World Movement for Democracy Assembly Concludes in Lima with Democracy Courage Tributes

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Peru’s Former President Toledo presides at program honoring Bahraini and Cuban Activists and Advocates for Sexual Minorities

For Immediate Release
DATE: October 18, 2012
Contact: Jane Riley Jacobsen, jane@ned.org

LIMA-- Nearly 500 Democracy Activists who have been meeting in Lima, Peru honored the courageous struggles of three outstanding groups of activists at the concluding session of the Seventh Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy at the John B. Hurford Memorial Dinner on October 17. Peru’s former President Alejandro Toledo presided over the presentations of the Democracy Courage Tributes which honored :

  • The Human Rights Defenders in Bahrain
  • The Advocates for the Rights of Sexual Minorities Worldwide
  • The Pro-Democracy Movement in Cuba

In his welcoming comments, Toledo said, “It's a privilege to have people here who have put their lives at risk – who have a deep commitment to human rights and democracy – values that are close to my heart.”

Carl Gershman, a steering committee member of the World Movement and the president of the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, told the audience, “When I first met Alejandro Toledo, he was at demonstrations, running from the police. A year later, he was president of his country.” Gershman continued, “That says a lot about the World Movement for Democracy. Some of you might be running from the police now, but soon you will be running your countries.”

Gershman presented the first of the courage tributes to the Bahrain Human Rights Defenders, which was accepted by Maryam Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights defender who is head of the foreign relations office and vice president for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. On June 22, 2011, Maryam’s father Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, also a prominent Bahraini human rights defender, was sentenced to life imprisonment in a military court on the charge of "organizing and managing a terrorist organization" for his role in the pro-democracy 2011-2012 Bahraini uprising. Maryam has participated in the uprising from the early days, and has travelled the world campaigning to raise international awareness about the plight of Bahrain’s human rights defenders and sharing details of the situation in Bahrain to more than 75,000 Twitter followers. She suffers constant harassment and intimidation, including death threats, from supporters of the Bahraini regime.

“If you want to know the human rights condition of a country, look to see where its human rights defenders are,” said al-Khawaja in her acceptance remarks. “The most important activists in Bahrain are all in prison.” She explained to the audience that although with a population of only 700,000 – the situation of Bahrain might seem small or insignificant. But she emphasized that when more than fifty percent of the country’s population overcame their fear and went out to the street to demonstrate and demand change, that the world needs to take notice and act to support and protect them.

The second of the Democracy Courage Tributes was presented by World Movement steering committee Antoine Bernard (France), executive director of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). Bernard illustrated the hostile environment faced by the LGBT community worldwide by stating the simple fact that homosexuality is currently illegal in 76 countries and is punishable by death in 5. The tribute was accepted by Veronica Ferrari, a feminist activist and organizer of LGBT college activism in Lima, who is the Executive director of MHOL , the oldest LGBT organization in Peru and South America, and which was founded exactly 30 years ago with continuous operation since October 17, 1982. In her remarks, Ferrari said that the award, “gives us encouragement to continue our struggle…we are losing fear, we are coming out of the closet and are taking the reins of our own future.”

The third tribute was presented to the pro-democracy movement of Cuba by World Movement Steering Committee Member Carlos Ponce (Venezuela), director of the Development and Justice Consortium. The tribute was accepted by Regis Iglesias Ramirez. Iglesias is a leader of the Christian Liberation Movement (CLM), a Cuban pro-democracy organization founded by the late Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, with whom Iglesias worked as a principal organizer of the Varela project – a citizen petition campaign to allow for democratic reforms under provisions of the Cuban Constitution. For his work, Iglesias was one of 75 democracy activists imprisoned during the “Black Spring” of 2003, and was sentenced to 18 years in jail. He served his sentence in isolation, until his release into exile in 2010. He now lives in Spain where he continues his work for the Christian Liberation Movement.

Iglesias said that he accepted the award on behalf of all those who were not free to leave their country and accept the award in person. He called upon the international community to demand an investigation of the recent death of Oswaldo Payá, and added that “we need all of our Latin brothers and sisters to be on the side of the Cuban people.”

The gathered activists were then privileged to view the premier of a new video featuring Cuban activists from the island who used the presentation of the Democracy Courage Tribute to launch a new campaign, Demand for Another Cuba. Antonio Rodiles, the national coordinator for the campaign, described it as a “citizen initiative to demand the Cuban government’s ratification of the covenants of the United Nations, whose implementation could create a scenario for the transition to democracy.” The four-minute video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CHWD2dY6oc) features music and hopeful statements from nearly 30 prominent activists and is meant to convey their sense of optimism for the future of Cuba. English and Spanish transcripts of the video are available from the World Movement for Democracy.

In addition to the courage tributes, the World Movement took time to remember the late Floribert Chebeya, a leading human rights activist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was killed, most likely by the government, in reprisal for his human rights work only six weeks after attending the previous World Movement Assembly in Jakarta, Indonesia in April of 2010.

The Assembled guests also recognized the important role of youth activists and youth movements within the World Movement, a particular priority of the Hurford Foundation, whose generous support of the World Movement makes the participation of many youth possible, in addition its support of the Democracy Courage Tributes. Hurford Foundation Chairman Robert Miller made presentations to the winners of the Youth Movement for Democracy photo contest, whose winning images have been on display at the conference.

The World Movement for Democracy, which has been meeting in Lima since Sunday, October 14, is an international “network of networks” of individuals and organizations who work at the grassroots to advance the many aspects of democratic culture including human rights, independent media, the rule of law, civic education, freedom of association, women’s participation in politics and public life, among others. The biennial assemblies provide an opportunity to share experiences and strategies, and to build regional and international networks of cooperation and solidarity.

About the 2012 Democracy Courage Tributes

Human Rights Defenders in Bahrain
In February 2011, Bahrainis joined in mass protests against their country’s monarchic regime, demanding that state authorities respect human rights, institute democratic reform, and recognize the equality of all Bahraini citizens. The protests crossed sectarian lines and drew thousands into the streets, but were put down one month later when Bahrain invited armed forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to assist in quelling the mass uprising. Although the regime launched a commission of inquiry and promised restitution to victims of the violent crackdown, the commission has proved largely ineffective at best and disingenuous at worst. Prominent human rights defenders such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Abdul Jalil al-Singace remain in prison, while others, such as Nabil Rajab, Zaynab al-Khawaja, Maryam al-Khawaja, and Muhammad al-Masqati, are subject to constant harassment and intimidation. Nevertheless, these brave individuals remain at the vanguard of Bahrain’s democracy movement, calling for peaceful political dialogue, democratic reform, and reconciliation.

Advocates for the Rights of Sexual Minorities Worldwide
In the face of violence, discrimination, and other forms of harassment, advocates for the rights of sexual minorities worldwide have demonstrated courage, creativity, and perseverance in their struggle for LGBT rights and equal citizenship. Organizing one of the most important civil rights struggles in the world today, these advocates often face tremendous difficulties in advancing their agenda given that there is much less global consensus on the issue of sexual equality and privacy rights, as many people continue to argue that personal, private sexual identity is something the state, or a particular religious group, has a right to regulate or control. Yet advocates for the rights of sexual minorities continue to defend the rights of LGBT individuals and challenge conservative attitudes despite tremendous personal, professional, and physical risk of injury. Together they have worked to form a truly global, transnational network that transcends borders and traditional understandings in order to advance the rights of minority individuals in societies where the majority has denied the minority the same claims to equality and privacy.

Pro-Democracy Movement in Cuba
Despite tremendous repression of political dissent and a culture of fear in which ordinary people and independent-thinking Cubans are afraid to speak up, a wide spectrum of organizations and individuals located inside Cuba continue to advance democracy and human rights. Together comprising the pro-democracy movement in Cuba, these activists work at great personal risk to themselves. Pro-democracy activists are routinely imprisoned, detained, terminated from their jobs, and otherwise harassed, oftentimes before they even commit any one of the many crimes that make legal dissent nearly impossible. Under a “dangerousness” provision in Cuba’s penal code, the state is allowed to imprison individuals on suspicion that they might commit a crime in the future. In the past year, two great democracy activists, Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá, died under strange circumstances. Yet Cuban advocates for change continue to take advantage of whatever space is afforded them however small, using new technologies to circumvent government censorship and finding innovative ways to collaborate on advocating about issues of citizen concern in order to appeal to ordinary citizens.