Global Ethics Day Special Event: On the Frontlines of Democracy

Oct 21, 2021

Whether it's rigging elections in Hong Kong, arresting activists in Venezuela, restricting voting access in the U.S., silencing the opposition in Belarus, or censorship in Burma, there can be no doubt that democracy is under assault. For Global Ethics Day, Carnegie Council hosted a panel featuring activists fighting on the frontlines to uphold and strengthen democracy. What can individual citizens do to support democracy? What's the role of international organizations?

Watch the full event video or explore the clips below.

Why Is Democracy Worth Fighting For?

Moderator Jennifer Williams, deputy editor of Foreign Policy, asks the panelists to share their thoughts on why democracy is worth fighting for in Burma, Hong Kong, Belarus, Venezuela, and around the world.

Authoritarian Strategies, Political Prisoners, & "Gestures" in Venezuela

Alfredo Romero, president of Venezuelan human rights organization Foro Penal, discusses the strategies of autocrats like Nicolas Maduro and, specifically, how they use political prisoners as hostages.

The Fight for Democracy & International Organizations

Belarusian politician and journalist Franak Viačorka, senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, discusses the role of international organizations in the fight for democracy in Belarus and other nations. He then stresses the importance of staying hopeful in this struggle.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Greetings. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I'm Zooming in today from my office in New York City, and I want to start by thanking everyone on this call for joining us for this special event convened for Global Ethics Day 2021.

Before we begin, I just want to share a little bit of background on Global Ethics Day. Global Ethics Day takes place every year on the third Wednesday of October, and this is our eighth year running. Global Ethics Day began in 2014 as an opportunity for individuals and organizations to explore the meaning of ethics in daily life and to come together to identify the most critical issues facing society. Over the past seven years, individuals from over 75 countries have participated in Global Ethics Day. Last year, during the midst of the pandemic, hundreds of activities were convened on six continents via socially distanced and virtual formats, and you can see the cumulative results of these efforts by visiting

I don't believe it's an exaggeration to say that this past year has been one of the most challenging ever when considered as a matter of history. We've confronted the spread of COVID-19, responded to attacks on democracy, struggled with racial injustice, and battled climate change. It's clear that humanity faces a number of global-scale challenges.

Our program today, "On the Frontlines of Democracy," features individuals who are making a difference on one of the most urgent and concerning issues of our time, the future of democracy. The lives and work of our panelists affirm the idea that ethics matter. Through their activism each of these individuals embodies the Carnegie Council motto: "Ethics empowered."

We're very lucky to have as our moderator Jen Williams, deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Jen's outstanding journalism in this area makes her uniquely suited to lead our discussion today.

So, Jen, thanks for your leadership, thanks for moderating today, and I am going to turn it over to you directly. Thanks.

Thank you so much, Joel, and thank you to everyone for joining us today.

I am going to just go ahead and introduce our brilliant panel today. If you want to read everyone's full bios, you can go to the website and check those out there. I am just going to do brief introductions so we can get right into the meat of the conversation here.

First, we have Nathan Law. Nathan is a Hong Kong activist who is currently living in exile and is based in London. Wai Hnin Pwint Thon—thank you for joining us, Wai Hnin—is a Burmese human rights activist and a campaigns officer at Burma Campaign UK. We have Alfredo Romero joining us today. Alfredo is a human rights lawyer and activist in Venezuela, and then we have Franak Viačorka, who is a senior advisor to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, and a journalist from Belarus.

Thank you to everyone. Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

I would like to get started with a question that I think has been on my mind a lot, especially over the last year or year-plus. I think many people today are experiencing a lot of feelings of helplessness regarding the state of the world, and you, our panelists today, each of you work every single day in your lives to actually do the work of defending democracy and to improve the lives of others. So I would love to hear from you. What is your message to people like me and like I'm sure many others out there who feel like maybe there's not a lot of hope for democracy, for the future of human rights, and what actions can we ourselves maybe take to help ameliorate that feeling of helplessness?

Wai Hnin, maybe if you want to start, and then whoever else wants to hop in, please go right ahead.

Thank you, Jennifer. I think it's a very important question, but it also is a very hard question as well.

I work on the issue of Burma, and given the circumstances since the coup every day is getting harder and harder, and it is difficult to keep hope. But also, sometimes when I am having a really hard time, I realize that it's my job and it's my duty to hold these military and to hold all these bad leaders accountable.

Okay, we are feeling hopeless, but also it's our job to give ourselves hope by doing this work for human rights defenders who are risking their lives on the ground. It's more an up-and-down every day, trying to keep hope and giving ourselves hope by doing the work that we do. I will just keep it there for now.

Alfredo, maybe would you like to jump in?

I am the president of one very big non-governmental organization (NGO) here in Venezuela, which is called Foro Penal, and what we do is try to give hope to all these victims that we actually represent. In this office where I am talking from, we receive victims, people who are being tortured, the families of people who are arbitrarily detained, and people who were arbitrarily detained for political reasons come to us in order to talk and sometimes to say thank you for what we have done about them. Actually we have worked on the release of more than 12,000 victims of arbitrary detentions. I tell you that because this question feeds perfectly on what I think every day.

"Hopelessness" is a very big word in the sense of, who is hopeless? Someone who is infected by coronavirus in London, for example, or someone who is in jail at this moment for more than six years—for example, one is a student, Antonio is his name—without a conviction and without a trial.

So it is more a psychology issue, I think. What we do every day is try to provide these people with methods and tools in order to go through this very bad moment and to tell them every day, at least from what we do, that they will get freedom at some point, and that is what we do.

We actually—and I will finish with this—touch people. We need to touch people. We need to talk to them. Actually, I'm a musician also, and we sing to people. I'm a lawyer and a musician, and you will say, "Well, does that relate to what we do?" Yes, because we have to sing to them. We sing songs. We go to different towns around the country and sing, and that is a way that we channel or we create this breach between the big thing and us in order to precisely bring hope to these specific people that we attend every day.

I think that's a really fascinating point. I think the arts and the role of the arts and music, the role that can play in really connecting people, bringing people together, and giving hope doesn't get enough attention. You should perform for us someday. That would be great.

Nathan, did you want to weigh in on this one?

Yes, sure. Hello, everyone. I am Nathan.

I think this is a very important question. In Hong Kong the situation gets worse and worse on a daily basis. Every single day we hear about protesters being sentenced to jail for years. We have heard about political campaigners being arrested. We have heard of civil society crumbling. There are lots of decades-long civil society—which are backbones of the Hong Kong democratic movement—disbanded. This is definitely a devastating situation, and I believe that everyone who is paying attention to the situation in Hong Kong would feel like the situation is dire. It is difficult to overturn it in a short-term period.

People find it helpless when they want to reach out for help when they are in jail, when they are in process of waiting to be tried, and when they are basically trapped in Hong Kong and losing the city as they used to know it. Basically the whole Chinese Communist Party is ripping the city off and trying to reform it into the way that they can have complete control in a very authoritarian stage.

But I guess there are differences between helpless and hopeless, and I approach hope in two ways. One is definitely more seen as faith. I think as an activist we are not entitled to lose hope. This is what we are here for. We are here for empowerment, to encourage people to resist, and we are here for bringing out the impetus and the momentum of a movement to try to change something. So to me hope is not very analytical. It sometimes is a matter of faith. I believe that justice and democracy will prevail. It takes hard work. It takes a long period of dark periods before the sun rises, but I do believe that it will come.

The second definitely is on the people. We have seen social events, really bad ones, on a daily basis, but we can also see that there are people working on the ground tirelessly with lots of risk doing every single little thing that they can do to help the situation. In Hong Kong there are organizations still underground, helping inmates and helping their families. There are still organizations trying to form some groups to look into Hong Kong's future to try to find all the cracks, and there are also people lining up to attend court trials and send encouragement to the people who are in the detainee box and also when they are being transferred to prison. Lots of people run on the side of the car and try to say hello to them and tell them to please hang on.

I think these are the people who are carrying hope. They are doing everything that they could, even in a very narrow political situation, and we will understand that when the time comes these people will also be the force of changing the society. So I guess this is the only thing that we can approach to the situation that seems so dire but that has the possibility of change.

On an analytical level, I do feel like the long-term future, if the world is more reckoning on what China has been doing, their authoritarian aggression and expansion, we still have a chance to safeguard our democracy, protect it, and implement it in Hong Kong.

Thank you for that.

That segues I think nicely into the next question that I have. All of you work on the ground in various countries, whether you are in the country that you're working for or if you are in exile elsewhere, but you are doing the work day-to-day, the nitty-gritty of trying to keep that hope alive and to really try to make sure that you're working toward this goal, even if it feels so dire.

So I want to know, for those of us in the international community, for entities like the United Nations, country governments, and non-profits, what role can those types of organizations play in supporting the work that you all are doing? What do you really need from these organizations?

Franak, I would like to go with you to start on that one.

Thank you, Jennifer. I just want to emphasize that the fight for freedom is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Of course, we can have the moments of hopelessness. It does mean that we did not win yet, but definitely it does not mean we did lose. Definitely we should stop blaming and making this self-victimization, saying all the time that dictatorships are winning. They are not. Perhaps they are prevailing for this moment, but it's not forever, and as Nathan mentioned, in the end democracy and democratic values will definitely win.

International organizations actually created to help democratic movements like one in Belarus, Hong Kong, or other countries, or Venezuela, are not efficient at all because at some point the structure, the character of this organization was developed in the 1990s, in the 20th century, when the world experienced and enjoyed the rise of new democracies, the spring of democracies. These organizations like the United Nations, Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), if we are speaking about regional organizations, were supposed to solve problems by consensus, assuming that all organizations and all countries are sharing the same values.

But dozens of years passed, and we saw that many of the Member States who signed up in these organizations share different values, and right now they are basically paralyzed by a consensus-based role like, for example, the UN Security Council, and are not able to take any decision, and what we have to do right now is we have to work on redesigning them and pushing the government or pushing Member States to change the rules, to change the format of how they work.

In the UN Security Council, for example, only informal meetings called "Arria formula" meetings can really take decisions because, when we take the whole UN Security Council members there, they are not able to take decisions because of the veto rule.

Also what we have onboard right now is the big power of the private sector, of tech companies. They are also like governments. The power of Facebook or Google can be compared to the United Nations right now, and we need them, we need their active participation if we want to fight dictatorships and authoritarianism on an international level. So perhaps it is a call to them to be more proactive, to be braver, and to be more consistent in supporting those who fight for democratic values and principles.

Yes, I think the tech point is really important.

Nathan, I wonder if you wanted to get into that a little bit. Especially with how powerful Beijing is in controlling and cracking down on communications and pushing tech companies to censor material, I wonder what you would like to see from tech companies in that space.

Well, for the multinational, multilateral organizations I have taught a lot of activists, and we have come to a conclusion that they are unable to hold powerful countries like China or Russia accountable. Basically they are not in the position of doing things like this, even though they claim that they could do it.

Of course, safeguarding global democracies I think is the most fundamental crisis of our time. We can talk about pandemic, arms proliferation, hunger, and all sorts of things, but seemingly I think for the past two decades a lot of democratic countries are just too complacent about safeguarding our own democracy. They thought that at the end of the day it would magically happen, but it won't with the sophistication of authoritarians or even an authoritarian country like China.

So I think if we want to have change, if we want to have actions, we must have a change of perception. We need to see it as a crisis. We need to make a global agenda, global body, global action plan, and a global timetable to tackle these things like we tackle climate change. I think the only way to do it is by uniting all of these democratic countries, which have a say and have certain power, whether it is economically or politically, and they do something together in order to address that.

Of course, the big tech companies do play a part in it, and even though they are private companies they are becoming like a public space. Billions of people use it, and they should shoulder some kind of responsibility facilitating this important agenda that would benefit a lot of people around the world. I think we need to have a perceptual change about what we are facing. We are in such big trouble, and we need all the democratic communities to work together to address that.

Wai Hnin, Alfredo, do either of you want to weigh in on the international organizations? It sounds so far that there is not a ton of faith in these organizations anymore. I am wondering if either of you have thoughts on that.

Well, I agree with what Franak said. However, I have been working on this for more than 20 years. You can imagine that we have talked to everyone around the world in order to just get the release of one person or to try to denounce what is going on in Venezuela.

I believe that at this point—I will say something directly and very maybe rude—the international organizations, as Nathan said, are not capable of doing something concrete about what is going on, for example, in Venezuela at this moment. However, it doesn't mean that we don't count on them. It is not that we trust that just counting on them we will get a solution.

We have, for example, a strategic litigation manual. When you read that, of course international organizations are important. But if you analyze all the factors, all the actions that we have to do in order to get, for example, someone released from political prison, the international organization, of 100 percent, will be about 5 percent of all the factors, and this is important because—

First of all, I want to say I am talking about international organizations. I am not talking about international attention. This is different. Raising international attention is extremely important. I want to clear this up. It is extremely important to have, for example, your attention. It is important to have this conversation. It is important that all of the people who are participating in this conversation know that whatever they do, even a Twitter message, even a denouncing that we do internationally, a comment about what is going on in Venezuela, if they refer to a political prisoner in China or Venezuela, this is important because these governments, these regimes care about what the international community says. This is important.

However, are international organizations actually acting the same way as the people want? I believe that sometimes a Twitter campaign, for example, can be more effective to get the release of someone if the international community participated through a Twitter campaign than, for example, going to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that we go to every day. They take so long to respond, and they say it. They don't have much resources and people who can work on that. Is the International Criminal Court, for example, working efficiently on crimes against humanity happening in Venezuela, China, Russia, and many countries? Maybe they could be effective, but they are not as fast as they should be.

I believe—and I will conclude with this—that this sentence that people use a lot, "Justice takes long," this is something we have to take out of our mind. As human rights activists, we have to fight, and the people who believe in human rights, we have to fight against that. Justice cannot take long. Justice doesn't mean just a criminal proceeding. It means justice in general. It means opinions. It means raising attention about what is going on. It means not to forgive but to fight against oblivion of what is going, to fight against impunity, and not to undermine justice because of a political negotiation, for example. This is something that I believe we need to fight for.

I also agree with what Nathan said, that of course all democratic countries should work together, should unite, must unite, all humans rights defenders around the world, even from the right or from the left because I don't believe that I am a rightist or a leftist. I just work for human rights, and I don't care about this kind of ideology. We have to fight together against impunity, for justice, and for the respect of human rights.

If I may, I think it's a very good question. I think international community and international organizations play a huge role in part of our democracy movement.

But the problem is that the international community has failed to stand with people of Burma for many years. Just a recent example is 2017. When the genocide of the Rohingya—the Muslim population living in the Western part of Burma—happened, the international community didn't do anything. They banned a few generals from coming to Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and that was the punishment that they got.

The military staged a coup on the first of February of this year, and since then human rights violations happen every day. There are more than 7,000 people in jail right now and more than 1,000 people have been killed. That is only in the city areas.

In the beginning, when we received the statements from organizations like the United Nations and other organizations, we were encouraged to see those. Oh, they were standing up with us, and they were concerned about the situation in Burma. But we were hoping for them to take effective action, and people who were protesting on the ground in Burma were holding signs written in English because they wanted the world to see them. They wanted the world to take action.

But now people inside the country have completely lost hope in the United Nations, and they say UN stands for "United Nothing" because they haven't seen any action coming from these organizations helping people on the ground. They say: "Oh, we are risking our lives. We are prepared to sacrifice everything because we don't want to live under another military dictatorship. We don't want to have the military continue abusing power and continue committing human rights abuses with a sense of impunity."

In our case, the international community has failed us, but that doesn't mean that there isn't anything that they can do to help. There are so many human rights organizations focusing on Burma and asking these entities to take effective actions. We have pointed out what they can do to help people in the country.

But the problem is that the response has been frustratingly slow. That means it is our job to keep pushing. Sometimes it feels like banging your head against a wall, but it is also our job to hold these organizations accountable and push them because we know there are things they can do to help people on the ground, and they have to do it.

As a human rights activist, it is hard, but it is our job to keep doing it and make sure that we have internal pressure and external pressure and we achieve the change that we want to see. So I like to be hopeful and optimistic about it.

Well, hopefully some members of these organizations are watching today and listening to your voices, and I hope they are getting the same chills that I'm getting when I hear you all speak about this. The "fight against oblivion" that Alfredo mentioned was really, I think, a powerful statement and the need to focus on pushing and fighting for today. I heard from a lot of you talking about the time delay and how long everything takes and the need to keep everything in the immediate forefront of people's minds.

Speaking of institutions, we often talk about the critical importance of institutions within democracies as well. I would love it if each of you could talk about some of the tactics that have been used to weaken the institutions inside your own countries and how you are fighting to kind of counteract that.

Alfredo, you in particular, you wrote a book on the strategy behind autocratic regimes. I wonder if you want to start on some of the tactics that authoritarian regimes are using, that the Maduro regime is using in your country to dismantle and co-opt the institutions of democracy.

Thank you for that question because actually what I believe, talking about the strategy, the new strategy of these dictatorial regimes is actually to use the judicial system as a façade in order to show the international community that, for example, when a political prisoner is being incarcerated or when somebody that is protesting or demonstrating is incarcerated he is not or she is not someone who is demonstrating democracy and defending his or her human rights. It is because it is someone who is a terrorist or is a criminal, and they use the judicial system, these institutions, in order to send the world a message, to tell the world, to tell the international organizations that what they are doing is justice, that they don't have the responsibility for what this independent judge did against each specific person.

This is not the truth. I work every day with the courts and with all these kinds of issues, and I am totally sure that nobody is independent here. The judges take a decision to incarcerate someone on pre-trial detention for years, I mean without conviction, just because they wait for someone to call them and tell them what to do.

This is very important because I still, after many years of looking at the same thing and denouncing the same thing, some people in the international community or some diplomats, just to call it that way, are still believing or presenting this situation as an excuse not to get involved in, for example, when a political prisoner is in jail or suffering torture or whatever. This is I think extremely important.

Of course, this is a very long discussion, but I believe there is something that, for example, in Venezuela the government has succeeded, and I am sure it happened because I know the situation in Cuba and in Nicaragua, for example, and a little bit in Russia and maybe China, but the diplomats play the same game, for example, with political prisoners.

Political prisoners are in jail, and they become hostages. They become bargaining chips for political reasons, and they use—as I said in my book as you referred to, and thank you for referring to that big paper—political prisoners in order to get some benefits from the international community. They use political prisoners. The use this game, what I call the "revolving door effect," so they incarcerate, release and free people, and they then imprison others in order to use these people as bargaining chips.

You will see the same situation happening in China, Cuba, Russia, and Nicaragua. Whenever diplomats come to negotiate and try to solve the problem politically in Venezuela, they will always use political prisoners to say, "Okay, I will release them," and this is a gesture in order to tell the world: "Oh, you know I'm doing the right thing," and this word—I don't know if you guys who are working also in human rights you have heard this word many times. I have heard from diplomats this word many times, a "gesture," and they ask me: "Alfredo, what do you think is a good gesture of the government? If they release 40 political prisoners? One hundred? What is the right number?" There are 269 political prisoners and more than 9,000 people who were released but still with restrictions of their freedom.

I will say, "Come on. You will ask me about a gesture? You have to release everyone. How will you negotiate with a government that is using the same game all the time, and when they release some they will get some kind of good message from the world that they are doing the right thing, and they will incarcerate the same ones the next week, the same amount of people that they release." This is really something that is happening. So, institutions again are a good façade, and it is not like before in the past that dictatorial regimes are just doing things without protecting themselves by their own rule of law that they have always used to skew, to justify their political repression.

Maybe I can chime in to talk about how—not internally—these authoritarian regimes externally try to even persecute or do anything to stop us from voicing and getting support from the international community. I think this is a big problem especially from what the Chinese government has been doing to me and to other Hong Kong diasporic communities and activists. They have several things that they are very good at and used to use.

For example, stigmatization. They always claim Hong Kong protests are U.S.-instigated. They always claim activists are U.S.-trained CIA agents and have a lot of connections with foreign governments or that they do things like this in order to discredit us and also to make sure that we are depicted as someone of evil intention and trying to destroy China because of the guidance of other "malign foreign forces."

This is very common, and I personally have been stigmatized and faced a lot stigmatization campaigns from Mainland China and even the most heated topics in Weibo, which is the Facebook and Twitter in Mainland China, well, the whole propaganda machine was talking about false information in order to discredit you.

The second would definitely be using their economic and political power to de-platform you. I have attended university talks that some of the alumni association of the university wrote a letter to the one organizer saying that, if they continue to have that talk with me, the Chinese relationship with that university will be damaged. They lay it out very vividly.

They are also some I didn't attend. They canceled the invitation because they said that investors or sponsors have connections with China and it put off some of their members in mainland China when they heard that I was going to participate. They were pissed off, and they tried to do things to threaten to cancel their support. These things happen, and it gives a lot of pressure to organizations and institutions that are trying to provide a platform for human rights activists to have a voice, but they are being affected in that way.

Of course, it is not only to institutions but also to governments. I can also sense that there are certain elements even in the current U.S. administration that are worried that meeting with me or people like me may worsen the relationship, like displaying a certain hated image of the administration to the Chinese government. I was told by some of the analysts, some of the people around, that they have a tendency to avoid getting in contact with activists like me and the others.

I think this should be changed, even though it would be talking about how incapable the international organizations are to holding the authoritarian regimes accountable, but the very least that we could do is we have a platform for us to promote our narrative and counter those narratives from these malign regimes that abuse human rights violations and use propaganda and false information to stigmatize everyone, and then we can generate certain forces to make a change, no matter whether it is on the government level, on the consumer level, and on the cultural level. At least this is what the international community could do in that way, but seemingly they are not doing enough, and sometimes that disappoints people when even the government is also reacting to that play from, for example, the Chinese Communist Party, and trying not to provide as much support as they could to overseas activists.

If I may, I think both points made by Nathan and Alfredo are very interesting. There are a lot of similarities happening in Burma as well, especially when it comes to political prisoners. Whenever there is international pressure, political prisoners will be the first to be released because they are being used as a token. And again, it's the same term, the "revolving door," because the population of political prisoners keeps growing. Yesterday and the day before yesterday there was a release of political prisoners. There were incidents of them being picked up outside prison after being released. It's really heartbreaking.

In terms of institutions but now especially after the coup, the Burmese military tried to show the world the appearance of law and order and that there is a legal process happening, so they allow all these political activists in prison to have legal counsel, although they have no privacy to discuss about their case in detail. All of the charges are politically motivated for sure, but they want to show the world: "Oh, look. These people are being tried legally, and they have lawyers." Some in the international community really fall for that as well.

In terms of action and everything, sometimes we see that all these powerful governments prefer to keep the diplomatic or bureaucratic relations with the head of state or at least with an authoritarian regime rather than helping people on the ground and helping people and supporting their cause.

In my case, I remember in terms of institutions and how the Burmese military has made us feel as a political activist that is something to be ashamed of. Now we have a lot of doctors, teachers, and nurses sitting inside prison for taking part in the anti-coup protests in the country. Once they come out, they will lose their license to practice. They won't be able to become teachers or go back to their old jobs anymore, and they have criminal records, so it will be impossible for them to find a new job.

That is the same case with my dad. When I was growing up, he was a political prisoner, and I was ashamed going to school. I was ashamed to tell my friends that my dad was in prison for doing the right thing, standing up for human rights and democracy in my country. I was ashamed to say that because everyone thinks, Oh, your dad is a bad person because he is in prison. It took me years to realize what he stands up for and what he believes in.

It is like that for many generations, and that is encouraging for many people inside the country to see, that different generations are coming together to protest against the coup, and the resistance is growing every day. I repeat myself that that growing resistance needs to be backed up by the international community, and they have failed to do that because they are considering, Oh, will this upset the military? or Will we be kicked out of the country if we support the legitimate government elected by the Burmese people? There are so many things people can do, and we are doing our part, and we want the international community to support us as well as a human rights activist outside and a human rights activist inside the country as well.

Franak, did you want to add anything to that?

I see the trade of political prisoners in the usual thinking of almost every country. What we have to do is we have to raise the price for each political prisoner and for each repression. We should make all such regimes toxic to the entire world, and of course it is much easier if we unite efforts. One, the regime will know that for each political prisoner it will have to pay with real money, with real resources, and then it will have good incentive to not do this.

Of course, international organizations have again, such as Red Cross and others, which are supposed basically to help political prisoners and prevent tortures or to help those who are injured by the regimes, very often serve dictatorial regimes, and that is another issue we should raise internationally, how these organizations, including how the UN departments and the UN institutions really help. So basically we have to make a reassessment of efficiency of each tool created by international organizations.

In Belarus we have right now 815 political prisoners and more than 2,000 political prisoners who are not recognized as political prisoners. We use the classification of the Council of Europe, which means, for example, people who are not under political articles are not recognized as political prisoners. So also the methodology of recognition of political prisoners must be revised definitely.

We also see that those who are recognized as political prisoners often face harsher treatment, and many families decide to not be recognized as political prisoners so they can receive a shorter jail term or have better conditions in prison. That is not very healthy.

Also, what we faced after Roman Protasevich, the young journalist from Belarus, who was kidnapped from the plane flying from Athens to Vilnius on the Ryanair flight, he is a good friend of mine, and we basically took the same flight just a week before, and we were actually perhaps the target of this operation. He was tortured, blackmailed, he was on the hook, something happened, and after three or four days he started praising Lukashenko, praising the totalitarian regime, saying: "Oh, that's democratic forces. They were wrong. They hijacked this plane."

Basically, in the beginning I was very angry—how such? How unethical. They used a hostage in order to discredit opponents, but then I realized that they should not definitely blame Roman for collaborating because we have to put his life first, and all the things political prisoners and hostages are saying publicly or not should not be counted, should not be discussed, and should not be quoted by media. That is the best thing the media can do actually, to not multiply the lies and words of hostages and definitely to not give tribune to dictators. This is what happened to CNN, which had an interview with Lukashenko a few weeks ago and gave him actually the space and tribune for multiplying lies and propaganda.

I think that's really helpful. For me, as someone who works in the media, I think that is something that I know I and many of my colleagues in journalism think about a lot: Who are we actually giving platforms to speak, and how are we presenting—on the one hand, we want people to know the facts and what is going on in a situation in a country, but how do we present that in a way that doesn't amplify lies, propaganda, etc.? So I think that's a really important point. I know all of you have made some really powerful points on the political prisoner question in particular.

Before I do the next question, I want to remind the audience to please, while we are talking, if you have questions, drop them in the Zoom chat. We will go to a Q&A at the end, so as we're talking if you have questions, please go ahead and drop those in now.

My next question for all of you: The international community, the outside world, often focuses on the leader, one single leader in a country, a strongman, whoever is the person in power. But I think we have seen many, many instances, in particular with the recent release of the Pandora Papers and previous releases of these documents, just how corruption really plays into supporting and propping up these individual leaders. I think a lot of the people who surround these leaders and maybe aren't the ones who are in the spotlight often help support that regime and help the regime really stay in power.

I wanted to get your thoughts on how corruption, patronage networks, and things like that in your particular countries have really permeated the system of power and how you see that as propping up the system, and ways to maybe start to dismantle that.

Alfredo, do you want to weigh in maybe on the corruption side? I know Venezuela has featured prominently when it comes to the Pandora Papers and the "Paradise Papers."

Well, corruption is part of the system. We don't actually study that specifically. It is not something that we have analyzed profoundly. However, we can see it everywhere.

I always say that whenever you are in some way isolated from the world—because remember that the Venezuelan state is being sanctioned by the United States and different other states, and what happened internally, what you see is corruption like everywhere. You don't know where the money comes from. You don't understand, for example, how they build buildings, they invest in different businesses all around the country, what is happening right now, when there is not even credit from a bank.

Corruption should be linked to the human rights issues. Actually, there is I believe a judge, also a professor at Harvard, Mark Wolf [who is pushing for] an International Corruption Court in order, I will say, to prosecute all these kinds of things, but again maybe I am talking too generally because I don't want to talk about specific issues, not in Venezuela right now.

But, yes, the big answer is that I believe that corruption is, of course, part of the system, is a day-by-day issue that you see everywhere. It is something also difficult to talk about publicly.

Yes. I don't want anyone to get yourselves in trouble. That is the last thing we want here. I absolutely respect that.

We are getting short on time here, and I want to get to the Q&A section. I have one final question before we get to some of the audience questions that I would love each of you to touch on, and it's a really simple question: Why democracy? We have seen—I think there are polls that show something like 55 percent of Millennials globally say they are dissatisfied with democracy. What is your pitch to the younger generation on why democracy itself is critical and why it's something worth fighting for? I would love to hear from each one of you before we move on.

Thank you. Because why not? Now we are having this panel, and it is really encouraging to have this discussion and talk about challenges that we have in our line of work very openly without facing any consequences. I don't have to fear that police will break into my home now and arrest me. That is part of human rights, that is part of democratic values, and that is what we are fighting for. Because otherwise, we are talking about China, Venezuela, all of these countries have similarities of repression going on. People are being arrested for standing up for their rights. People are being arrested and tortured for speaking about truth. I think democratic values are very important.

In Burma, because we have a lot of diversity and ethnicities in the country, people are not calling for simple democracy anymore. People are calling for federal democracy with proper, genuine federalism. It is a very encouraging step for us to move forward.

If we don't have any democracy—I notice in Western countries it is not a perfect democracy either. There are so many challenges. But at least we are able to go out freely and we are able to converse freely about what we believe in. I think these values are very important, and I know it is a work-in-progress in Western countries as well, and it is part of our job and individual duty to uphold these values and hold leaders accountable if they stray from the path as well. That is what I believe in.

Maybe I could jump in. I believe democracy is definitely more than an election. It is more than votes. It is about how we live our lives and how we have a system that can respect everyone's choice, promote diversity, and promote basic respect for everyone.

I think sometimes, yes, indeed, in democracy they make mistakes and we may have election results that may damage democratic values, its essence, but this is definitely the learning process that we have to adopt. At the end of the day, democracy is the protection of our other important aspects, like rule of law, like basic human rights, like freedom. In Hong Kong's case you can really see that—a city once so free, but without the protection of democracy, without holding the government accountable, your freedom and your rule of law can be lost in just one year, in just a glimpse. I think this is what democracy is about, and that is why we have to protect that as a system and as a value.

I can just add to the previous speakers that democratic countries are usually prosperous as well, so democracy brings many, many other things, but also it is very important that democracy must go together with independence. For countries like Belarus it is super, super-important. Sometimes we are given the choice, like, "You should decide for democracy or independence." In our case, the propaganda says, "If you will be democratic, you will become part of Russia, or you will have dictatorship but an independent state."

This is a fool's dilemma, and I think in many countries around the world, such that they may exist, we should not support it. We should break this dilemma. It is fake. It is false. We can get both sovereignty and freedom.

Democracy is also something that must be learned. We see that for countries with many years of non-democratic regimes it takes much longer to build sustainable democracies, and those who have democratic traditions since the Middle Ages, for example, for them it could be much, much easier to get back to this. So democracy must be learned. It must be something that everyone must enjoy. Somehow [audio Glitch] perception.

Democracy is the choice. We have this choice to [audio glitch], and I think with dictatorial regimes it is not a choice sometimes. It is just a given situation, a circumstance many people don't want to leave. In most countries democracy is a conscious choice.


I agree with my colleagues. As Nathan said, democracy is more than just elections. It is more than that. As I said before, these dictatorial regimes also use elections as the way to show the world that they are being democratic. I think, for example, the rule of law from the understanding of the Americans is totally different from my understanding. Rule of law can be used, it could be the Nazi rule of law, where laws and judges do things against human rights, and there could be the Russian rule of law, the Venezuelan rule of law, the rule of law that they use.

Rule of law, for example, I believe is more than rule of law as such. It is the democratic rule of law. What is democratic rule of law? That means the respect of human rights, for example. That means the understanding that elections are not just the only way to show that you are a democratic regime. It is more than that. For example, it is the independence of the judicial system. As also Wai Hnin said, the freedom of speech, the freedom of walking on streets without fear of being detained because, for example, you talk about corruption, you talk about something that is going on in the government.

It is difficult. It is difficult to explain. I am sure all of us understand what is going on, all you guys understand what is going on in Venezuela because in Belarus it is almost the same thing or in China, but not many people understand that. People believe that democracy is just elections, for example.

There is also another thing, because democracy means—do you know what these governments try always to do? They are sustained on three pillars—repression, co-optation, and legitimation. Sometimes they control these two very well, co-optation and repression, but what they always fight for, at least to get from the international community, is legitimation.

But lately what I have thought in talking about democracy that means legitimation because when you are legitimizing, you have elections and everyone will say that you are legitimized, that you are democratic. But more than that, what worries me—and taking from what Nathan said—is normalization of, for example, this whole situation. To normalize having political prisoners is something that is regular in these kinds of countries.

I remember once—and I will end with this—talking to some Chinese people. I was part of the Global Agenda Council of the World Economic Forum, and I was part of this rule of law group or whatever, and some Chinese people told me, "Well, we have our own rule of law, so we have rule of law."

I said, "Yes, you have rule of law. You have democratic rule of law?


"Do you have democratic rule of law?"

Right now, China is kind of normalized in these kinds of things because everyone is investing and wants to protect their money, so nobody cares about political prisoners anymore, at least from this part of the world. Nobody really cares about what is going on. Well, I care. It is not something that people actually know, that there are still political prisoners in China. What they care is how they can get money from China, how they can import things and, of course, how COVID-19 originated in China or whatever.

Nobody actually talks about political prisoners anymore. Why? Because the Chinese have been the experts of normalizing these human rights abuses, and they have taught that to the Cubans, that right now they are very good experts of normalizing, for example, the existence of political prisoners and human rights abuses.

Thank you all for those really powerful answers. I think one of the things that tied a lot of your thoughts together that I heard was not taking democracy for granted. It's something that you have to continue to fight for, that it's not just the veneer of democracy, it's not just elections, it's not just labeling something "rule of law" but actually fighting to make sure that those things are real, are held to account, and are able to persist. I thank all of you for contributing that.

Just a reminder. If you have questions, add them to the chat. We have gotten a few really great questions, so I am going to take a look at those.

One question from Bernard Lucas for Wai Hnin in particular, talking about how the United Nations didn't take action after the military coup, etc. There is another question related to that talking about Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the idea that taking international intervention, whether it is military intervention, humanitarian intervention—what do we think about that in terms of why—if you think, in the 1990s in particular with the Balkans, the Responsibility to Protect really became this doctrine of arguing for military intervention, and I think we saw the kind of backlash to that, and I think the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also really dampened enthusiasm for international intervention.

I would love your thoughts, maybe Wai Hnin, if you want to start, on the role of Responsibility to Protect and the way you all think about that and international intervention. Is it something that you in particular would like to see more active intervention by countries, whether it's the international community or a specific country, or how are you thinking about a kind of intervention piece of all of this?

R2P is a very interesting question. When the protests started in February and March, a lot of people on the ground were calling for R2P. They really wanted military from the United States or even the UN peacekeeping force to come and intervene and help people on the ground.

My opinion is that R2P and also international intervention, at least military intervention, is an out-of-date mechanism. I don't think it can happen today. Also, there is no political interest to go and invade Burma—or, not invade, I mean military intervention in Burma.

Oftentimes when we try and ask for R2P, we tried that in the past in 2008, when Cyclone Nargis happened because the military blocked humanitarian aid to people in the country. So we proposed R2P, and again in 2017 when the genocide of the Rohingya happened, there was a proposal for R2P as well, but the problem is China and Russia will always veto it. Even if countries support R2P, it doesn't mean a military intervention. It can mean a statement or concerns, the same things that we have been having from the international community.

Oftentimes what we have is that whenever we talk about R2P we just argue about what should be in the R2P and what kind of things should be included rather than taking action and rather than focusing on what they can actually do to help, where we end up spending so many hours, so many days arguing about, "Oh, this is not the right thing for R2P, this is the right thing." We don't want that distraction.

Let's forget about R2P. The simple thing the international community can do is arms embargo. Around 150 countries in the world don't have arms embargos on Burma. Despite the fact that the military has been breaking international law for decades, they are still able to buy weapons from abroad. These simple things can be stopped. We don't need the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Countries can do it unilaterally, but they are not doing that—and things like sanctions, and things like holding the military accountable. These things can happen outside of the R2P. R2P is an outdated mechanism, and we should be focusing on effective action, and we are pushing governments around the world to actually get on with it and take effective actions against the military.

On that note, there is another question that is kind of related to the international organization question. This comes from Aurelio Yurigoyan [phonetic]. There is a political global trend to eliminate funding for international organizations. You all mentioned, as we talked earlier, that these organizations like the United Nations and other multilateral organizations have not been up to the task. But Aurelio says: "Yes, they may not be working as they should be, but eliminating them would probably be worse." So what actions in particular do you think these kinds of organizations like the United Nations, like the Council of Europe, like OSCE, etc., should be taking to be better and more impactful on the issue of human rights?

This is a very good question because funding is actually what moves, I believe, these kinds of organizations. Maybe I'm wrong. I'm speaking for myself and what I think.

I believe, for example, Franak said something about the Red Cross. That is not a public international organization but depends on many funders. I am, for example, extremely frustrated about the Red Cross in Venezuela. They are here in Venezuela. You see cars all around Venezuela, beautiful cars. You see people, and they don't even receive us at their offices because they feel if they receive civil society like an NGO like Foro Penal, which is an NGO that represents political prisoners who are sick, who are in jail, and who needs their attention, maybe the government won't like that. I have sent many letters, and it is something that I have said that is public, to the representative of the Red Cross in Venezuela. He doesn't even respond. He doesn't want to receive us.

They depend on funding of—what I want to say, this is an example, and I will extend a little bit the example because it's important. For example, there is a political prisoner. Her name is Emirlendris Benitez. She has been for more than three years in prison, on pre-trial detention, which means without conviction. She was tortured. She denounced that she was beaten that way, that she was forced an abortion when she was in custody, and she is sick. She cannot even walk at this point because of what she said happened to her.

Anyway, she has very important health issues, and I don't see the Red Cross there anytime. But again they depend on funding of, for example, governments. That's the point.

International organizations depending on funding from governments. That's why it's important that governments that believe in democracy and human rights are the ones that have to put pressure on these international organizations not to be comfortable. I am not talking about everyone because I have very good friends who are fighting and are part of the United Nations, and I don't put everyone in the same group, and they are working very hard. We work very close with the UN representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights here in Venezuela. We talk to them all the time, and they have helped also in different things.

But there are others that do not work very efficiently, and I think that is something that we—civil society—should do. And the democratic governments united, as Nathan said, should also put pressure on these international organizations to do the right thing, also to the Red Cross to do the right thing. If nobody says anything and we just from Venezuela are saying that, but if nobody is helping us saying that specifically to those organizations when they act wrong or don't do whatever they have to do, they will be comfortable doing what they're doing because nobody is telling them anything, and also governments are providing funding to them.

What I'm hearing you say in particular, in addition to the funding, is that some of these organizations that try to act with neutrality maybe end up doing more harm because they are too afraid to help anyone who might have a whiff of being political or involved in politics and maybe pushing them to be a little bit more active in that space.

Franak, you had a comment you wanted to make?

Yes. I just wanted to add, in addition to what Alfredo has mentioned, international organizations must remember they must serve people and not governments because very often, especially in countries with disputed government, with disputed legitimacy, international organizations always prefer to work with those who are de facto in place. Sometimes it helps, but in most cases it doesn't because it eliminates the representation of civil society, of people of the majority often suppressed by dictators. Dictators in most cases are in the minority, and in case we are able to redesign the international organizations to make sure that they serve the needs of people and societies but not governments, it will help.

To give you an example, the OSCE—and right now, since Lukashenko is not recognized by the majority of EU countries and European Commission (EC) members, on one hand he does have legitimacy. On the other hand, there is an EC organization which still invites representatives of Lukashenka because he is included as the government in the OSCE, and they don't make them put much effort to change this paradox.

The second thing that can be changed is the rule of voting. Right now in most cases there is consensus-based [voting]. It is a different organization. Interpol and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) right now are dealing with this Ryanair hijacking. They can't punish Lukashenko because there is a consensus-based decision-making process, same as the UN Security Council, and I think we are in a situation where always there is one country that will abuse this organization so it can be a consensus-minus-one, consensus-minus-two, or just a simple majority in order to take decisions so some outliers will not be able to manipulate the results.

Wai Hnin or Nathan, do either of you want to weigh in on this one?

I think there is lots of discussion on whether we should defund or whether we should reform. I think the core is what we can do with those kinds of resources, and we have the option of it. I think the input from the international community to human rights work should be increasing, but do they really have an effective platform for now, or should we establish another one or reform this one? So I think sometimes when people say "defund," similarly it means that you just pull off that money, put it back into your pocket, and then just go away. I don't think that is a constructive discussion.

One we should think of is how we can have an effective mechanism. It could mean democratic countries setting up their own alliances in terms of putting forward policies with the mass of their economy or the mass of their cultural and political work to support overseas activists to gain cultural and social influence. These are possible options that we can utilize the resources that we have and explore what avenues we can help.

One of the key factors of us having activism, especially international activist work, is for the international audience, including people living in democracies, to understand how fragile democracy is and how we should not take it for granted, and we do it by telling stories, stories of political prisoners, stories of ourselves, stories of our country and our city, and that requires a lot of cultural resources and social influence to achieve our goal.

So I think there are lots of potential avenues that we could go for. It is not necessarily the old policy and political-making process that we imagine. Actually there are a lot of ways that we could really promote stories to increase awareness and to make sure that our voices are being heard.

This is also people campaigning on an international level. We can really make an impact, and that is why a lot of authoritarian countries are trying so hard to de-platform all of us and to try to use economic coercion and intimidate anyone who invited us and provided a platform to us to say, "You should not talk to him, you should not talk to her." That is another way that we can think of this question.

I think Carnegie Council is certainly not intimidated and is very happy to talk about these issues. I want to thank you all for sharing those stories with us today.

Joel, did you want to say a few words in conclusion?

Thank you. I want to thank you, Jen, and thank all the panelists.

Nathan, that was just an amazing summary, wonderfully said and quite eloquent.

Our organization is all about ethics in international affairs, and as I said at the beginning, you all embody that in your work and in your lives. We admire that, and we are really proud to provide this platform for you.

We hope that you, the panelists, and of course, all the people who joined the call, benefited from this exchange. It is important for all of us to form a community, to be talking to one another, to be sharing ideas and sharing experiences, and to take them into our lives.

I just want to thank you for coming into our lives today and to assure you—I think Franak said before—it's never over. It is just a moment in time. We think of this as a continuum in the best possible way. I hope we will see you at some point in person, perhaps in New York or someplace nearer to you, and welcome to the Carnegie Council community. While we are going to adjourn this session now, we hope this is just the beginning of a longer conversation.

Thank you all.

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