A Conversation with David Keyes on Advancing Human Rights

Nov 14, 2014

TV Show


In the Soviet era, it was difficult to alert the world of what was happening to dissidents, says David Keyes. Today, however, there's an overload of information from YouTube and other sources and the challenge is how to overcome "human rights fatigue." He explains how crowd-sourcing and other means can get the word out.


ANDREW NAGORSKI: Hello and welcome to Ethics Matter at the Carnegie Council.

I'm Andrew Nagorski and our guest tonight is David Keyes. He is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, a relatively new human rights organization. and of CyberDissidents.org. His goal is to promote human rights in a period where frankly, we've got terror and tyranny on the rise, so that's no small challenge.

David, thanks for being here.

DAVID KEYES: Thanks for having me.


ANDREW NAGORSKI: Let me start off right away by getting to the vital question. How does someone go from being raised in Southern California, being a top ranked junior tennis player hitting with Andre Agassi—I'm not making this up—and then now your Twitter bio says you're an "enemy of tyranny"?


ANDREW NAGORSKI: Where did that come from?

DAVID KEYES: Thanks for having me and thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about our work today.

I grew up in Los Angeles and I wanted to be a professional tennis player. I traveled around and played the junior national championships and was really in love with tennis.

Then when I went to college, I found a new passion and that was the Middle East. I began to read everything I could about the region. Part of it was informed by 9/11 and events in Iraq, but I quickly came to the realization, having read a lot of bloggers in the Middle East and a lot of the Soviet dissidents actually, that there was much to be done to support the world's dissidents. Indeed that there was a link between the freedom of countries around the world and the safety of democracies everywhere.

So even in college, I ran a group called Students Against Dictators. I studied Arabic. I went to ever pro- and anti-protest you could possibly imagine and I really became animated by the idea of how the free world could support democratic dissidents abroad. I began to write for the college paper. Eventually I moved to Israel with my family about 10 years ago and after my military service there, I sat down in a café and said, "What can I do to support the world's dissidents?"

The first group that I started was called CyberDissidents and I was working for Natan Sharansky at the time, the great Soviet dissident who spent nine years in the gulag, and we thought together about new opportunities to support dissidents.

So it's a bit of a departure from the tennis court, but I'm happy nonetheless.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Natan Sharansky, of course, was a iconic dissident of that era and all of us who covered that era remember him well.

But what is it, in particular, that you're saying that you discussed with him or with others like him that you could bring to the human rights movement that doesn't already exist?

DAVID KEYES: Back in 2009, we realized that there were a lot of really brave online activists in the Middle East who weren't getting the sort of attention that we thought that they needed, that it was imperative that the free world understood the profound danger and instability of the dictatorships of the Middle East.

If you go back even to 2009 and 2010, some of the rhetoric today seems insanely out of touch with reality. Back in 2009, Newsweek said that Assad was enlightened, articulate, and charismatic and that a benevolent dictator was the best thing for Syria.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Was that before or after I left Newsweek?

DAVID KEYES: After you left, of course, not even a question. [Laughter]

John Kerry said in 2010 that Assad's Syria could be a partner for peace, prosperity, and stability. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper said in 2011 that Syria was an island of stability in the Middle East. Foreign Affairs said that big protests weren't likely against Assad, because he was younger and anti-American, more so than the other dictators of the region and it just wasn't true. All of these countries were profoundly unstable and they were profoundly dangerous and the brutality of the regimes needed to be better understood in the West.

Sharansky and I thought that one of the best ways to do that, much as was done in the Soviet Jewry period, is to the tell the stories of individual dissidents. So we highlighted individuals who were on the front lines in Egypt and Syria and Saudi Arabia. I moved to New York about five or six years ago to join with Bob Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, to start a new organization with him.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Both Bernstein and Sharansky, again, are these figures who are so well known from the earlier era. But more specifically, Bernstein, of course was a founding chairman of Human Rights Watch.

What is it that you were looking to do that the traditional human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, have not been doing?

DAVID KEYES: Bob came out in a New York Times op-ed in 2009 and criticized the group he founded.

Bob and I, by the way, have a lot in common. Bob founded Human Rights Watch and was head of Random House for 25 years, but what we have in common is that he is in his 90s and I was almost born in the '90s, so we have that as a common link. [Laughter]

What the criticism boils down to is a few things. Number one is we felt that many of the traditional human rights organizations were spending too much time on open societies at the expense of closed societies. So you look back and you can find groups that did the same number of reports blasting Israel, the only country with free speech and women's rights, as they did against Iran, Syria, and Libya combined. We thought that that was a betrayal of the foundation of the human rights movement.

Bob had spoken very passionately about the need to confront Iran's state-sponsored incitement to genocide and that was an issue that wasn't taken very seriously amongst many people in the human rights community. Indeed, incitement to genocide is always the precursor to genocide and here you had a leader like Ahmadinejad who was in clear violation of the Genocide Convention. What we were told was that his incitement to annihilate a member state of the UN was advocacy rather than incitement because the link between the words and the violence hadn't been seen yet, as if you needed to wait for a mushroom cloud to condemn it.

Then there was the issue of neutrality and war. Bob has spoken very passionately about the danger of calling yourself neutral when two sides are fighting a war and one is calling for genocide and one is a liberal democracy. That seems also a betrayal of the foundation of human rights.

Lastly, there was the issue of technology. Was the human rights community utilizing technology to the best of our ability? We thought the answer to that was no.

We were approached in 2012 by Jared Cohen, who was the head of Google's think tank, and asked to take over a group called Movements.org, which had brought together the best and brightest of the digital activists in the world. We jumped at that opportunity, not only because we got some financial support from Google, but we saw a real opportunity to utilize new technologies in order to support dissidents abroad. Over the last two years we've built this online marketplace, a platform called Movements.org, which links directly between democratic dissidents in dictatorships and from dictatorships and people around the world with skills to help them.

When I first showed it to Sharansky he said, "This is amazing because do you have any idea how long it took me to get even a single journalist to come to our protest?"—journalists like you. He said, "Now, literally, with the click of a few buttons you can not only alert the world but you can connect with technologists and policymakers and press and we're seeing a lot of really interesting things come out of that."

ANDREW NAGORSKI: There's several points I'd like to get into there, but I'll start with technology just to set the stage.

Everyone talks about the new technologies. It's worth remembering that of course repressive regimes have used technology to repress and fight dissidents for a long time. In the Soviet days, the East Bloc days, we all assumed we were monitored and certainly all the dissidents. My favorite little episode in '89, since we're celebrating the 25th anniversary, was talking to a Hungarian dissident writer, György Konrád who said right after the government changed in Hungary and the communist government was ushered out, somebody knocked on the door and there were these three guys standing there. They said, "It's a new day in Hungary. We're going to get rid of all the taps and the bugs in your house."

He said, "Oh, wonderful. Come on in." These guys came in and they immediately went everywhere in the house where there were these bugs. Konrád said, "Well, how did you know where they were?" One of the guys said, "Oh, we installed them, so we knew." [Laughter]

There's a little bit of that. The technology is more sophisticated now but it's more sophisticated that you're trying to channel it for the dissidents and it's more sophisticated for the authorities, too.

So how do those two things balance out? The Movements.org website, if you look at it, says, "We'll connect dissidents anywhere in the world," and you can do it at various levels of anonymity if you want to, as I understand it. What are the guarantees?

DAVID KEYES: There's nothing new in the issue of what effect technology has on opening closed societies. When faxes were being sent into Hungary to get information out some people said this changes everything. Some people said the issues are still the same.

Scott Shane, who's at The New York Times now, wrote a great book called Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union and certainly there was a famous essay called "The Facts Will Make You Free."

I think that technology today has given dissidents unparalleled power but the issues have changed significantly. In the Soviet era, it was exceedingly difficult to alert the world of what was happening. One study that I read said that from 1950 to 1975, I think only 1,500 pieces of samizdat underground literature were brought out of the Soviet Union for the West to understand what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. Journalists like yourself played a critical role in telling the world and telling their stories.

Today there's no hiding what's happening in Syria because every second or two a new video's posted on YouTube of a slaughter. So the challenge has changed from getting information out of closed societies, more toward how to empower those with maximum backing who can really effect change in those societies.

So what we tried to do in Movements was to provide a one-stop-shop platform where a dissident can log in and, you're right, they can use their name and they can not use their name. There's a star ranking system for how much information you put or whether we know you in advance and we tried to apply the power of the crowd. Crowd sourcing is an incredibly impactful thing which we all use every day when you go to Amazon and you buy a book from whoever it is that's selling it or you go to eBay or you go to AirBnB or whatever the site is that links people from around the world.

I think that the human rights movement is stuck a little bit a few years back—a lot of long-form reports still, and I think there are just more powerful ways of getting tools in the hands of those who need it.

Just in the last week we've had the son of a former Jordanian prime minister ask for publicity about his cartoon books to counter ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] to build positive heroes. We've had multiple political prisoners from Syria and Egypt and Iran and Saudi Arabia posting. Indeed, just last week, two Saudi political prisoners, one, the wife of Raif Badawi, the most famous jail blogger, and, the other one, Manal al-Sharif, the woman who went to prison for driving, connected with journalists directly through Movements.org. We're seeing North Korean defectors connect with technologists and Syrian political prisoners connect with PR [public relations] groups.

You think about how we can tip the balance away from the regimes and more towards the dissidents. Right now the regimes have all the money. They have billions of dollars that they spend on PR and at Monitor Group or Hill & Knowlton or Qorvis. The Saudis have spent so much money on that. Who counters that? What's the best way to counter that? Well, one way is for every PR agent in the world to be able to talk directly with a democratic dissident, to take up his case and to make sure that the world knows about his struggle.

You look at issues of technology. Certainly it's so difficult when you're up against the Iranian cyber army or the Chinese, who can crack anything.

The one consistent theme that I've noticed from working with dissidents for the last few years is that, almost across the board, they think that the technology is a huge help to them. Even though you have the regimes—the cat and mouse game is always there—but there's something to be said for the fact that you can now put your words online and potentially have it seen by the whole world.

The converse of that though and the downside of it is that in the Soviet era, people knew the names of Sakharov and Havel and Sharansky and you had 250,000 people on the Washington Mall. Nowadays you can't name an Iranian blogger in prison. I mean not you, per se, but the average American. How many of us can name a Chinese dissident in prison? So it's a kind of ironic twist to the saga that it's easier than ever to get information out but dissidents are less and less known and we seek in a small way to change that.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Isn't that part of the saga of the digital age that there's so much more information out there but the information that sticks seems to be less and less? Isn't one of the things you're facing, for the lack of a better word, human rights fatigue in an age of YouTube videos of beheadings, of mass killings, and so forth? Is the world really watching? Then even if they are, what do people conclude from that about their own role?

DAVID KEYES: It's a huge challenge. There's so much information out there and you're right there's a bit of fatigue and also there's a kind of a new isolationism, I think, sweeping certainly America, where people said, "Enough of Iraq, enough of Afghanistan. If it happens over there, not our problem. Sure, we'd like human rights to be strengthened, but we're not willing to really pay a price for it."

I think that our job needs to be to both emphasize the moral duty of the free world to stand up for democratic dissidents but also the strategic benefit.

When Avital Sharansky was going around trying to free her husband, she went to a meeting at the State Department and a senior official at the State Department said, "With all due respect, Avital, you don't really expect us to relegate all of these important geostrategic challenges to the release of your husband." She said, "What you don't understand is that those issues won't be resolved until my husband is free." I think she, like Havel, who said that there can be no peace between states until there is peace inside of states, understood the length between freedom and stability and safety.

I think that when publics in the West better understand that both the inherent brutality of the dictatorships—we shouldn't whitewash their crimes, we shouldn't go around pretending that Sisi is a good guy, we shouldn't go around pretending the Iranian regime is this great kind of reformist regime when they have thousands of political prisoners. So by telling the individual stories of these dissidents, we achieve a two-fold benefit. We attempt to create a spiritual and moral recrudescence that the West once again will care about the fate of individual dissidents as they did during the Soviet time.

You had leaders of the free world, both Carter and Reagan, who started meetings with their Soviet counterparts by listing the names of political prisoners. Down the line, meetings with Gromyko and Dobrynin and Brezhnev, and it drove them absolutely crazy. All you have to do is read their memoirs. Arkady Shevchenko, the highest-ranking Soviet defector of all time, said that every time that Carter brought up a name or Reagan brought up a name, they just went bananas.

There's a memorable line from Gromyko. He was in a meeting with Carter when he [Carter] brought up Sharansky and he said, "This is a microscopic matter about one man which should be of no consequence whatsoever to relations between our two nations." Guys like Scoop Jackson and guys like Reagan profoundly disagreed and the free world was awakened to this issue.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Yes, but counter that with when Anna Politkovskaya was killed, the famed Russian journalist, and Putin said, "Yeah, she's really of no consequence." That was his first reaction. I'm not sure, did the West really respond to that in a significant way?

DAVID KEYES: No, I don't think so. There's definitely been highs and lows but when you compare the ubiquitous feeling amongst dissidents today, they feel that they have been abandoned, that they have been isolated, that they have been forgotten about.

I speak to people every single day from Saudi Arabia, from Egypt, from Syria who say—I met with Kamal al-Labwani who spent 10 years in prison under Assad being tortured. I met him in Turkey on a trip there to meet opposition leaders and he said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Assad a reformer and said that he had lost legitimacy to rule in 2012. He said, "What kind of dictator has legitimacy to start with? How is it possible that you lose legitimacy after a decade of ruthless brutality?"

That really irks dissidents and I think that it's incumbent upon policymakers but also the public—which is why we established Movements as this platform to give to individuals like you, with particular skills, whether you're a lawyer, a journalist, or a policymaker, you can translate a language, whatever it is. I think immense things can be done when the free world is immobilized on behalf of the dissidents.

Just to give you one or two small examples, one of our board members is Irwin Cotler, who served as justice minister of Canada and is still an MP [member of parliament]. Irwin asked Gorbachev in 1997 at a dinner in New York City—he said he walked up to him and he said, "I was Sharanksy's lawyer and I'd like to know why did you free Natan Sharansky?" Speaking through a Russian translator, he said, "Wherever I went nobody would speak with me about what I was there to talk about. I went to the Canadian parliament in '85 as agriculture minister and nobody would speak with me about agriculture. All they would do is talk about Sharansky and I left the Parliament building and there were placards of this guy Sharansky." He said it wasn't worth the international price we were paying.

That's an amazing admission from the leader of the Soviet Union, that all of the things, "Everywhere I go, any time I mention his name, people say, 'Oh, let me tell you what I did for Sharansky. I had a bracelet. I went to a protest. We adopted him at my Bar Mitzvah,'" whatever it was. There were so many people mobilized on behalf of the dissidents and that is just completely lacking today.

If you want to see the effect even today, here in New York I was at a lunch with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister. After the lunch I went up to him and I said, "Mr. Foreign Minister, do you think it's ironic that you enjoy posting on Facebook when your government bans it in Iran?" He laughed and he said, "Haha, that's life." Just like that. Well it's life in a theocracy like Iran, but it's not life elsewhere.

When I asked him when will Majid Tavakoli be free, one of Iran's most famous political prisoners. He said, "I don't know him." I published this in The Daily Beast and within hours, thousands of Iranians on Facebook were haranguing the foreign minister saying, "How dare you not know who our political prisoners are." It was covered widely in the press. The BBC told me it became the biggest story inside of Iran. Within a few days, they released him from prison—temporarily, until the media pressure died down and everyone forgot about him again.

What do Iran and the Soviet Union have in common, decades apart? Not much, but even these rejectionists and extremists and indeed incredibly brutal regimes are susceptible to pressure from the free world. They're inherently weak and I think we have to understand both our inherent strength and their inherent weakness.

It's amazing to compare the relative strengths of the Soviet Union back in the '70s and what guys like Scoop Jackson were willing to do to stand up for dissidents, to confront. Dobrynin went into Jackson's office and invited him to go meet with Brezhnev and he said, "You should know I have to meet with Sakhorov if I do that." Dobrynin said, "You have to choose. It's either Brezhnev or Sakhorov." And he said, "I choose Sakhorov." So they rescinded the invitation.

This was a Soviet Union which spanned 11 time zones, had killed tens of millions of people, imposed tyranny on the world, and they were willing to stand up linking most-favored nation status in legislation to freedom of immigration. Think about today, the fact that we don't bring up political prisoners' names in negotiations with the Iranians over nuclear talks. The head of arms control in the Pentagon in the '80s told me that every single meeting with the Soviets about arms control, he started by saying the reason we can't trust you is because of the way you treat Sahkorov, Orlov, and Sharansky, three of the great dissidents. That just doesn't happen today.

General Rowny, who was an advisor on arms control, when he was invited for arms control talks in Czechoslovakia, he said the only way I will go and do that is if I can meet with Havel. They acquiesced and he met with Havel and then he did the same thing in Poland with Lech Wałęsa and on and on. It was a real thing. The West cared about the dissident issue.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: There was one other difference here aside from all the ones you pointed out, which was in those days if you looked to the dissidents like Havel and Michnik and Sharansky and Orlov, I think everyone assumes these are people who really value the same sorts of things we do—democracy, freedom of speech—they want to be part of, to put it crudely, the free world. The big question mark in many of the areas that we're talking about that you're focused on now, Syria, Egypt, so forth, is are there moderates at the point of strengthening moderates and if so, are they significant enough to counter both the hardliners in power and the radicals who are against them? The classic case being, of course, now Syria or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt versus Sisi.

DAVID KEYES: Right, that's a great question. There should be no illusions about the deep illiberalism in entire swaths of the Middle East. There is a reason why the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. They had widespread support in Egypt.

I lived in Egypt. I lived in a place called Imbaba, an Islamist slum that was the center of Muslim Brotherhood clashes in 1992. You could see the seeds of extremism festering even then. Mein Kampf was on every single street corner bookstore next to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You heard all sorts of kind of deep, deep illiberal view points and some of them pointed to the Pew polling, when you asked Egyptians and over 80 percent in both Jordan and Egypt say if someone leaves his religion, you must kill them. They must die. This is a real issue which needs to be taken very very seriously because Saudi Arabia today is not chock-full of Jeffersonian democrats.

That doesn't let us off the hook, though, because it's not sufficient to say, "Well, it's either Assad or Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS; it's either Sisi or the Brotherhood."

There is a third way and part of the problem is that for decades going back, the liberals, the dissidents, the people who actually share our values—and indeed they are there—have gotten no support from anyone, no real support from anyone in the world. So you have Saudi Arabia and Qatar and a lot of people in the Gulf massively supporting ISIS. Who supports the liberals? It was Hosni Mubarak's regime that got over $50 billion dollars' worth of aid in the last 30 years. The United States just signed a $60 billion dollars arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the largest in history. [This took place in 2010.]

Just imagine where liberals might be today if they had been the recipients of that kind of support and money. It's not just financial support, but real moral support, real political support, backing, so they know they have an ally, but that's not been the case.

Bin Laden said, you have to go with the strong horse. When you look around the Middle East today, there's no liberal strong horse. I think that's part of what can be changed slowly over time, but it takes a real commitment.

If for three decades the small minority of liberals—liberals with a small "l"—people who believe in tolerance and peace and justice and not killing your neighbor for a different idea, if they had gotten real support, I think that they would be a lot further along than they are today. You can't blame us for decades-long problems—some of them go back to religion or family dynamics or social dynamics—but we can't let ourselves off the hook so easily.

By the way, the other thing is that going back now three decades if you look at the kind of cycle, the West will support a dictator that's, so-called, better and more moderate. That's not a smart way to fight radicalism. How many more billions could have allowed Mubakarak to keep the lid on Egypt? It couldn't have and the one safe place you had was your mosque where you could go rant against the government and rant against the West. Fanaticism and radicalism, I think was a real outgrowth, was certainly exacerbated by decades of support of dictatorship in the Middle East.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Is it one of the cruel ironies that in that—it might be a false choice but seems to have been the real choice between dictatorship and radicalism—when the radicals have taken over, say, minorities for instance, Christians in the Middle East, have suffered far more than they did under the tyrants?

DAVID KEYES: Look, Kareem Amer is a guy who spent four years in prison under Hosni Mubarak for insulting Islam. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, he said, "I have to thank goodness that I was imprisoned under Hosni Mubarak and I would vote for the militarists again if it's a choice between the—" so there's no love lost.

We shouldn't delude ourselves and I think there's been a lot of delusion, particularly in the West, about the real illiberalism of certain groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. I remember how many op-eds there were in leading Western papers saying that these guys are actually kind of moderates just waiting once they take power and have to fix potholes.

No, they really believe it. Khairat el-Shater was one of the leading Muslim Brotherhood theologians. He gave a seminal speech a few years ago and he said plainly, "Our goal is the imposition of Islam on every facet of human existence." That's not democracy and it's not liberalism. It's theocracy and we know what that looks like. It looks a lot like Iran.

I think we need to fight both sides of this equation. I don't mean we should wage war on everybody who disagrees with us. I'm saying we need to take the idea seriously of both the radicals that fester under these autocracies and dictatorships and at the same time we have to real put real serious thought behind opening closed societies because otherwise it's just an endless cycle between supporting dictators, fanaticism, overthrowing the dictator, and there's no real stability. Sharansky told me one time, the most stable place on earth is a graveyard and he's right.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Can you point to any real success stories since you've started your groups that really offer some hope?

Then what's your sort of takeaway to this group and anybody else watching as to how they can become directly engaged?

DAVID KEYES: I'd point to two or three successes, small successes but each one is a small crack in the wall of dictatorship.

The first one I mentioned is this clash with Iran's foreign minister after which they temporarily released one of their most famous political prisoners.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Don't you have also have a campaign going to name streets after dissidents?

DAVID KEYES: Yes. I was at lunch with Garry Kasparov, the great chess champion. He said, "Did you know that in 1984, the Congress renamed the street directly in front of the Soviet embassy, Sakhorov Plaza?"

When I heard that I said, "That's absolutely brilliant. I have to do that again today with today's dissidents." So Sharansky and I went to Congress and he raised the issue when in front of Congressman Wolf and the Human Rights Commission and he said, "What you guys should do, is start to rename the streets of dictatorships after political prisoners." Thirty-one senators from Nancy Pelosi on the left to McCain and Rubio on the right signed on board. The DC city council got behind it unanimously. Just recently the House Appropriations Committee voted to change a street name directly in front of the Chinese embassy Liu Xiabo Plaza for their jailed Nobel Prize winner.

So every time they walk outside, they're going to have to be confronted with the name.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: So that's happened?

DAVID KEYES: Well there's another vote. We're waiting.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Yes, there always is another vote.

DAVID KEYES: Yes, it's not final just yet but frankly we achieved the mission because it was written up. I think there were eight articles in The Washington Post and not just The Washington Post alone, it was reported all over the world. Liu Xiabo's wife—it was reported by The Telegraph—laughed joyously when she heard this idea and the Chinese government issued several furious denunciations.

So what can be learned from this? Number one is we should be doing this just ruthlessly against Iranian embassies all over the world. How is it possible? It's such a shame that the foreign minister goes around and goes to think tanks and meets with journalists and the conclusion is that these guys are basically nice reform-minded guys when they have thousands of bloggers and women's rights activists and journalists rotting in prison for nothing more than a thought crime or saying the wrong word against religion or the leader or anything like this.

So we can raise the price of dictatorship significantly if we simply put our minds to it.

The last thing I'll say is, I think Movements is a step in the right direction, as well. It's a first step. We haven't completed it and there's still a lot we're learning about how people are interacting with the system but now every day there are dissidents from around the world who go on to this site, they request something specific, maybe it's an article in The Daily Beast, maybe it's help from a technologist, but certainly people sitting here [in this room], almost all of you have some applicable skill to what a dissident needs.

We've had everything from a comedian log in and offer to make fun of a dictator. Humor is a very powerful tool. I started dictator appreciation month, otherwise known as make fun of a dictator month. It's hard to keep a joke under wraps and you can whisper it from one person to the next.

So I would just encourage people to go to Movements.org to see how they personally can get involved and I'm glad we have this platform. I go around the world speaking and at almost every speech, somebody says, "What can I do to help?" I always thought it was insufficient to say, "Write your Congressman," or whatever. They get an infinite numbers of requests. But now there's a real tangible way that individuals from around the world can help those most in need.


QUESTION: I'm Gabriel Kuris from the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.

Isn't there a risk with some of the strategy of lending an American gloss to dissidents? I remember hearing Iranian dissidents speak during the Bush administration of how the rhetoric of the "war on evil" and grouping the "axis of evil" really undermined the message because it sort of forced dissidents to step into a pro-American box that they didn't necessarily want to be in. How do we support dissidents without Americanizing their cause?

DAVID KEYES: Yes, that's a great question. Certainly there's a huge variety of what you hear from people who are on the front lines and guys like Akbar Ganji have very different opinions to guys like Ahmad Batebi, two Iranian dissidents both of whom were in prison, both of whom were tortured.

I asked this question to Ahmad Batebi, who spent a decade being tortured in Evin Prison and he was pretty categorical about it. He said, "The entire world needs to stand up against our dictators and stand on the side of the dissidents. They need to vociferously support them at every opportunity and it has a real impact."

Not everyone agrees with that, and I think that there's a middle ground. I found far more people who are delighted when leaders of the free world stand up for them. Ahmed Maher, who's now in jail in Egypt, just before he was imprisoned, we were in Poland at a conference speaking and he said, "The only reason I was released last time was because Catherine Ashton raised my name constantly."

Sumial Josen [phonetic], the daughter of another political prisoner, said that when Colin Powell raised her dad's name on a trip to Kuwait, that had a huge impact.

You can find endless examples of people who were really really thankful and they thought it was—even back to Batebi, when he stood in front of the judge for the first time, the judge held up a picture of him on the cover of The Economist magazine, the famous picture of him holding a white bloodied shirt. The judge said, "With this picture, you've signed your own death warrant." He said, "It took me 10 years to realize that that picture is the only thing that kept me alive, because there were people to my left and to my right who no one had ever heard of and no one cared about at all and it was the very fact that I was known in the world that made them think twice about just killing me."

I think there are innumerable ways that those names can be raised without saying, "Hey, this guy is one of us." It's not about that. But you get the same excuse from all the dictators back to the Soviet era. Everyone said, "This is an internal matter, right? This isn't your issue." Scoop Jackson once quoted Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize speech and he said, "Mankind's sole savior is that everybody cares about everything," something to that effect.

Indeed it is it is our issue and we can't just say, "We don't want to taint people." What Batebi told me is you're tainted no matter what you do. Even if nobody talks about you, you're a CIA spy, you're a Mossad spy. The accusations are endless.

I think there's more benefit to standing up for these dissidents even if not all of them agree. Certainly if the family says, "Look, we don't want this person mentioned," I'm not saying to go out of their way to piss off the family. But I've just encountered far more people who spent time in prison who directly attribute either their freedom or their success or their hope to the free world speaking on their behalf.

Sharanksy said that his happiest moment in nine days in the gulag was when the American president stood up and said and called the Soviet Union "the evil empire." Someone finally had the audacity to call it what it was and not to beat around the bush. I think we need a lot more of that.

QUESTION: Robert Nicholson. Thanks, David.

I'm the president of a group called the Philos Project. We do Christian engagement in the Middle East with respect to human rights and there was a question posed to me I wanted to get your take on.

Somebody asked me, why do some people get attention and others don't? Whether it's in Soviet Russia, whether it's in the Middle East, you hear about Asia Bibi, you hear about Saeed Abedini. What's the tipping point with some of these people? Why do we hear about some and we don't hear about others?

I think the answer to it—and I don't know what it is, that's just why I'm asking—will go a long way towards helping figure out how we blow this thing wide open.

DAVID KEYES: Yes, that's also a good question. I don't have an easy answer for it. I think a lot about it because it's my job to try to make dissidents more famous and you have some cases like Neda Soltan, the woman who was shot in Iran and very publicly. It was all over YouTube and it became very famous very quickly.

I think that some stories are kind of inherently compelling—a family issue, someone misses their father. Some people play the game better than others. It's a huge attribute to be able to speak English and a lot of people don't speak English. One of the things we've dealt with is how do we get people who aren't native English speakers to be able to tell their stories.

Some people have the backing of certain groups and that helps, either human rights groups or lobbyists. Some people have more fluidity with Western culture. They go back and forth. I just met a guy in Oslo named Iyad el-Baghdadi, who is from the United Arab Emirates [UAE] and he's been evicted from the UAE and has gone through something harrowing there. His English is flawless and he's very well-spoken and gave a tremendous speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. So I think those come together and just push some people to the top.

Also, frankly, some people understand that telling an individual story is a lot more effective than what they want to do.

Dissidents can be as conspiratorial as anyone, can be as ignorant of the way the world works as anyone. I never tire of hearing the latest conspiracy theory or how someone's behind something and you can't really trust this person and frankly, they just don't know how to lobby a Congressman. They don't know how to get themselves published.

They don't know what speaks to an American audience also. I get endless stories and anecdotes of something that happened in a little town here or there, which your average American—it can be as compelling as you want but the world's a big place and it's hard to take in all the suffering of all the people. There are studies which confirm that if you tell the story of a single person, it's a lot more impactful than talking about the kind of amorphous bigger issues.

One study out of the University of Oregon cited that this sociologist named Paul Slovik had three test groups. In the first test group, he gave facts about millions of people starving in Africa. In the second test group he gave them one picture of one starving girl in Africa who was seven years old and the third test group got two pictures, one girl and one boy, both of whom were seven. They all had the same amount of money allotted. He said, "How much are you willing to give to this cause?" People on average gave twice as much to the single face as opposed to the facts about the millions of people starving.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: I'll just add, having been a journalist in those situations, what David says is absolutely right. I remember in Moscow there were certain dissidents who were very good at, frankly, getting in touch with Western journalists. They took the conscious risk. If they got the publicity, it probably would be more of a plus than—it cut both ways but the authorities knowing that they had contact with us meant that they wouldn't disappear without a trace without anybody knowing.

Also as opposed to, say, people who would sometimes find you, coming in from the provinces. I remember one woman coming to me and handing me, like, a 35-page single spaced document saying, "You have to publish all of this in your magazine." I said, "Unfortunately we don't publish things of this length." She said, "Every word. You've got to include it." I said, "I'm glad to look at it but . . . " and she said, "Oh, you're scared of them, too," meaning the KGB. She simply didn't know how the media works.

But it's no question, I think, one of the great problems here right now is with Syria, Iran, as David says, a lot of the people that David is trying to raise the profile of, are not well-known and they don't become individuals and their stories do not resonate as much.

QUESTION: This is a terrific talk, I'm really enjoying this.

My name is Philippe Burke. I'm with Apache Capital. We're a hedge fund and we're actually trying to get an environmental impact fund launched next year, so I'm very interested in the tactics and the strategies that you're using for your objectives. Our goal is a little different from yours but we're at a strategic time, if you like.

I'm sure you've thought of this. You have certain objectives for those liberal dissidents who are in jail and that is to get them free and get their voices out. There's a method that you use, which is to publicize and to use the media to get that information out with the hope that once that's out, there's a logical chain, which will lead to the objectives that you have for them.

I'm just wondering if you'd looked at other pressure points these dictators have—there are banks that deal with them, they travel overseas so they use airplanes, they stay at hotel resorts, they have intermediate products that they sell, they're trying to get people hired in their companies, there's a supply chain, which somewhere somehow might be connected with an economic interest in that country.

I'm just wondering how you've looked at these different pressure points so that that ecosystem which enables the dictator to do what he does—how easy it might be to potentially raise your effectiveness in addressing the other pressure points.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Well, we've got certainly plenty of discussions of economic sanctions but it took Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine to trigger those.

DAVID KEYES: I don't know what works best and I think that it's a mistake some human rights groups and some tacticians make—to say we've isolated exactly what works. I think there's a lot of things which need to be done—economic pressure, bad press, raising the names of these dissidents.

I think just, the more, the better. When it comes to economic sanctions, you should look at what Garry Kasparov says about Russia. He just gave a talk entitled "Banks Not Tanks" where he's not calling for military intervention but says, "Look, these oligarchs in Russia really, really care about their money and they store a lot of it outside of Russia and we can freeze their assets. We can make sure that those who are involved with the death of Sergei Magnitsky," the Russian tax accountant who exposed Putin's corruption and who died in a Russian prison—Bill Browder, who hired Sergei Magnitsky, is doing terrific work keeping Magnitsky's name alive and trying to raise the financial pressure on the Russian government.

I think in the case of Russia, that's very powerful , not just in Russia but, yes, threatening arm sales of Gulf dictatorships, threatening the aid of these countries. I think that they feel that they have a blank check, that they know that America is not going to really confront them on the human rights issue. Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone to the Palestinian Authority and it throws people in prison for criticizing President Abbas on Facebook. How crazy is that?

The Egyptian government, are they really afraid that they're not going to get their arms shipments because they throw Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Douma in prison? No, they think they're riding high and I think that in many cases it's not enough just to have bad press. That's just one tactic.

But also, real support on the ground for their opposition I think is where a lot of them see their Achilles' heel. They're really terrified of their own people and that's what it comes down to and that's why a thought is so dangerous, because it could spread. That's why freedom of association is so dangerous.

So giving people the feeling that they're not alone can be done in many ways and certainly economic warfare is a really important one.

But I don't have a lock, stock, and barrel, this is the most effective thing. I think it varies from country to country and from probably week to week even.

QUESTION: My name is Ben Schneider. I'm a lawyer here in New York.

I have a question, which I think is partly conceptual and partly technological. Are there parameters around the definition or the criteria for what or who is a dissident? Is it enough that this person both opposes the present government and is in prison? How does the system that you're describing, technologically, capture people you might consider to be dissidents and maybe exclude others who would deem themselves to be perhaps freedom fighters of another sort, a Barghouti, someone like that?

DAVID KEYES: Barghouti definitely doesn't count as a freedom fighter because he's in prison for five life sentences for murdering a few dozen people.

But in terms of our own definition, we have what we say in Movements is that if you advocate violence, xenophobia, racism, or terrorism, you've no place in our system and we're not going to allow it. We can't check that with everybody, but we do our best and it's not open to anyone for anything about anything. That's strategic because really there are so many different types of dissidents.

There are people who really really hate Sisi's government, who if they could topple Sisi would impose just as brutal a dictatorship just with a religious vibe, and that's true across the Middle East. Those people don't deserve our help. They shouldn't get our help. They get enough help from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia times a thousand. But that's not where the future of stability and peace will come from.

I think part of what we see is that that a small group of real liberals—and I stress they are out there; they're exceedingly small in number, it's true. These are the people who are our greatest allies. These are the people who, if they become strong enough one day— it's going to take a very long time and there's no guarantee of success because they're up against groups like Hamas. They're up against really brutal theocracies like Iran.

But I think that the free world needs to focus on the modern-day Havels and the modern day Sharanskys and the modern day Sakhorovs—and they're how many Soviet dissidents who were out there that were intolerant? I mean, lots. Maybe not to the same degree as that of the illiberal masses of the Middle East today, but we need to ask the question, where did that illiberalism stem from and what can be done to counter it? I think the democratic dissidents played a key role in helping convince their fellow Egyptians, their fellow Saudis, that it's not okay to kill somebody for changing his religion.

That's a spiritual reformation that's going to take decades, centuries, much longer than any of us will be around but the more we wait on that process, the worse it will get. Kasporov is right, that the more you wait with dictators, the more dangerous they get. We should've been alerted to the dangers of the Assads and the Putins of the world a long time ago but a lot of people were willing to forego their reality.

There's an Arabic proverb that says, "If you see the teeth of a lion, don't think it's smiling at you." and I think far too many people have heard the rhetoric of the Rouhanis of the world, the Assads of the world, post-2012, and said, "Yeah, these guys—" and the parades of Congressmen would go and meet them. They'd come back and they'd say these are people who are pretty sane, pretty rational, pretty moderate, and they were just being lied to.

QUESTION: My name is Suchitra Vijayan. I'm a lawyer and a political analyst.

David, thank you for the work you do. I spent a long time living in Egypt running an NGO that gave legal aid for Iraqi refugees and also political dissidents within Africa, so, thank you. I really appreciate it.

My question is more philosophical. We are talking about totalitarian regimes and you talk about the free world. Given that we live in a surveillance state, given that we have all this information about Snowden, about National Security Agency surveillance and all of that, to what extent do we still live in a free world, as we assume it to be? What happens when we have issues like Ferguson in the United States? What happens when the British government extradites its own citizens to the United States to be tried? What happens when governments like India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nigeria, who are all democracies by process, but have totalitarian tendencies by design?

How do we challenge those things? Are these ideas of free world versus totalitarian regimes still the dialogues and definitions we use to go forward? Shouldn't we fundamentally rethink these ideas? To what extent is liberalism still a value that we hold onto? It has failed us so terribly in all these years.

I talk of this as a child who is born post-Cold War, a child of the '90s. The longer that I've worked in these institutions, I feel that these institutions seem to fail a lot more than they have helped. This is not a critique of these liberal institutions but isn't time that we reconceive these definitions and perhaps take a different idea as well?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: A simple question. [Laughter]

DAVID KEYES: I do think that the notions are still valid. I think that we do still live in a largely free world, kind of conception. It's not perfect.

I think what it means is that it needs to be fought for every single day and I think things that you pointed to point to—the vigilance of our systems, the fact that we know about them, the fact that they're exposed, the fact that there are people fighting every day to keep America free, to keep the Western world free, not that it's perfect.

You can point to so many regressions and you can point to failures in the system. You can point to problems, but as Churchill said, it's the worst system except for all the others. There's nothing out there I think that can compete with the prosperity, with the stability, with the safety, with the progress of free societies. I would definitely count Western Europe and the United States and Canada and Australia still in that realm. I don't think there can be a comparison between the states, certainly that I deal with, and Western democracies.

But you're right to point out that they're far from perfect. I think we all agree that there are still strides to be made on women's rights, and minorities' rights, and gay rights, and on and on down the list. The foundations of freedom I think are still very strong.

In Europe, I might have a little bit more of a problem as I see kind of a number of insane things taking place, everything from not being able to wear a hijab in France and at universities and all that, to some of the things that are happening in Britain.

I come to the robust defense of Western democracies and I think we need to maintain a clear divide between democracies and dictatorships and not compare the two. The problems in free societies exist in their own right but I wouldn't compare between the Russias of the world and America or Western Europe.

Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, these countries are massively worse in every respect—just go to Freedom House and look at the freedom rankings. Still in this country there is—it's not the point of there's a Ferguson or not, it's the fact that there are people suing the government, exposing what's happening, writing every day, freedom of association, there are protests happening and that's brilliant and beautiful and an important thing and I don't think that we've lost that in the United States.

QUESTION: I'm Peter Nelson from an organization called Facing History and Ourselves.

First I want to celebrate the previous question, because I think it was a tough question. I think you even said that the peace between nations is dependent on the peace within the nation and physician heal thyself, so I think they're not mutually exclusive. One could be doing the two simultaneously. I guess your choice is to focus on the outward-looking and I think that both are great and important towards the ends I think you're looking to achieve.

I do appreciate, especially from my own organization's point of view, that the telling of the story, the social, psychological stuff that you've talked about around psychic numbing and how one would think that the information would help, but actually attends to lose the possibility of a movement. It would seem like what you're trying to achieve is a movement, moving those who who would not yet do the things that you referenced in terms of the times of Scoop Jackson—instead tell the story and the story is the way in which people like Nick Kristof have attempted to abandon the systemic description because they know it turns off the listener and instead tell the individual story over and over again as you're trying to do with the dissidents.

I think you also mentioned this, or one of the two of you did, you mentioned celebrating dictator of the week or month or something like that and that's the question of how hard it is, in the human rights fatigue point that you made, to maintain the momentum or the even the attention of the public and the movement you're trying to achieve. Might humor and/or the arts not be a vehicle by which that could happen, given the difficulty of reasoning someone out of something they haven't reasoned themselves into?

DAVID KEYES: Yes, absolutely. Art and culture I think can play a really vital role in telling these stories and making dissidents more famous. Just look at the impact that a guy like Ai Weiwei had. His art is so famous and people know of him through his art.

We had a request on Movements to keep Magnitsky's name alive by creating a song about Magnitsky. New York City songwriters saw the post and created a great song, and one of the members of the group Pussy Riot in Russia heard this song, and made a great music video with it. It's just one small thing, but you can imagine if the world's artists were more engaged in this struggle. They have immense power to tell stories and to get people engaged and I don't think we're even close to what could be done on that front.

Just so many more people were mobilized in the defense of freedom and the defense of dissidents in particular—I think we're failing but that means that all of you can do so much. Talk to that artist, have them go to Movements, have them offer to paint a picture, write a poem, whatever it is. Every little bit helps and we don't know what brings down a dictator but certainly we haven't even approached the level of where we could be.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Or start the equivalent of the old Soviet jokes which were so effective and another form of subversion.

DAVID KEYES: Sharansky told me one time that he was seated in front of about 17 interrogators and he said, "I'm going to tell you a joke," and he said, "Brezhnev said one day that the Americans have gone to the moon so we're going be the first people to take someone to the sun [Laughter]. So his advisors said, 'What are you, an idiot? They're going to burn up.' And Brezhnev says, 'What, are you joking with me? I know that. We're going to send them at night.'" [Laughter] So Sharansky laughed. None of the interrogators laughed and he looked at them and he said, "You see? I am more free than you because I can laugh at the joke and you can't."

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Yes, Brezhnev was a font of jokes.

I think we're going have to wrap it up. I would like to leave one thought because we've talked a lot about and you have made the point, and I have, too, about how lonely many of the sort of the dissidents who one can have faith in often feel like. It's worth remembering that in the Eastern Bloc, they were very lonely too. When you went to visit someone like a Havel or if you could a Sharansky or an Orlov or a Sahkorov when they were not in exile and prison, they felt very lonely. Yuri Olrov, one of Sharansky's colleagues from the '70s when they were starting Helsinki Watch, said, "A dissident is like that first soldier of a platoon who throws himself on the barbed wire so others can cross."

I think that it's worth remembering that, in Havel's invocation, that a word of truth in a closed society can have more impact than 5 million voters in a free society. All these efforts are remarkable and sometimes you can't even make the rational calculations because if you did you would never do anything.

David, thank you so much. It's tremendously interesting and valuable what you're doing and wish you luck with it.

DAVID KEYES: Thanks for having me.

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