The Bible’s Leviticus verse 26:1 says, “You shall not make for yourselves idols”. Contrary to this we did a lot of idols, including kings, queens, religious leaders, dictators and most recently pop stars and celebrities. Within a new trend we have various public activists and human rights defenders who became idolized and preached for courage and principled stance.
Since the beginning of the 20th century we have witnessed numerous brave and tireless personalities fighting for suffrage, human dignity and independence of oppressed people. We have founded the Nobel Peace Prize to honour those who dedicated their life to struggle for better well-being on our planet. Some of those public advocates were executed or murdered, or they spent most of their life imprisoned. Let’s admit that only few among us are ready to sacrifice their well-being for freedom of others. Naturally, person like Nelson Mandela became a hero and a role model for millions not only in his native South Africa but around the globe.
In the meantime, high hope which we placed on some human rights champions seems to fail meeting our expectation. Problem is that we idolized those activists without scrutinizing their agenda, self-interests and weaknesses. In 1991 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to today’s Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent many years fighting human right abuses in her country. However, with recent violent attacks against ethnic minority in Myanmar, many critics called upon to revoke the Nobel Prize, citing her silence over the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Moreover, the human rights icon went to defend the actions of the government forces, referring to the necessity to fight “terrorists” – such an easy excuse today. We have not heard much about the plight of Rohingya Muslims from another human rights champion, Dalai Lama, who as a spiritual leader of Buddhists bears responsibility for massacre committed by Buddhist monks against Muslims in Myanmar.
Perhaps, it is time to confess that human rights advocacy does not automatically give indulgence. Moreover, so many activists were caught by the narrative of nationalism or some narrow-minded agenda. Let’s start with iconic Mahatma Ghandi – feminists rightfully points out his male chauvinism, needless to say about his Hindu nationalism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent many years in Stalinist GULAG and then was exiled from the Soviet Union, later expressed regret for the demise of the Russian empire and called upon to collect ‘Russian lands’ left after the break-up of the USSR. Other Soviet dissidents like Zviad Gamsakhurdia transformed from a human right activist to a militant nationalist. His motto “Georgia is for Georgians” caused many troubles in the newly born republic already engulfed by ethnic tension. Prominent Soviet scientist and Nobel Prize winner for nuclear-free world activism Andrei Sakharov, who advocated for transfer of Nagorno-Karbakh region of Azerbaijan to Armenia, probably under influence of his Armenian origin wife Elena Bonner, evoked so much controversy and ignited violent emotions in the region.
While some countries honour some political icons, others hate them. That is the case with another Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. Western and Central Europeans admire him for giving freedom to former socialist republics. But in the Soviet Union he acted ruthlessly to suppress the national-liberation movements in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Lithuania and preserve the Soviet Union. From a different angle, Russian nationalists accuse him of destroying their beloved empire.
As the author of this piece is affiliated with government office, it might be easy to accuse him of attacking human right activism, which is not indeed the goal of this article. Rather, I would urge the so-called international humanitarian community to scrutinize carefully those who are involved in public advocacy. Because of their authority human rights idols’ words have heavy weight and deep impact. It is not rare that liberal phraseology became a façade for ethnic cleansing, aggressive separatism and militant nationalism. They all and always should be screened – so many, I know, who sometime pursued their self-interests under cover of liberalism.
After all, public advocacy today with a wise management might be another type of business, especially in the view of available funds from philanthropists, international organizations, NGOs and foreign governments. Such abuse of a good cause brings more sufferings rather than alleviating them.
*Farid Shafiyev, holds PhD from Carleton University and MPA from Harvard Kennedy School, and currently posted as ambassador of Azerbaijan to the Czech Republic.