Where is the freedom?

A Columbia student realizes that despite academia’s glamorization of the world’s despots, students need to stand up against their violation of human rights:

Where is the freedom?

Columbia students should devote more attention to human rights internationally.

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The Cuban government has stolen Yoani Sánchez’s voice. As I sit in midtown Manhattan at a human rights conference and the translator’s voice-over retraces and recaptures her thoughts, Sánchez’s words are retrieved.

Two weeks ago, I attended the “We Have a Dream: Global Summit Against Discrimination and Persecution,” U.N. Watch’s counter-conference to Durban III. (The Durban conferences willfully ignore grievous human rights violations around the world and instead engage in expressions of intolerance, using a double standard to specifically target Israel.) I decided to take two days off from Columbia, compromising CC, Ethics, and numerous other classes to hear political prisoners and dissidents articulate the injustices perpetrated against them by their countries. Sánchez is just one of many.

Sánchez explained how Cuba has established an information blockade against its people, refusing to allow private ownership of the media and thereby holding a virtual state monopoly over broadcast communication. Cubans such as Sánchez need to pass through an ideological filter before their voices are heard. Her blog, Generation Y, which bemoans the Cuban government’s mistreatment of its people, is ironically censored. However, through email updates to friends, the blog remains active and is translated into 17 languages worldwide. Sánchez pleads with the world to pressure Cuba, a country that victimizes its citizens by refusing to grant them freedom of thought and expression.

Columbia students were faced with a similar human rights dilemma the very same week I heard Sánchez’s story, as they were invited to dine with the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. By accepting the invitation, they would consequently be giving this inhumane dictator a chance to express himself, a right refused to the Cubans. Would giving Ahmadinejad freedom of speech validate his voice? This case was not just about listening to his opinions (we could check out YouTube to hear him speak) but about breaking bread—a symbol of respect and camaraderie. Breaking bread with anyone, not excluding a cruel and inhumane dictator, lends that person credence.

More importantly, how could Ahmadinejad request access to this freedom, this right to expression of thought, if he himself denies his citizens many of their unalienable rights? Three men were hanged in Iran just this month, convicted of—you guessed it—homosexuality. Apparently such a crime warrants the death penalty. (When Ahmadinejad came to speak at Columbia in 2007, he had the audacity to claim that homosexuality does not exist in Iran.) What type of value system is this Iranian despot supporting? Why does he expect others to give him rights when he blatantly refuses them to his own people?

Discrimination in Iran doesn’t end here. In fact, this is only a glimpse of Ahmadinejad’s repressive actions against his people. Ahmadinejad has consistently persecuted those of the Bahá’í Faith, the country’s largest religious minority. In 1987, Bahá’ís were refused entry into Iranian universities because of their faith, and, in response, they mobilized a decentralized network of higher education, the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education. According to the Human Rights House of Iran, this past spring BIHE was declared illegal and Iranian officials raided 30 Bahá’í homes and arrested many members of the BIHE faculty. Seven Bahá’ís involved with the informal BIHE remain in prison to date. Imprisoned why? Because they were trying to provide their own people with an education—a crime evidently worthy of punishment. The world must call on the government of Iran to release these prisoners and grant all of its citizens freedom of religion and equal access to education.

As Columbia students, how can we ignore these egregious acts that are inflicted on humanity, by humanity? It is too easy to avoid seeing the unjust world surrounding us, the basic human rights that are denied daily—freedom of sexuality, expression of thought, and access to education. We must keep our eyes wide open to the cruel treatment of Cubans, Iranians, and so many countless others. These oppressive and unjust practices must end. The world is watching.

The author is a Columbia College sophomore. She is on the boards of the Columbia Interfaith Collective and the Hillel Community Task Force.