The Métropolitain

Holding China accountable

By Beryl Wajsman on August 7, 2008

Several weeks ago Nazanin Afshin-Jam, the international human rights campaigner, called me up with an idea. She said that though a boycott rally of the Beijing Olympics was fruitless, she thought it was important to make some kind of demonstration for human rights in China on the eve of the Games’ opening.

When she became the first Canadian to ever reach first runner-up status in the Miss World competition, the event took place in Beijing. The timing and the place resonated with her. She had called on some of her fellow contestants from that year to see if they would come with her to Beijing to stage a protest. She called me to see what I thought.

I had worked closely with Nazanin on several of her campaigns through my Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal. Through her fight to free Nazanin Fatehi from Tehran’s infamous Evin prison to her world-wide campaign against child executions. Nazanin was also a speaker and eloquent spokesperson at several of the Institute’s conferences, most recently last August’s on Darfur that you can see reported in at

My initial reaction was to applaud her courage, but cautioned against the risk of staging something like this in China. I told her I would make some calls and see what we could organize. My first outreach was to former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and former Secretary of State for Asia/Pacific David Kilgour.

Kilgour, with Winnipeg attorney David Matas, had authored the seminal study of Chinese human rights abuses, persecution of the Falun Gong and the human tragedy of organ harvesting. Cotler had just finished a 12-point program for holding China accountable to international human rights standards. Both thought the idea was great. But that it should not be held in Beijing.

After some initial study of the feasibility of a demonstration in Lausanne, where the International Olympic Committee sits, or Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council is headquartered, it was determined that there would not be enough attention in either city where so many of the bureaucrats and press were either out-of-session or in Beijing.

Cotler then suggested having an event in Ottawa. Kilgour found out that several groups in the nation’s capital were trying to stage a demonstration in front of the Chinese Embassy. He brought us in contact with one of the driving forces, the Canada-Tibet Committee.

What has taken shape is a two-stage demonstration. Today, August 7th, a day before the official opening of the Games, we are holding a press conference on Parliament Hill in the Charles Lynch Room in the Centre Bloc. After the conference we proceed to meet the main body of demonstrators at the Chinese Embassy on St. Patrick Street. We will gather across the street from the main door of the Embassy. Nazanin will be the spokesperson for the rally.

Much work has been put into this day by the Canada-Tibet Committee. My Institute committed to funding the transportation for the protest, and what was supposed to be one bus has now turned into twp thanks to the CTC and its executive director Dermod Travis.

Cotler said that “what we are witnessing today in China is a persistent and pervasive assault on human rights – a betrayal of the Olympic Charter and China’s pledge to respect it – and, most important, a betrayal of the rights and hopes of its own citizens – and those of the international community.”

Aside from Cotler, Kilgour, Nazanin and myself, other speakers will include MP Scott Reid,Sam Samdup from the Canada-Tibet Committee,Canadian Friends of Burma`s Kevin Mcleod,Lucy Zhou and Pamela Mclennan speaking on behalf of persecuted Falun Gong, Reporters Sans Frontiers`Katherine Borlongan,and Franics Yel from the

South Sudan-Canada Association.

It is important to bear memory and witness at this time. To stand up and say that it is not just about bread and circuses. For when people ask in the future “Where were you when?” you can answer that you stood with conscience and courage.

Sport does not take place in a vacuum. It is part of our everyday fabric. It is informed by events around us and is often used as a tool of propaganda. That is reality. The images we see on our screens and in our newspapers have very real overt and subliminal effects. Our reactions to those images, what we teach young people to value, have very real repercussions around the world.

If the Olympics are just games, then it belies what the Olympic movement itself says. It believes it is propagating universal values. But if those values are hijacked by tyrants, then what do we have left? The message that brute force is everything and can bend all to its will? That this alone constitutes “winning”? That there is nothing worth standing up for?

Sport is not a moral resort area where we can afford not to take a stand.