The Language of Human Rights

xiaobo011910.jpgBelow is an excerpt from my latest article published in the Wall Street Journal.  I do not intend to draw comparisons between the vastly different international cases mentioned in the article, but rather compare the careful use of language by these governments in political cases.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Russian political prisoner whose case I am involved in, was put on trial for the first time in 2004, the government applied all its media powers to project the language of justice: They held him in shackles, placed him in a cage on television, and put on a good show trial where a judge pretends to listen to the defense as though the verdict would not arrive via a call from the Kremlin. This is what the Russians call “telephone justice.”

It looks like a trial; to detached observers it might even smell something like due process; but underneath all the familiar language, there is the rot of corruption, political fiat and arbitrariness. (…)

Once someone is charged, very few observers are interested in the possible motivations of those bringing the charges. All processes are deemed regular and included within the same grammar, whether or not the investigation has been independent or the prosecution politically motivated.

My self-help remedy is a very simple one. I propose that journalists reconsider their liberal use of the word “trial,” unless it is used to describe a process of relative equality of arms between defense and prosecution, before a fair and independent tribunal as envisioned by a plethora of international conventions and treaties. In other words, the processes being administered by the Chinese leadership against its dissidents, by the Iranian regime against its protesters, or by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela against the opposition, should no longer be described as trials. I say this because the presumption of innocence is also enshrined in these same conventions. This concept alone is something that autocratic leaders, in particular, fail to comprehend and regularly abuse.

Photo: Hong Kong pro-democracy Legislative Council members, Cyd Ho and Emily Lau wear masks of recently jailed mainland dissident Liu Xiaoboto demand his release, during their meeting in the Hong Kong,Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010. Hong Kong legislators on Wednesday urgedBeijing to release jailed dissident Liu, a literary critic who wasprosecuted after he co-wrote an unusually direct appeal to China’sauthorities titled “Charter 08” calling for expanded political freedomsand the end to Communist Party dominance. (Copyright AP Photo)