by Daniel Calingaert
Executive Vice President
Dictators come up with some pretty lame excuses for abusing the rights of their citizens. And these excuses get taken way too seriously. Dictators want us to believe that what they do is about the same as what happens in the United States or in European Union countries. It isn't. To see why, let's look at some of the most common claptrap dictators throw at us.
"Nobody has a right to instruct us how to live."
This was Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev's response when visiting British prime minister David Cameron raised human rights concerns.
That's not what Cameron was doing. He was pointing out the Kazakhstani government's failure to live up to its own commitments on human rights, for instance under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
"Stop the domineering behavior of exploiting human rights to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries... The United States ignores its own severe human rights problems."
With these words, China's Foreign Ministry dismissed U.S. criticism of its human rights record. Actually, the United States has independent media that expose human rights violations, civic organizations allowed to campaign for justice and reform, a freely elected Congress that provides oversight of the executive branch, and independent courts to check abuses of power by government officials. China does not.
"Russia wants to protect its political activity inside the country from outside interference."
Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru
So said President Vladimir Putin to justify a law passed last November that requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to register as "foreign agents" if they engage in "political activity" while receiving foreign funding.
Apparently, in Putin's view, Russia needs protection from foreign support for fair elections, efforts to stop torture, cystic fibrosis patients, and cranes (yes, the birds). The groups targeted under Russia's NGO law include:
- the respected election monitor Golos
- several public-opinion research institutes
- Interregional Committee against Torture in Nizhniy Novgorod
- an LGBT film festival
- Center for Social Policy and Gender Studies in Saratov
- Kostroma Soldiers' Mothers Committee
- Assistance to Cystic Fibrosis Patients
- Yaroslavl Regional Hunters and Fishermen Society
- Crane Homeland, which runs a park in the remote Amur region for cranes and storks
"The recent leakage of the two top-secret U.S. surveillance programs of the National Security Agency (NSA) has smashed the image of the U.S. as a cyber liberty advocate and revealed its hypocrisy."
That's according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
The NSA programs, in their effort to identify terrorists, collect extensive data on individuals who aren't targets of investigation, and they probably infringe on privacy rights. But these programs are still consistent with the U.S. commitment to an open, global internet, and they differ in fundamental ways from China's internet policy. First, Chinese hackers, allegedly with state support, steal intellectual property on a massive scale. China is estimated to account for about 70 percent of international theft of American intellectual property, valued at over $300 billion a year. Second, China has one of the world's most restrictive internet environments, with sophisticated, multi-layered systems to censor content and monitor internet users. Third, this online surveillance is used to prosecute nonviolent critics of the Chinese government, such as Cao Haibo, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for posting pro-democracy articles online. And by the way, Chinese police don't just monitor citizens electronically. They have literally set up shop inside people's homes, for instance staying in the apartment of Geng He, the wife of imprisoned human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng.
"Our people were cajoled by the West into forming an opposition party to weaken the people of Zimbabwe...There are many dodgy NGOs in Zimbabwe doing as little development work as possible while they dedicate most of their time to spying."
Thus declared President Robert Mugabe at a campaign rally on July 16 at Chibuku Stadium in Chitungwiza.
As Mugabe tells it, opposition parties and NGOs are carrying out a Western agenda and, by implication, are unpatriotic. Yet he lives comfortably while his critics suffer harsh consequences for their efforts to give Zimbabwe a brighter future. Mugabe and his allies are reportedly diverting tens of millions of U.S. dollars in diamond profits from state-owned mines for political and personal gain. His wife, Grace Mugabe, is known for her lavish shopping sprees, and in a country where more than 70 percent of the population lives in poverty, $600,000 was spent on Robert Mugabe's birthday party in March. Pro-democracy activists, meanwhile, are regularly subjected to intimidation, arrest on trumped-up charges, and physical attacks. Some are even killed, as human rights activist Elliot Dhliwayo was earlier this month. With all that they risk and all that they suffer to advocate for the rights of fellow Zimbabweans, can there be any doubt about how much pro-democracy activists really love their country?
This post originally appeared on Freedom House's blog, Freedom at Issue.