. One example of this greater potential for manipulation is Halvorssen’s focus on the Venezuelan issue. In 2010, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Lopez was among the politicians who signed as witnesses in the new government after Chavez was briefly ousted in the failed US-backed coup in 2002. Lopez, an influential leader in the opposition against Chavez, was presented as a “human rights leader” at the OFF, when he had earlier called for violent actions against the Chavez government.
The real impact
On their website, The worldOUTgames conference urges for new thinking in the light of the recent advances made in France and other countries. This example highlights the correlation between legislation and direct action. However, without the UN label, it is unsure whether the outcome of these conferences will translate into binding legislation. The gatherings do not carry any guarantee of recognition.
The Human Rights Issue needs to be dealt with at two complementary levels: the international legislative level and the active popular level. Although the term “networking” can have a dubious meaning in our understanding, the importance of sharing past experiences and techniques in the field of human rights activism is vital. In the same way that strategies of repression by authoritarian governments are similar, techniques of creative dissent can be transposed and adapted from one context to another. The uncompromising and independent nature of international conferences thus allows voicing dissent and denouncing violations. These manifestations of discontent can influence the agenda of interstate conferences and are central to the argumentation for human rights legislation.
– Catherine Ador