Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, chaired a hearing Thursday with prominent human rights activists and experts.
Mr. Garry Kasparov, a Russian activist living in exile in America; Dr. Halah Eldoseri, a Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist; and Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado Machado, a Cuban artist, testified about the oppression they've experienced under the governments of their respective home countries and the critical role the United States has to play in safeguarding the fundamental human rights of all people.
Partial transcripts and links to videos of the hearing’s key moments and Rubio’s opening statement are below.
RUBIO: After the president visited Cuba and left, what was government - the Castro government’s reaction to the people who met with him? Did you notice a change in their behavior after he left? Did they become more repressive after the fact?
EL SEXTO: No, repression has increased.
RUBIO: What would the impact be on our credibility, on America’s standing in the world and quite frankly our national security but in particular I want you to opine on our credibility and our standing in the world as a nation who promotes democracy and liberty and the rights of all people, what would it do to our standing if despite all of these things that we now know we somehow enter a geopolitical deal with Moscow in which we are willing to overlook all these things and sovereignty of nations like Ukraine in exchange for their supposed cooperation in Syria. What would the impact be on America’s standing in the world if we going into a deal with a criminal like this?
KASPAROV: Thank you Mr. Chairman. I agree with everything that you said about Vladimir Putin and his regime. I think it’s important to emphasize that the United States of America and Putin’s Russia – let me emphasize Putin’s Russia – have no common values, no common ground, and no common interests.
RUBIO: My last question doctor is because of your activism, because of your testimony here today, because of the words you’ve expressed and the work that you’ve done, what do they say about you in Saudi Arabia?
ELDOSERI: Well, I think one of the things that we learn to do, I am sure there are mixed feelings-
RUBIO: By the government, I apologize.
ELDOSERI: Well I do see my name coming in the formal print media and in online defamation campaigns all the time and the names of other people who are doing the same and similar to my distinguished colleague here. I think that we learn to work without thinking of things beyond our control. We tend to uphold our values and our principles and try to do the best of the resources that we have. Ideas like what the government will think of is not of an importance to the people in Saudi Arabia more than to secure the public interest and to make sure that their rights are safeguarded and guaranteed.
RUBIO: From Russia to China, from North Korea to Venezuela, authoritarianism is on the rise, human freedom is under assault, and restrictive new NGO laws are being used to crush civil society, press freedom is being challenged - just yesterday we saw the expulsion of CNN en Español from Venezuela - and political dissidents often feel isolated and abandoned while those who repress them do so with seeming impunity.
Many of our historic alliances with other leading democracies are fraying while authoritarian regimes are closely collaborating and empowering other dictators. Some of the world’s most egregious human rights violators retain well-paid lobbyists and PR firms. They engage in sophisticated expressions of soft power in the media, through so-called “think tanks”, in academia and even the entertainment industry. It feels like freedom fighters are constantly playing catch up.
Earlier this month, Vladimir Kara-Murza, of Open Russia, was suspected of being poisoned for a second time. I understand that he is now recovering and will hopefully be released from the hospital shortly. He has been a target of the Russian government for some time. Later this month, February 27th, will be the second anniversary of the assassination of his close ally, Boris Nemstov, who was murdered in view of the Kremlin after speaking out against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s corruption. We invited his daughter, Zhanna Nemtsova, to testify today but she was unable to attend due to prior commitments. I would however, like to enter into the record a report from her organization detailing the figures of political prisoners in Russia.
In his seminal work The Case for Democracy, famed Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky divides nations into free and fear societies. He writes: “A simple way to determine whether the right to dissent in a particular society is being upheld is to apply the town square test: Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. And [sic] If not, it’s a fear society.”
For the Chinese lawyer, the Russian journalist, the Saudi blogger, the Venezuelan activist, the Cuban artist, the Bahraini civil society leader, there is no question—they are living in fear societies. Their attempts to freely, and I would add courageously, express themselves are met with harsh and unyielding repression.
Civil Rights champion, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As the title of today’s hearing makes clear, I believe, and I think it’s safe to say that ranking Member Menendez agrees, that there is indeed a convincing case to be made for strong, principled U.S. leadership in the promotion and support of democracy and human rights globally on this moral imperative alone.
I recognize this is not a universal belief. It never has been, even during the heyday of the Soviet Union, and certainly isn’t now when there is no monolith enemy or single ideological counterpart to the “Free World.”
While the American people remain among the most generous in the world, widely giving to charitable causes both domestically and internationally, altruism or even the moral impetus to stand with the oppressed and marginalized is insufficient motivation for many especially when they consider our own decrepit infrastructure, shuttered factories, our mounting national debt and other priorities here at home.
So for those of us who believe in the merits of this work, the burden is on us to make the case for why U.S. foreign policy must be infused with the values at the center of our own experiment in self-governance. It is incumbent upon us to explore and explain why the support of emerging democracies should be a core U.S. national interest, precisely because it is a national security imperative and I hope today’s hearing will provide a platform to do so.
We need not abandon any notion of realpolitik. I recently read a National Review piece that captured a conversation that Mr. Kasparov had with Czech writer and dissident, Vaclav Havel, in which Havel noted, “Now and then you have to negotiate with evil regimes…But you don’t have to do so without bringing up human rights. Take Ronald Reagan. He negotiated with the Soviet Union, about arms control and geopolitics. But he always put political prisoners on the table.”
With the previous administration, these issues took a back seat to other geopolitical goals. Whether it was greater collaboration with China on climate change and the global economic crisis, or the resumption of diplomatic relations with the tyranny in Cuba or the prospects of a grand bargain with Iran—dissidents in these and other countries often felt ignored and forgotten by the United States.
My critique is not reserved for a Democratic administration. I raised these issues with … our new secretary of state during his confirmation hearing and was concerned and remain about the way he addressed them. I intend to continue to highlight the importance of democracy and human rights as senior State Department nominees come before our committee for consideration. And, as I stated when I voted for Mr. Tillerson, my support of or opposition to those nominees will be based in part on their willingness to make these issues a priority.
I believe it is vital for the secretary, for his deputies, for senior White House officials, including the president and the vice president, to meet publicly with dissidents and human rights activists, as President Trump and Vice President Pence did last night with Lilian Tintori, the wife of Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez.
It is essential that the leaders of the world’s greatest democracy issue statements of support and solidarity and where appropriate condemnations when grave human rights abuses occur. I urge the administration to request robust democracy funding for such work in the upcoming budget cycle, and to utilize recently passed legislation from the previous Congress which provides the State Department new tools to advance of the cause of human rights and human dignity—foremost among them the Global Magnitsky Act, which the ranking member was so involved in.
Writing eloquently, and ominously, in the Wall Street Journal last year, one of our witnesses, Mr. Kasparov, noted, “Globalization has made it easy for the enemies of the free world to spread their influence in ways the Soviet leadership couldn’t have imagined, while the West has lost the will to defend itself and its values.”
I pray this warning is not born out by reality.
Consider the contrast with Natan Sharansky’s account of being held in an eight-by-ten foot cell in a Siberian prison in 1983 when his Soviet jailers allowed him to read latest issue of the official Communist Party newspaper. Sharansky recalled a front page article condemning Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech. He wrote, “Tapping on the walls and talking through toilets, political prisoners spread the word of Reagan's so-called "provocation." The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth--a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us.”
I believe we are at an inflection point, and the stakes could not be higher, as we will no doubt hear today. We must commit anew to a robust defense of our values, because they are not merely American values, rather they reflect the yearning of millions of people around the world who live in societies dominated by fear and oppression, but who looked to the United States of America to champion their cause to fully exercise their God-given rights.