Mrs. Tawakkol Karman’s Speech in National Geographic Science Festival, Human rights activists in hostile environments, in Rome

Before we begin, I would like to express how happy I am to be here among you. I am really pleased to be at the well-established and globally recognised University of London. Thank you for inviting me! Many thanks to the faculty members and to all of you! 

Ladies and gentlemen,
Just as the whole world is experiencing an unprecedented wave of threats to human rights activists everywhere, my country, Yemen, has become a shocking example of the deterioration of human rights. As you know, sectarian militia in Yemen have overthrown the state, demolished civil society, political parties, the media, political life and the transfer of power process, causing a regional military intervention by two countries driven by reckless adventurism, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This situation involving a coup, a war and external intervention has created an unprecedented fertile ground for human rights abuses.
The parties, unions, and civil rights organizations have been silenced, and thousands have been put in prison. The number of displaced people has significantly increased. Not only that, monitors of human rights violations along with activists and defenders of human rights have been persecuted. The Houthi militia has committed almost all imaginable forms of killing, torture and abuse. However, other parties also abuse human rights activists. The Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has established secret prisons in areas liberated from the people involved in the coup, where human rights activists and defenders are harassed.
I feel it appropriate to start my speech by giving you a picture of a country where war is in full swing, the state has been undermined and civilians are being targeted. This has resulted in a wholesale violation of human rights, going beyond brutal measures usually taken by the repressive dictatorships and governments, as highlighted in various human rights reports during 2017. These reports have revealed shocking details about the human rights situation, a frightening increase in the number of human rights defenders that have been victimized in many countries around the world, and a number of abuses described by Amnesty International in one of its reports when they said: " Human rights defenders are facing unparalleled global assault amid demonizing rhetoric, clampdowns on civil society and rampant use of surveillance."
Dear friends,
When I was asked to talk about the challenges faced by human rights activists in hostile environments, I asked myself: Can I talk objectively about this? Some people may consider me the wrong person to talk about this because I am accused of having an extreme hard line towards tyrants. Yet I feel that I need to take this stance in order to stand up for the victims and stand up against the tyrants.
I believe that the first challenge faced by human rights activists is how to hold onto their principles and not be tempted astray or intimidated. Activists should distance themselves from engaging in unjust government orientations.
Any activist who justifies any anti-human rights policies should not be trusted. If activists disclosed that repressive governments have penetrated them, the battle would be clearer, as it is unreasonable to have some activists against, and some others for, tyranny.
Almost all activists know how tyrannical regimes have worked to penetrate civil society organizations, especially those that are active in the field of human rights. These repressive regimes believe that such steps will cover their crimes, but they are wrong because criminals remains criminals even if they try to say otherwise.
We must first come to a clear definition of who is the real activist, as this is the basic moral question.
Dear friends,
If we could identify activists advocating for human rights, excluding individuals and organizations who play a suspicious role in the interests of repressive regimes- by not paying attention to their reports and advice written by security services-, if we could do this, we would have enough strength to face the other challenges.
The second challenge facing human rights activists has to do with their ability to clear up misunderstandings about their roles and demands, as we all know that repressive regimes, especially in the Arab world, play a big role in defaming human rights defenders and democracy, taking advantage of their strict control over different media outlets.
A human rights defender is often identified by these authoritarian governments as someone who follows Western foreign instructions to conspire against his or her own country.
It is not only the responsibility of human rights activists, but also of everyone who cares about their own countries, to make the average citizen aware of the importance of human rights, and to let them know this will help ensure they are not marginalized or excluded.  
But despite strict restrictions on media outlets and freedom of expression, and the gross distortion of human rights activism, human rights activists will have to continue their work and not despair, as their insistence leads to victories every day. People will eventually discover the lies and ugliness of those regimes.
Until that happens, human rights activists must not lose hope in delivering the truth to others. The battle with tyranny is bitter and requires a great deal of patience and hope.
In Yemen, I was always told: no way! What can you do on your own!? What can be achieved by a group whose number can be counted on the fingers of one hand? But to keep on fighting against tyranny and not give up will definitely shake the image of the tyrants, and give people hope that change can happen.
Dear friends,
Dictatorship regimes not only survive on deception and repression, but also on deceiving people's consciousness, and this must be resisted in every possible way.
In the midst of such environments filled with suspicion and hatred, human rights activists keep working and their lives are at risk.
It is not only a matter of defamation, fabrication of lies and rumors about activists and linking their activities to foreign conspiracies, but human rights activists are also subjected to serious abuses such as murder, imprisonment and torture.
Dictatorial regimes mainly resort to protecting themselves by brainwashing people and by passing a series of laws to impose restrictions on freedoms and the public domain, and to terrorize anybody that speaks up for change.
Dear friends,
On many occasions, I have said that tyranny and terrorism feed each other, and that it is necessary to consider tyranny, like terrorism, a threat to humanity. It is not fair to make tyrants go unpunished.
Both the despot and the terrorist contribute equally to creating environments hostile to human rights, and are overly aggressive against human rights activists and defenders of public freedoms.
To combat tyranny and terrorism is among the major challenges facing human rights advocates. Some activists do defend tyrants, while some others defend terrorists. In fact, both voices are needed to speak up for victims whose freedoms and rights to life have been violated. These voices should be loud and speak only for justice.
It’s obvious for all of us how autocrats and terrorists create environments that are hostile not only to human rights but to life itself.
It is, however, outrageous that Western governments support dictators who violate freedoms and rights, in sharp contrast to their claims of support for democracy and human rights.
This contradiction between Western governments’ slogans and actual policies has been obvious to everyone. We are more worried now about how this collusion and deception might create environments that are hostile to human rights in countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. I can say that this complicity or conspiracy has contributed to making all the efforts made in some countries, including Arab countries, reach a dead end.
Dear friends,
Let us consider: What is the role of advanced democracies, whose interest in human rights has declined, becoming a low priority in their discussions with allies around the world? How can international human rights organizations influence decisions of major powers and global public opinion to counter this growing wave of human rights abuses?
In the Western world today, from Europe to beyond the Atlantic, there is a frightening wave of isolationism and hostility to immigrants and groups of different origins and identities. It’s truly a setback exploited by racist leaders and new chauvinistic currents.
Europe has seemingly forgotten the Second World War, and this therefore puts the whole world’s human rights system in jeopardy. The shameful violations against human rights defenders are only a sign of a looming global crisis whose repercussions could pose a major threat to human rights as a concept and human history and accomplishment.
Donald Trump came to occupy the highest position in the world, opening the door to a black era of a return to chauvinism and incitement of hatred, isolation and sacrifice of human rights in the West, whose nations have long boasted of their respect for human rights, with policies based on this since the end of World War II.
However, this western regression in terms of human rights did not coincide with the rise of separatist, populist leaders such as Trump, but it started with the emergence of a new world order that was based on “the fight against terrorism”, using the war on terror as a cover to justify human rights abuses everywhere.
My friends,
One of the challenges facing human rights activists in hostile environments is the fear that a call for unity of efforts to reject human rights violations may be misinterpreted by repressive regimes that accuse them of conspiring with foreign parties.
All those concerned with human rights should mobilize efforts to forge international alliances against violations of human rights and freedoms, and to prosecute the perpetrators.
In this context, it may be necessary to work on identifying the issues that should be given priority and attention worldwide. Combating political and religious tyranny and organized crime should be a matter of priority.
Environments hostile to human rights include not only those countries governed by dictatorial regimes, but may also include some democratic states that may experience restrictions on freedoms and human rights abuses.
Dear friends,
Human rights activists face many challenges, such as providing a reasonable solidarity network in a hostile environment. There is no way to escape from facing up to and overcoming these challenges.
Overcoming these challenges will open the door to hope for different people and societies to live freely and with dignity. This is what repressive regimes are trying to avoid by suppressing any demands or ideas that could bring about positive change.
We must confront those who violate human rights all over the world. We must begin as soon as possible. It is shameful to let criminals escape accountability and punishment. Human rights activists deserve respect because they face up to tyrants and demand from them a moral responsibility. There is no way to crush people and deprive them of freedom under any slogan.
Ladies and gentlemen,
What can we do to avoid waking up tomorrow to find human rights have vanished?!
To defend the human rights situation as a whole cannot be achieved by addressing the consequences of repression and ongoing violations alone. As a global human rights network, we all need to work together with different members of global civil society such as media outlets, local entities and networks that advocate for human rights worldwide.
We, members of humanity who share a belief in the dignity of all human beings and in equal rights for all, have to put the protection of human rights high on our list of priorities. We are humans before any other affiliations or identities. Some strive to impose their views on other countries of the world- from the east to the west, and from the south to the north-, in an attempt to forcibly define determinants of relations between states and within people at every level.
Let us raise our voices together to say to all the human beings in this world that all these barriers, which are being rebuilt between human beings to isolate them and turn them into enemies living within sects, races and chanting in the name of ethnic, racial and religious saviors will not be able to stand up to the appeals and desires of freedom, dignity, equality and rights deserved by everyone on this planet.
I stress that no matter what challenges we face, we are stronger than them, we are stronger than them, and we will eventually survive.
Thank you!