The Lady and the Tweet

Can there be an Aung San Suu Kyi in the Twitter era?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This week, Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi will visit the United States for the first time in decades. Newly free after more than 20 years of near-constant detention, she is now an elected parliamentarian. Her visit is, above all, a chance to honor her long struggle for democracy. But it also highlights the vital role individual prisoners of conscience can play in personalizing the abstract rhetoric of human rights — cutting through the wrenching ambiguities that attend the pursuit of basic universal values in a globalized world. After a week of worldwide protests that could make a moral compass spin, Suu Kyi’s visit is a welcome ballast. She is a reminder that even though few human rights struggles end in happily ever after, progress is possible and that while no person or cause is perfect, there are human rights heroes who can inspire. The stories of Suu Kyi and a new wave of celebrated dissidents offer one way to motivate new activists to press for human rights change amid the complexities and tradeoffs of a global politics in which no governments are blame-free. These individuals are inspiring a rising generation to use the tools and devices they know best to mobilize a powerful human rights constituency for the 21st century.

When the international human rights movement began 50 years ago, it centered on campaigns to free "forgotten prisoners," people deprived of their rights to freedom of expression and belief who languished in prisons. As it grew, the movement came known for efforts on behalf of courageous figures challenging totalitarian regimes. Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and later, Suu Kyi herself — "prisoners of conscience," as Amnesty International designated some — captured the imagination of activists worldwide, making faraway human rights struggles seem real and immediate. Millions participated in letter-writing campaigns, vigils, and protests, fueling media coverage and pressure for their release — and, sometimes, powering their political rise. Behind each marquee name were hundreds or thousands of lesser known prisoners whose cases may not have become a cause célèbre, but whose voices were taken up by innovative and tireless grassroots activists around the world. This movement, and the people behind it, made "human rights" a household word and invented what became a new, proven, and powerful way to bring about broad global change.

Building on this success, the human rights movement broadened its work to tackle systemic problems: investigation and documentation of human rights abuses; high-level advocacy; and campaigns for new global treaties and institutions, from weapons bans to the International Criminal Court. In a matter of decades, the movement made important strides in South and Central America, Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and — one hopes — the Middle East.

The maturing movement faces clear challenges. In a more interdependent and less neatly polarized world, it grows more apparent by the day that Western governments have diminishing political and economic leverage to press for human rights change elsewhere in the world. When leaders don’t stress human rights within their foreign policies, the media doesn’t focus on it either. The West has also ceded some of what moral credibility it had to champion human rights abroad after the abuses of the U.S. "war on terror" and the mistreatment of migrants in Europe. (China now counters the State Department’s annual human rights country reports with reports of U.S. failings, from police brutality to gun violence.) And amid a fragmented 24/7 news cycle, household names like Suu Kyi and Mandela are few and far between. While grassroots human rights work goes on, citizens worldwide don’t have a name or face that they associate with the struggles for human rights and freedom in Bahrain, Bosnia, Kosovo, and South Sudan.

The Arab Spring and the unfolding violence over the last week have raised new and deeper questions. The attack on U.S. diplomatic installations leaves it uncertain at best what role the United States and other Western countries can play in promoting human rights, democracy and peace in the Arab world. Since the uprisings began 18 months ago, critics have called out the hypocrisy of the United States in backing protestors in Egypt and Libya while defending the regime in Bahrain.

Watching all this, citizens eager to do something in response to shocking images of people beaten and shot in distant, rubble-filled streets may be confused over who or what to support — and how. These ambiguities can be a recipe for apathy, as would-be activists conclude that human rights are too fraught and turn to other causes.

Yet in recent months we’ve been reminded that an individual’s plight can stir public passion like nothing else, offering a path for dynamic grassroots activism. By joining in solidarity with citizens worldwide, grassroots activists can find the comfort of being part of a broad movement that stands only for human rights. Whereas the icons of the 1960s and 1970s captured the hearts of activists faraway through their political philosophies and writings, today’s prisoners of conscience are connecting to a digital generation through the mediums it loves best: mobile, music, and video. Last spring, on the eve of a U.S-China summit slated to virtually ignore human rights, a blind lawyer stole headlines with his Houdini-like escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Twitter accounts went into overdrive as Chen Guangcheng’s personal drama rewrote the summit script, forcing the United States to take a stand for political freedoms through compassion rather than righteous lecturing. His dark sunglasses and ubiquitous cellphone inspired legions of tweets, texts, and emails, upending a carefully choreographed diplomatic encounter and prodding the two sides to hash out a deal for his release.

The worldwide uproar over Chen’s fate, rendering his face among the world’s most recognizable in a matter of days, would not have ricocheted nearly as far or fast without the mass Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. The scale of the outrage and media frenzy forced China to release Chen, but also to recognize that even the tightest media controls and censors can no longer keep Chinese abuses out of the spotlight. Social media outlets have also forced Beijing to acknowledge what it would rather deny and ignore in its own media channels: Chen’s strong popular support among ordinary Chinese.

Then, this summer, the Russian punk collective Pussy Riot put a new face on the image of the prisoner of conscience: a vibrant montage of young women in balaclavas belting out provocative lyrics in the name of democracy and personal freedoms. For years, the Russian government has been ratcheting up repression on internal dissent from both the public and the media, but it has largely deflected criticism from the West. The April 2012 arrest of three Pussy Riot members for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral provoked global condemnation, making Russian repression a front-page story. After the women were convicted on August 17, the Russian government was inundated with tweets, emails, and letters in support of the band, and Green Day, Madonna, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other artists demanded their release. Across U.S. campuses, students are ordering Technicolor balaclavas and organizing punk concerts in support of the group, and its struggle has drawn throngs on Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr.

The Kremlin is not impervious to the furor: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on Wednesday, Sept. 13, that Pussy Riot should be freed, arguing that the spectacle created by the group’s imprisonment was causing more damage to Russia than good. A level of pressure that in the past might have taken years to mount has built up in warp speed, due in no small part to the role of instant communications in tracking Pussy Riot’s case and helping its supporters mobilize.

Some critics deride these efforts as "clicktivism" or "slacktivism" — advocacy that requires no more than the lifting of a finger to hit a button on a keyboard. But when it goes viral on YouTube, these campaigns link activists across borders and over oceans, or flood authorities and even armed groups with demands for justice. This kind of online activism motivated by individual cases can mobilize energy to free dissidents and, perhaps, change societies. Only days ago, for example, in response to a global Twitter campaign by Amnesty International, Israeli officials released a Palestinian prisoner who had been detained for years without charge. Just as important, online campaigns offer an entry point for new activists to be drawn in and introduced to human rights work, building a foundation that can inspire them to organize, recruit others, and take on wider issues. This is essential to ensure that the greatest generation of grassroots advocates worldwide — those whose creativity and staying power helped finally liberate Aung San Suu Kyi after 23 years as a prisoner of conscience — feeds a rising wave of activists ready to power the work well into the 21st century.

That said, no teenager will remember the moment they hit "send" on an online petition for Sudan the way their parents remember shivering in a campus shanty to protest apartheid. Online action offers a vital entry point, but is just the start of the journey for those aiming to bring lasting change. Nor is the human rights movement’s original mainstay — letter writing — obsolete. Upon relocating to New York, Chen Guangcheng made a point in his early weeks of reaching out to meet with Amnesty International. He talked not about the tweets or petitions, but about receiving just a fraction of the letters he knew had been sent to him from activists all over the globe to raise his spirits, and recounted how he read and re-read every single one. Digital human rights work may never offer such a tangible and lasting human touch.

During Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington she will headline a digital town hall to encourage youth in the United States to work for prisoners of conscience, just as grassroots activists fought for her for nearly a quarter century. She knows from personal experience that human beings instinctively respond to individual stories more than to facts and figures; they invest not just intellectually, but emotionally — and this passion can help sustain the energy for what can be long and difficult struggles for change.

Even as we celebrate Suu Kyi today, the release of a single heroic prisoner of conscience when others still languish in jail is at best a partial victory. Passionate advocacy on behalf of individual cases cannot substitute for wider efforts to mount pressure for systemic change, accountability and policy reforms. Nor does it necessarily help answer who can effectively and ethically mount such pressure. But helping secure the freedom of an Aung San Suu Kyi, Chen Guangcheng, or Pussy Riot can enable individuals — some barely in their teens — see the potential and rewards of human rights work, and find their footing to broach wider human rights challenges.

When she was finally free to travel to Oslo to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in June 2012, some 21 years after it was originally awarded, Suu Kyi implored the audience "please remember the often repeated truth that one prisoner of conscience is one too many. " As her appeal makes clear, one measure of progress in human rights is the fate of each individual. In fighting for their causes one by one, we can give new hope to dissidents around the globe — and a renewed purpose and energy to those who seek to free them.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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