The Prague Democracy and Security Conference concluded this week with the adoption of the “Prague Document” — an attempt to set in motion a shared agenda among the world’s dissidents and a process for nurturing the democratic principles required to liberate them. President Bush, who came to make common cause with this unique band of lifelong activists and foot soldiers for freedom, repeated the grand-vision characteristic of the major addresses of his presidency. “[T]he United States is committed to the advance of freedom and democracy…I pledge…America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world… My message to all those who suffer under tyranny is this: We will never excuse your oppressors. We will always stand for your freedom.”
In response, the dissidents, the tortured, the former prisoners, the refugees, and the ones who had lost their loved ones in freedom’s cause gave “the leader of the free world” a very warm reception. There was applause, hand-shaking, and reportedly a lot of tears shed in a private session which followed.
There is no doubt that this president can talk the talk. But will he walk the walk? Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board in the early years of the Bush administration, put it bluntly when he addressed the dissidents just prior to their meeting with the president: “This president is a dissident within his own administration, which is often as unresponsive to his vision as your governments are to you. Your message to him must include an urgent appeal to close the gap between what he says and what he does.”
This group of listeners knew only too well how to separate fact from fantasy. Mudawi Ibrahim Adam is a Sudanese Muslim who has been detained for months on and off for the last 15 years; while in prison he staged hunger strikes to protest solitary confinement without charge or access to a lawyer. Zainab Al-Suwaij is a Muslim woman who took up arms against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and bears a bullet scar on her face from the experience. Mohamed Eljahmi is a brother of jailed Libyan dissident Fathi Eljahmi, who has been held in solitary confinement for more than two years. Amir Abbas Fakhravar, an Iranian dissident who was first imprisoned when he was 17, spent five years in prison, where he was tortured. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, is an Egyptian professor and human-rights activist who was arrested, jailed, and sentenced to seven-years imprisonment, for charges which were later dropped. Cheol-hwan Kang spent ten years in a horrific detention camp in North Korea — starting at age nine. Irina Krasovskaya is a Belorusian activist who lost her husband in 1999 and is still kept in the dark about his disappearance. Aliaksandr Milinkevich is the opposition leader in Belarus who has endured arrest while his supporters have been beaten. Eugeniusz Smolar was imprisoned in 1968 while protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Their collective wisdom should be taken seriously.
From dissident to their legal counsel, political to academic activist, the message was remarkably coherent:
Former chief of the British Secret Service Richard Dearlove: “the potency of the democratic message is demonstrated by the virulent resistance to it.”
Palestinian human-rights activist Bassam Eid: “the Arab world today is in trouble and is not helped by the fact that the international community applies a double-standard to it — refusing to insist that the society, including Palestinian society, must ready itself for democracy before handing millions to the security forces of autocracies.”
Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, Sudan: “democracy is a universal human value, not a Western construct; U.N. handling of the Sudanese government has legitimized it regardless of the fact this government is killing its own people. Western states are sending the wrong message — that democracy is primarily about elections, whereas it requires much more — good governance, a free press, the rule of law…”
Professor Martin Kramer, Israel’s Adelson Institute:
“pro-democracy forces must make people feel more secure or they will lose popular support [among their intended beneficiaries].”