Many people ask me how the United States can claim to promote human rights after its abandonment of Afghan women – and its failure to take China forward on rights violations in Xinjiang or Hong Kong.
Indeed, as autocrats take power or grow bolder, those who believe in free speech and peaceful dissent are increasingly silenced. The United States seems to have less and less leverage to mitigate this repression.
It is therefore particularly fitting that the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia chose to award its 33rd Annual Medal of Freedom on September 21 to two prominent human rights activists, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai and Saudi Arabian activist. women’s rights Loujain al-Hathloul. The award will be awarded virtually because Lai is in prison, while Hathloul is under house arrest after prison and torture.
âThey have given a human face to the courage of dissidents around the world,â Constitution Center president Jeffrey Rosen told me. âWe thought it was very important to recognize the men and women of conviction who are in prison for their advocacy for international human rights.
Indeed, in these dark times, it is increasingly vital for private nonprofits and human rights organizations to spotlight those who fight for human rights in their home countries. It reassures them that they are not forgotten. And it helps them stay alive.
The choice of Lai and Hathloul is particularly symbolic, in a tradition of the Medal of Freedom which included the young fighter for the education of girls, Malala Yousafzai (2014), Mikhail Gorbachev (2008), the Czech leader Vaclav Havel ( 1994) and South African Nelson Mandela (1993).
These heroes may have been more famous, but this year’s award winners exemplify the struggles of our time.
The world today is less and less receptive to the concept of universal human rights, an idea vilified by Chinese Xi Jinping and Russian Vladimir Putin. America can still retreat, but Beijing and Moscow are more resilient and inspire other autocrats.
Yet courageous human rights defenders continue to struggle against increasingly daunting obstacles.
Handicraft clothing mogul Jimmy Lai could have sat down and enjoyed his riches. Instead, he founded the widely read and rambling Apple Daily, which has consistently campaigned for expanded voting rights in Hong Kong.
When I interviewed Lai in November 2019, in her spacious hilltop home in Hong Kong, her newspaper openly supported pro-democracy protests that exploded against Beijing’s efforts to limit Hong Kong’s legal independence.
âThe rule of law is a fundamental Western value,â Lai said firmly. “But Beijing is looking at this through the prism of very different values.” He knew the risk but upheld Apple Daily’s crusade for the right to peaceful protest and the benefit of free elections. âYou don’t get universal suffrage without long-term resistance,â he told me.
In June, Beijing shut down Apple Daily as part of its harsh crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. He slapped Lai in prison on several counts.
âJimmy Lai symbolizes press freedom,â said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch China director. âApple Daily was incredibly important for people to have skeptical reports of what those in power were doing. He has stood firm in the face of all kinds of pressure in a world full of propaganda.
âThe Constitution Center tells the universe that this person’s work is important,â Richardson added. âWe applaud the efforts to hold powerful states to account. This [award] remind everyone what we should be striving for.
For his part, Loujain Hathloul illustrates the courage it takes to fight for women’s rights in societies that crush women. (She is a particularly poignant example at a time when educated Afghan women are being sent back to the Dark Ages of the Taliban.)
Hathloul became the face of the campaign for Saudi women’s rights to drive when she drove from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia in 2014 and broadcast her journey live.
She was arrested at the Saudi border and released after 73 days. But in 2018, she was kidnapped in Abu Dhabi and forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia, then jailed and labeled a âtraitorâ. According to her sister, she was beaten, drowned, subjected to electric shocks and threatened with rape.
All this under the aegis of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), who allegedly authorized the gruesome murder of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS then allowed women to drive, but didn’t want any activist to get credit. Released from prison in February, Hathloul remains silent and forbidden to leave the country.
The powerful stories of Lai and Hathloul are directly linked to the principles of the United States Constitution that the Nonpartisan Constitutional Center was founded to promote.
The editors believed that human rights were universal, belonging to all human beings, inherent in each of us (even though they violated these ideals of slavery). This enlightenment value system is now being challenged globally. âIn a politicized world, it is important that private nonprofits stand up for individual liberty and liberty,â says Rosen, âand recognize the courage of freedom fighters in exercising their rights of conscience. “
In other words, Loujain al-Hathloul and Jimmy Lai are fighting for universal rights that matter to all of us, and we must support their struggle. That’s why this year’s Medal of Freedom winners are a key addition to the pantheon of heroes who have already received it.