Diplomacy, one dissident at a time

Peace and prosperity depend on our approach to imprisoned activists.

Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois knew that Egyptian intelligence agents were likely monitoring our phone call with blogger Kareem Amer, which took place shortly after his release from military prison last month after serving four years for criticizing then-president Hosni Mubarak. “To anyone listening to this line,” Kirk said, “Kareem Amer is extremely influential in the United States Senate.”
What was a powerful US senator doing on a conference call in the middle of the night with a young Arab blogger? And why was he touting Amer’s influence in Congress? Much of diplomacy takes place at the level of high-ranking government officials.
Kirk was practicing a different approach – one that prioritizes individual dissidents and works to embolden freedom fighters in closed societies.
This approach is attracting renewed attention now that Egypt’s and Tunisia’s dictators fell in a single month and Libya’s tyrant is teetering.
The senator has made the freedom and well-being of one young Internet activist his own foreign policy priority.
Shortly after Amer was imprisoned, Kirk (a Republican) personally called to check on his status, and asked my organization, which supports online pro-democracy dissidents, to notify him if there were any updates.
SOME WOULD call focusing on a single dissident a diversion that relegates more important foreign policy objectives to the back burner. That is exactly what one senior White House official told Avital Sharansky when she tirelessly campaigned for her husband (and my former boss) Natan Sharansky’s release from the Soviet gulag in the 1980s.
The official pointed to a map of the world and reviewed the multitude of disputes between the Soviet Union and the US. “Do you really believe that we can subordinate all these issues to the question of your husband’s release?” he asked Avital.
“What you don’t understand,” she responded, “is that only when my husband is released from prison will you be able to resolve these issues.”
Kirk is taking a lesson from Avital Sharansky. Washington is grappling with a host of important issues in the Middle East, among them economic treaties, oil shipments, weapons and war. They may seem much grander than the fate of a single young dissident.
But it is precisely the ideology which imprisons students and bloggers that prevents authoritarian governments from advancing toward true peace and prosperity.
LAST MONTH, I traveled to Washington with Natan Sharansky, now a citizen of Israel and its former deputy prime minister, to meet with US policy-makers to stress the importance of supporting freedom and publicizing dissidents’ names. In the 1980s, such efforts literally saved Sharansky’s life, at least according to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1997, Gorbachev was honored at a dinner in New York along with Irwin Cotler, who served as Sharansky’s lawyer and later became Canada’s minister of justice. Cotler told me he pulled Gorbachev aside and asked a question that had been vexing him for years: Why did Gorbachev actually decide to release Sharansky? Speaking through a translator, Gorbachev replied: “I never knew anything about Sharansky. I never even knew the name. I came to Canada when the minister of agriculture and I appeared before a Canadian parliamentary committee on agriculture, but instead of getting questions about agriculture, I got questions about Sharansky.
I left the parliament building and saw placards of Sharansky. Wherever I went, I was confronted by Sharansky.
So I came back to the Soviet Union and I said, ‘Who is this guy Sharansky?’ I got the files and said, ‘Well, he might have been a troublemaker, but he isn’t a criminal. So we ordered his release.’” Much lip service is paid today to the cause of dissidents, but the realist strain in American foreign policy still runs deep. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced an additional $25 million to support Internet freedom. This is a welcome move, but it pales in comparison to, for instance, the $60 billion in arms recently sold to protect the theocratic dictatorship of Saudi Arabia – a government that blocks hundreds of thousands of websites and prohibits women from leaving their homes without the permission of a male guardian.
Policies that downplay the importance of human liberty may seem necessary in the near-term, but they are ultimately counterproductive.
The great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov said it best: “In the end, the moral choice turns out to be also the most pragmatic choice.”
Prioritizing dissidents over dictators remains the most moral and pragmatic choice.
The writer is executive director of Advancing Human Rights and cofounder of CyberDissidents.org.

[email protected] This article first appeared in The Daily (www.thedaily.com)