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Why we need to listen and learn from victims of dictatorships

Maddie Tipping | @maddietipping

Human rights are essential in maintaining dignity and respect between people. In this way, they should form the basis of every modern society and in the West, we’re conditioned to believe that it’s the government’s duty to protect them. However, when thinking about human rights, the importance of education also becomes very clear. It’s vital that victims of these systems have the opportunity to educate the rest of the world about what’s happening. For many of those in disadvantaged countries, resilience is not a choice but necessary for survival. In other words, those facing violation of their rights have no option but to fight every day for themselves and their loved ones. We have a responsibility to listen and learn about the resilience of both victims of oppressive regimes, and those who fight to challenge them. 

The part that education plays in challenging the abuses taking place in these nations is fundamental. Acknowledging our own ignorance surrounding these issues is a first step in building an understanding of what is being done, as well as what can be done.

Smuggled image of soldiers relaxing in North Korea. Image courtesy of Bored Panda.

North Korea is a key example that highlights our lack of knowledge. Amnesty International reports the government continues to “operate and deny the existence of four known political prison camps. Up to 120,000 detainees in the camps were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, forced labour, and harsh conditions including inadequate food.1” The experience of one particular individual has challenged my own perception of how human rights are being addressed by world leaders.

Yeonmi Park is a young woman who escaped from North Korea at thirteen years old, having experienced brutality at the hands of the North Korean system. Interviewed by the New York Times, she challenged world leaders over their engagement with Kim Jong-un. She says “when I saw the president of South Korea hugging Kim Jong-un, I asked myself: would he do the same with Hitler?”2 This is a thought-provoking question that should encourage us to think about how our own politicians relate to such dictators. 

Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and activist. Image courtesy of YouTube.

Having lived through the violation of her own human rights, Yeonmi Park’s anger has also turned to other world leaders. She believes they have failed to hold Kim Jong-un accountable. Given the testimonies of defectors and survivors of the regime in North Korea, watching Donald Trump shake hands with Kim Jong-un at the 2018 Singapore Summit is uncomfortable. Having initially viewed this meeting as a positive step- a tactful move towards peaceful relations – it was through listening to Yeonmi Park that I thought more critically about how this really reflects our generation’s attitude to human rights. The most powerful statement in her interview was a direct appeal to Trump –“President Trump, while you have Kim Jong-un’s attention, use it to free North Koreans”. This statement alone encourages us to think more analytically about how we allow our leaders to interact with dictators. 

Yeonmi has a real understanding of the damage caused by the rest of the world standing by. Her work has been crucial in drawing attention to how political leaders are turning a blind eye to a brutal administration under a false image of reconciliation. 

Yeonmi has effectively created a platform for herself and persisted in drawing attention to the atrocities committed under the current regime. Her fight did not finish when she escaped to South Korea in 2009 – she is still fighting to expose Kim Jong-un’s oppression. She has not let it define her, but rather she has taken control of her narrative by acting as an advocate for all the victims in North Korea today. Her mission is to educate the world about the dictatorial regime in North Korea and we have a responsibility to listen. Only someone who has lived that experience can convey its full impact on those who have suffered. 

Donald Trump with Kim Jong-un at the Singapore Summit in June 2018. Image courtesy of Time.

As citizens of a free, democratic society, our responsibility is to listen and learn about human rights violations (wherever they might occur) and to understand and admire the resilience of those who fight it. This issue goes beyond North Korea – there are human rights violations happening right now in Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria (to name but a few). We really are the ‘information generation’ and we have the tools to educate ourselves and others about the ongoing abuse of human rights in these countries. Taking the resilience of those suffering as an example, our generation has an obligation to demand action from our political leaders.

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