‘Gandhi and Human Rights, the Modern Context’
by David Matas (Talk prepared for presentation to The India Centre, University of Winnipeg)
I want to begin with a quote from a 1949 essay George Orwell wrote about Gandhi. He wrote:
“there is reason to think that Gandhi, who after all was born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everything in terms of his own struggle against the British government. The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity. …. he believed in ‘arousing the world’, which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary. Is there a Gandhi in Russia at this moment? And if there is, what is he accomplishing? The Russian masses could only practise civil disobedience if the same idea happened to occur to all of them simultaneously, and even then, to judge by the history of the Ukraine famine, it would make no difference.”
As a human rights advocate and activist, these are questions I often have to address. In the hands of repressive regimes, the means of control, censorship, cover up, counter factual narratives, whistle blower suppression, torture, disappearance, and mass murder have developed considerably since 1949 when Orwell was writing.
Is arousing the world about massive human rights violations possible today when victims disappear and are never heard from again? Is it possible today to command publicity about these violations? Can awareness be spread when the disappearances occur in a country without freedom of expression or assembly? Is it possible today to appeal to outside opinion about these disappearances? Can a struggle for respect for human rights in a repressive country today bring a mass movement into being? Are there Gandhis today in the repressive countries? If there are, can they accomplish anything? Can Gandhi’s method of non-violent resistance be employed today against repressive regimes?
My general answer to these questions is yes. Yet how can this be so? Again, my general answer is that, when we are dealing with truly repressive regimes, Gandhi’s methods are valid, but with a twist.
Non-violent resistance has to shift from inside to outside. Commanding attention, spreading awareness, appealing to global opinion, bringing a mass movement into being can not be done from within the country of repression. But they can be done outside the country of repression. The Gandhis of today inside the country of repression, even just by demonstrating how little can be done from inside, can spur action from outside.
The elaboration of this answer is going to vary from country to country and from violation to violation. In the time I have, I will address only one country, China, and only one human rights violation, the mass killing of prisoners of conscience for their organs.
This example is a worst case scenario. If the answer to all the questions I just posed is yes for this example, it should be yes for all other instances.
In China, since the early 2000s prisoners of conscience, arbitrarily and indefinitely detained in the hundreds of thousands, have been killed each year in the tens of thousands for their organs. The organs are sold to transplant tourists and well to do or well-connected Chinese. The prisoners of conscience are killed through organ extraction and their bodies cremated.
The victims have been primarily practitioners of the spiritually based set of exercises Falun Gong, a Chinese equivalent of yoga, and more recently Uyghurs. Also victimized, in lesser numbers, have been Tibetans and House Christians.
China today is a country of the sort Orwell described. The victims disappear and are never heard of again. There is no freedom of expression; there is no the right of assembly. There is blanket censorship. It is impossible within China itself to appeal to outside opinion, to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions widely known.
Indeed, the reason why practitioners of Falun Gong were arbitrarily and indefinitely detained in the hundreds of thousands is that, to the Chinese Communists, they looked to be a mass movement. The Chinese Communist Party initially encouraged the practice of Falun Gong as beneficial to health. The encouragement occurred as the Party shifted from socialism to capitalism, creating an ideological vacuum. Falun Gong, a blending and updating of the traditional Chinese qigong exercises and the traditional Chinese Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, filled this vacuum.
The Falun Gong beliefs have no political component, but the large number of practitioners was unmistakeable. Exercises were done outdoors in groups. There were exercise groups visible everywhere throughout China, 3,000 such groups in Beijing alone.
The Chinese government in 1999 estimated there were 70 million practitioners. The real number according to practitioner estimates was closer to 100 million.
Because China is not a democracy, those who seek power can not get it by campaigning, getting out the vote, mobilizing public support. The struggle for political power in China happens in other ways, through ideological polemics. Like a Church with prelates each attempting to show that they are holier than their brethren, the Chinese Communist Party power struggle is a divide where each side claims to be more Communist than the other, better at maintaining and enhancing Communist Party power than the other. Candidates for power look for ideological ground to stake out.
Even where the Party has no real threats to its supremacy, those who seek power invent threats to justify their accession to power and retention once they get there. Falun Gong walked into this cross fire between conflicting Party factions without realizing what was hitting them.
Their very popularity and encouragement by some in the Party made them a target of others. The fact that Falun Gong were peaceful, unorganized, and apolitical did not stop Party power climbers who were looking for an easy target. Look at their numbers, they said. Look at their mobilization capacity, they said. Look at their beliefs, which are not Communist, they said. Look at their spirituality, they said, which is not atheist, as Communism is. Look at their overlap with Chinese traditions, they said, which means that they are not modern like us Communists.
The criticisms which one Party faction started broadcasting in their power chess game generated pushback from the Falun Gong community who saw only their objective innocence. Falun Gong practitioners protested, demonstrated, petitioned, saying to the Party faction targeting them, you have got us all wrong.
The Party faction fantasies about the threat of Falun Gong became, because of the pushback, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Falun Gong practitioners began protesting against the Party faction mislabelling them, the reaction of the anti-Falun Gong faction was “see, we told you”. Eventually, instrumentalizing a popular set of exercises with a spiritual foundation for their own political purposes, the anti-Falun Gong faction prevailed and dominated the Party.
The Falun Gong experience illustrated how apt the words of Orwell were to China. In China, it is impossible to bring a mass movement into being, even when the mass movement has nothing to do with politics. The very fact that it is a mass movement makes it a target for a faction in the internal power struggles of the Party. The Falun Gong, even as they became victims, showed from their own experience that no mass movement in China of even the most benign sort is possible.
Allow me to rephrase the question Orwell asked about Stalin’s Russia in 1949. Is there a Gandhi in China at this moment? My answer is yes there is – Gao Zhisheng.
Gao, a human rights lawyer, wrote three open letters protesting the persecution of the Falun Gong in December 2004, October 2005, and December 2005. Following the second letter, the Beijing Bureau of Municipal Justice suspended the operation of his law office for one year. In December 2005, his licence to practice was revoked.
The response of Gao to this behaviour was to resign publicly from the Communist Party and to write his third letter. Starting in December 2005, he and his family were put under constant police surveillance.
The police arrested him in January 2006 for filming the police after he noticed them filming him. A few days later, also in January, a car with covered licence plates followed by a military vehicle also with covered licence plates attempted to run him over.
Gao responded by organizing a relay hunger strike. Lawyers and rights activists fasted in turn for one or two days to protest state persecution. In response the state arrested his office staff. Gao had kept his office open despite his disbarment; but from mid-February he had to continue his work without staff.
A nongovernmental organization, the Coalition to Investigate Persecution against the Falun Gong, in May 2006 asked David Kilgour and me, as independent experts, to investigate and write a report on the claims of organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners in China. David Kilgour is a former a former Minister for Asia and the Pacific of the Government of Canada.
To do this investigation, we wanted to go to China. We cast about for an invitation from within China to do this work. The person who responded was Gao Zhisheng. In his invitation letter, he wrote:
“As all my [land] telephones and networks have been cut off, I can only communicate [by cell phone] through reporters and the media.”
And that is indeed how we got our invitation letter, through the media. Gao phoned in our invitation to a reporter. The reporter in turn phoned one of our interpreters to pass on the invitation. The reporter then filed the invitation with her newspaper, the Epoch Times, which printed it in June, 2006.
I felt uneasy about what Gao had done, that he was putting himself at risk by inviting us in this manner. He anticipated and answered this concern in his letter, writing:
“You may be worried that my support and invitation to you may endanger me. But the danger I am facing is not because of my support and invite to you, it is because we face an evil dictatorship system. Therefore, the danger already exists. The source of danger lies in this evil inhuman system, not what we choose to do.”
The Chinese embassy in Canada made clear to us, at a meeting David Kilgour had with embassy staff, that they would not give us a visa. They only wanted to deny the evidence of organ transplant abuse in China. So we never made a formal visa application and never submitted Gao’s invitation to them.
Despite that, Gao was, after his invitation, arrested tortured, convicted and sentenced. His family fled China and are now refugees in the United States. He was released only in August 2014 and put under house arrest. According to his international lawyer, Jared Genser, Gao was “utterly destroyed” by the prison experience. In August 2017, Gao was rearrested and has not been heard from since.
Gao Zhisheng did not prompt me to begin my work on the Falun Gong file, since I began the work before I knew of him. But he surely encouraged me to continue and persevere. If he was prepared to risk so much for so long, I, from the safety of Winnipeg, should do what I could.
How can non-violent resistance function outside of China in combatting organ transplant abuse of prisoner of conscience victims? I suggest these forms of non-violent resistance:
List perpetrators under Magnitsky legislation. The legislation allows authorities to freeze the assets of serious human rights violators, and deny them entry. Identified offenders are named publicly under the legislation. Canada has yet to list any Chinese perpetrators under this legislation. There has been a request to that effect in December 2018, to list fourteen lead persecutors of Falun Gong.
Require reporting of transplant tourism. There is a need to require reporting of transplant tourism, travel for transplants abroad which involve exploitation, by health professionals to health administrators. No province in Canada has that reporting now.
Make complicity in transplant abuse abroad an extraterritorial offence. In Canada, a bill to that effect has passed both the House of Commons and the Senate of the Parliament of Canada, but in different forms. The bill needs to be re-enacted in common form to become law.
Create an exception to sovereign immunity legislation. The exception should allow for civil law suits against states and those acting state capacities for grave violations of human rights.
Impose an immigration ban. The ban should be imposed on those complicit in organ transplant abuse.
Medical personnel should not go abroad with a patient for organ transplantation and receive compensation.
Medical personnel should not introduce patients to organ transplant brokers.
Medical personnel should not refer patients to a country where
- the local law does not prohibit the sale of organs,
- information on the source of organs is not transparent,
- there are gross human rights violations and absence of the rule of law or
- there are known violations of medical ethics in organ transplantation.
A doctor should not refer a patient for an organ transplant outside the country without ascertaining beyond any doubt that the consent is given freely by the donor.
Physicians should not perform medical investigations in preparation for transplantation of a purchased organ.
Physicians should not prescribe medications which will be used during the transplantation of a purchased organ.
Physicians should not provide medical records to patients for transplant tourism.
Research and training
Studies involving patient data or samples from recipients of organs or tissues from prisoners killed for their organs should not be accepted for presentation or publication.
There should be no collaboration with clinical studies involving recipients of organs or tissues from prisoners killed for their organs.
Transplant professionals should not accept invitations to give scientific or educational lectures or to provide their expertise to support transplant program activities in China.
Hospitals and universities should not accept clinical or preclinical trainees coming from or going to transplant programs that use organs or tissues from prisoners killed for their organs.
Pharmaceutical companies should not engage in anti-rejection drug trials in China.
Insurers should not extend insurance coverage for transplant tourism.
Well, I could go on. As long as this list is, it is far from comprehensive. The general point is that we do not have to be inside a repressive country to resist the repression of that country.
Being outside has the disadvantage that the impact is less immediate. It has the advantage of relative safety and the communication of a global message. By reaching across the linguistic, spiritual, cultural, ethnic divide in solidarity with victims far away, we send a message of global solidarity, of the unity and equality of humanity that is muted when coming from within.
As we have been reminded, Gandhi said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Ancient Greek philosopher Solon asked: “When will we end injustice?” The answer he gave was that injustice will end “when those who are not victims are as outraged as those who are.” These principles are realized as much by outside resistance as by inside resistance.
Ideally outside resistance to oppression should join inside resistance. When it can not, outside non-violent resistance alone can have an impact. The example of Gandhi remains alive today.
David Matas is an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
1. BBC “China dissident lawyer Gao Zhisheng ‘destroyed by jail'” 14 August 2014
2. Tom Blackwell “Time to sanction rightsabusing Chinese officials under Canada’s Magnitsky Act, experts say,” National Post, May 15, 2019