Romanticizing Dissidents Plays Into the Hands of Repressive Governments

When it comes to Alexei Navalny and Aung San Suu Kyi, we can’t have it both ways.

People from Myanmar living in Taiwan display portraits of deposed Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi at a protest in Taipei on March 21.
People from Myanmar living in Taiwan display portraits of deposed Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi at a protest in Taipei on March 21. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

On Feb. 25, Amnesty International decided to strip Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny of the title “prisoner of conscience” due to xenophobic statements he made more than a decade ago. That move was a mistake: As Natalia Antonova has written, no one is morally spotless, and dissidents should not be subject to a purity test to qualify for international support.

But the incident is worth dwelling on for practical reasons too—especially as decidedly imperfect dissidents like Navalny and Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi are once again in the throes of struggle against their respective repressive regimes. If their present quandaries are any indication, the propensity to canonize dissidents—and abandon them when they disappoint—opens the door for repressive regimes to weaponize their failings and emerge victorious. Paradoxically then, the pursuit of perfection only sets back human rights work as a whole.

The modern human rights movement has long relied on compelling individual stories to mobilize activists and attract public attention. Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, coined the term “prisoner of conscience” in 1961, defining such a person as one “who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.” Since then, the likeness afforded by the title has helped animate the larger struggles dissidents stand for, personalizing their battles and offering citizens around the world a relatable point of entry to get involved.

The drive to mythologize beleaguered dissidents is understandable. Those who speak out in the face of state repression—putting their freedom, their families, and even their lives at risk—display extraordinary courage. It is easy to fantasize that they also demonstrate wisdom, compassion, and all the finest qualities of humankind.

Some seem to live up to the hype. After being freed from prison, Nelson Mandela led South Africa through a largely peaceful transition to multiracial democracy. Czech playwright and political visionary Vaclav Havel presided over his country’s democratization and became a global human rights icon. Iranian brothers and dissident doctors Kamiar and Arash Alaei established an international health institute at the University at Albany, SUNY. Myanmar writer and physician Ma Thida co-founded PEN Myanmar, the local branch of the global organization that had campaigned for her freedom. These dissidents are venerated not only for their leadership and humanitarianism but also for the moral authority they earned by living honorable lives.

But most dissidents turn out to be mere mortals—infected by vanities, unsavory associations, biases, or even bigotry. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose writings taught the world about the horrors of the Soviet Union’s gulag system, fell from favor after expressing nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments. Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, whose activism helped bring democracy to his country, came under fire years afterward for conservative stands on gay rights and other cultural issues. Blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who escaped to the U.S. embassy in a daring 2012 gambit, dismayed some of his backers by supporting Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. election. Assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been close to the Saudi royal family for decades before breaking with them in 2016.

None of this undercuts the work Solzhenitsyn, Walesa, Guangcheng, and Khashoggi did for their respective causes; dissidents, after all, are people—complex individuals whose records include certain things worthy of criticism or reproach. Like all of us, dissidents’ views often evolve, sometimes for the better. Navalny, for example, has not repeated his ugly insult toward Muslim immigrants since he began toning down his nationalist rhetoric in 2013. Dissidents and protesters operate in the rough and tumble of the public arena, championing causes and challenging power structures. It should not come as a surprise, then, that relatively few remain squeaky clean.

Few dissidents have disappointed their admirers as much as Aung San Suu Kyi, the now-deposed leader of Myanmar. During the 15 years she spent under intermittent house arrest as her country’s opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi became one of the world’s most celebrated dissenters, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal. Her 2010 release was met with high hopes.

But after being elevated to state counselor—a leadership role circumscribed by the military’s refusal to relinquish power—Aung San Suu Kyi disgraced herself by first countenancing and then openly justifying the Myanmar military’s brutal campaign against Rohingya Muslims in her country. In defending her country against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in late 2019, Aung San Suu Kyi starkly rebuked the values of democracy and human rights that once fueled global support for her. Admirers around the world were forced to recognize that Aung San Suu Kyi, born into a prominent political family, had always been a politician at heart. The patina of virtue that had long swirled around her was projected from afar rather than emanating from within.

Now, after the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar, the world’s tumultuous cycle of deification turned disgust over Aung San Suu Kyi risks tempering support for the country’s fledgling democracy. In plotting their coup, Myanmar’s generals undoubtedly took account of Aung San Suu Kyi’s fall from global grace, banking on subdued ardor for returning such a deeply tarnished idol to her rightful place. Sadly, the junta’s instincts served it well: The global reaction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s forcible removal from power last month—and ongoing detention at an undisclosed location—has been muted. But Aung San Suu Kyi herself, though deeply flawed, is only a symbol of a much larger cause.

Those taking to the streets in protest—risking their lives in the name of restoring democratic civilian rule—are not sullied by Aung San Suu Kyi’s treacheries, and support for their cause should not be undercut by dismay over her derogations. After all, although human rights campaigns are often waged in the name of individual dissidents, their stakes are much larger—implicating the rights of all freedom-seekers, ethnic minorities, ideological heretics, journalists, or, indeed, any citizen who dares defy their government. As the world grapples with the immediate consequences of the Myanmar coup, the conduct under scrutiny should be less that of the now-derided one-time dissident than that of the officials who silence, imprison, and torment her.

If principles can be suspended for those we disagree with, then they are not principles.

The concept of human rights is potent precisely because it is universal, overriding geography and politics to apply to everyone everywhere. By applying a litmus test of ideological worthiness or making saintliness a precondition for “prisoner of conscience” status, human rights organizations give in to the very thing they are bound to oppose: selective enforcement of transcendent norms and protections. If principles can be suspended for those we disagree with, then they are not principles. Backing should hinge not on a flawless character but on whether an individual’s right to free expression, challenge authority, expose wrongdoing, and mobilize support has been unjustly impaired.

Amnesty International’s announcement about Navalny illustrates a further reason to resist the valorization of dissidents: It plays into the hands of repressive governments. Amnesty officials admitted that, in changing his status, they were the targets of an orchestrated campaign by “so-called concerned citizens” aiming to discredit Navalny and pressure the human rights organization. They received a flood of emails drawing attention to Navalny’s past comments and demanded that Amnesty downgrade its support for him.

Such tactics are nothing new for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2016 and then again in 2018, his government smeared and prosecuted Yury Dmitriev—a historian who spent decades unearthing graves of Joseph Stalin’s victims and undermining Putin’s glorification of the tyrant—on spurious charges that he had molested his adopted daughter. Shrewdly exploiting the Western audiences’ heightened sensitivity to racism, bias, and hate speech—and the propensity to see such sentiments as disqualifiers for public life—Putin backed Amnesty into tempering its support for Navalny.

The Kremlin is not alone in employing character assassinations to undercut its enemies. The government of Morocco has used revenge porn to sully and silence critics of King Mohammed VI, including the internationally recognized economist Fouad Abdelmoumni. China has waged a relentless online campaign to tarnish the reputation of exiled dissident writer Sheng Xue by disseminating doctored photos and counterfeit emails. Capitulating to these attempts at censure rewards authoritarians and weakens the credibility of human rights activists around the world.

Credible organizations like Amnesty International must stand as a bulwark in defense against such nefarious tactics. A principled and unswerving commitment by human rights groups to stand with those whom repressive governments would not only silence but smear is essential to snuffing out these governments’ latest attempts at suppressing dissent.

Public profiles afforded by dissidents’ fame—or infamy—are among the most powerful instruments for catalyzing human rights change around the world. Dissidents’ personal torments contradict official state narratives, laying bare the cruelty and repression that underpin the triumphalism for which their governments prefer to be known. The recognition dissidents receive on the global stage can keep the flame of resistance alive within their fellow citizens, fortifying their will to take risks in the name of freedom. Indeed, the knowledge that the world rallies behind those who are unjustly persecuted stiffens the spines of dissenters everywhere.

But if every dissident is subject to a moral inventory in search of offending comments or acts, Amnesty’s list of “prisoners of conscience” may end up being a very short one. That would shortchange not just the individuals who didn’t make the cut but also the vital movements they stand for.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola