Speaking before dozens of students Thursday evening, human rights activists argued for continued study and protest against oppressive regimes.
The College Freedom Forum, held in Sheffield Sterling Strathcona Hall and sponsored by the Human Rights Foundation and Yale for North Korean Human Rights, was modeled after the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual summit of activists, philanthropists and policymakers brought together to “better promote and protect human rights globally.” The speakers included Marina Nemat, an Iranian writer and activist, and Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector, and both related personal experiences growing up under dictatorships to illustrate their consequences.
“Turn to the person next to you, and imagine that this person is gone,” Nemat said. “Imagine they have been imprisoned, beaten, raped, killed and their body buried away in a mass grave, away in some god-forsaken place.”
On the 31st anniversary of her release from Evin Prison in Iran, Nemat spoke about the horrors she endured during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Nemat said she was arrested at age 16, with thousands of schoolchildren, after protesting when her schoolteachers were replaced. For two years, she said she was beaten, raped and tortured. Sometimes, Nemat said, she was tied to her bed, had her shoes removed, and a guard used a metal cable to lacerate the soles of her feet.
While Nemat and her friends endured these horrific indignities decades ago, she said the Iranian government has not properly protected human rights.
“Nothing has changed,” Nemat said. “It does not matter if Iran has a moderate government or an extremist government. The sect of laws that govern that country remain the same.”
Park spoke of similarly traumatic experiences under an oppressive regime.
At a young age, Park said her father was arrested and deported to a work camp for conducting business on the black market, a practice he had taken to keep his family afloat among starvation and famine. Park explained that the money had kept her and her family fed while the streets were filled with starving children. She and her schoolmates had been taught that Kim Il-Sung and his successor, Kim-Jong Il, were their omnipotent fathers and deserved their unrequited loyalty, she said.
“I was taught that [Kim-Jong Il] could read my mind,” she said. “I could not have private thoughts, since he could hear me.”
Eventually, Park and her family escaped to China and then Mongolia. Along the way, she said her mother was raped.
Once reaching Mongolia, she became exposed to western culture. She said she was in awe to see people dying for causes they believed in that was not the dictatorship.
“I never knew I had the rights to be free — or even that human beings deserved those rights,” Park said.
At the end of the talk, the speakers emphasized the importance of education about human rights and non-violent protest.
Srdja Popovic, a founding member of the Serbian civic protest group, Otpor!, and a former member of the Serbian National Assembly, said the American education system should emphasize the methods and history of non-violent resistance over the study of war.
Paul Lee ’17, the president of Yale THiNK, said he hopes that the forum will encourage Yale students to focus more of their time on campus to issues of human rights abuses.
“We need to maintain that momentum in order to progress into making concrete changes in educational policy and the world,” Lee said.
The 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum will be held from May 25 to May 27 and streamed online.