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Arab Spring
April 13, 2015

Event Transcript: ‘Crowdsourcing Freedom’

Nicholas Sean Paul

SPEAKER: David Keyes

Executive Director of Advancing Human Rights

CHAIR: Davis Lewin

Monday 13 April 2015

The Henry Jackson Society, London

For a summary of this event, click here

For a podcast of this event, click here



Davis Lewin, Deputy Director & Head of Policy and Research, The Henry Jackson Society

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Henry Jackson Society once again, a pleasure to see you here in our humble abode overlooking the Houses of Parliament, which you can’t see behind me because of the screens but do have a look at the beautiful view as well.

Now, a very special event and a very special pleasure – I say it every time but this time I actually mean it intensely – an admired and good friend of HJS, David Keyes, the Executive Director of Advancing Human Rights. He’s here today to talk about crowdsourcing freedom. David is the Executive Director of Advancing Human Rights, which he founded together with Robert Bernstein, who is the founder of Human Rights Watch. Prior to which David was the coordinator for democracy programmes under the famous Soviet dissident, Natan Sharansky.

Declared a pioneer in human rights activism by The New York Times last year, Keyes launched, which he is speaking about today, and which is a crowdsourcing platform linking human rights activists from dictatorships with people around the world with skills to help. And let me say again, you’re about to see the kind of innovative thinking that David brings to this debate, the kinds of things he’s been doing. He’s really a star in the field. I always say to people, “Don’t call me if you’re not in the game. Don’t call me if you haven’t found a front in the game to go and help. Don’t be armchair.” This is the epitome of the opposite of armchair human rights [activism]. David, a real warrior for real human rights, please, over to you.

David Keyes, Executive Director, Advancing Human Rights

No, no, go on.


Davis Lewin

I would.

David Keyes

Thanks so much, Davis. Can you guys hear me okay? Thank you all for coming, I’m happy to be here at The Henry Jackson Society. I had a whole joke ready for Alan Mendoza – no, no, I’m not going to tell it – but I don’t have one for Davis. I am happy to be here; ‘Scoop’ Jackson has been a long-time hero of mine, so it’s nice to speak in a place that’s named after him. I’m going to show you a platform that we recently launched to crowdsource human rights and hopefully show you all a way in which you can be directly involved in the struggle for human rights. But I thought I would start first with an anecdote from my train ride as soon as I landed from Sweden via New York.

I struck up conversation with someone from the train and he asked me what I was here to speak about and I said my standard answer, which is, “How to fight dictators.” And he said, “Well, what a lot of people think is what the Middle East needs is more dictatorship.” And I noticed that there’s kind of a new orthodoxy in thought about the Middle East and that is that, in the wake of the great tumults of 2011and 2012, in light of the rise of ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] and the taking over of a third of two countries, in light of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, in light of Hamas’ victories, many people today think that the entire concept of supporting freedom and human rights in the Middle East has been a tragic mistake and that what we need to do is return to those happy and stable days of 2009 and 2010 before there were these dirty revolutions, before there was the spectre of the rise of Islamism. And if we could only support and back autocrats throughout the Middle East, everything would be better. My job here today is to persuade you that this is the opposite of the truth, that we should be stalwart defenders of human rights and liberty in the Middle East. And that the more we abandon these principles, the worse it becomes for people in the region, the less stable it becomes, the more extremism rises, and the less peace we have in the world.

So, to go back to those days of 2009 and ‘10, when most experts of the Middle East were talking about the great stability of the region, you had Secretary Kerry declaring in 2010 that Syria under Assad was a place of stability and peace. You had great leaders of think tanks in foreign relations declaring that Tunisia was the most stable of all countries. There was consensus among Middle Eastern experts that Tunisia was the single most stable country. 23 days later a dictator fell precipitously. You had Secretary of State Clinton, on 25 January 2011, declare that our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable. Turning to Syria, you had newspapers like the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, which declared in March 2011 that Syria was an island of stability, and that this was no powder keg waiting to explode. You had The Economist magazine, in 2009, say that [Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali’s regime [was] not going anywhere soon. You had Newsweek magazine, in 2009, declare that the best for Syria was a wise and benevolent and charismatic leader like Bashar al-Assad.

Larry Cox, the director at Amnesty International, said that no one saw the Arab Spring coming, that no one predicted it. That’s not quite true because there were a lot of democratic dissidents, there were a lot of human rights activists, there were a lot of people who had been victimised and brutalised by these regimes, who saw with crystal clarity the coming of instability and the fall of these dictators. They felt that these revolutions were inevitable. And they called on the West and the free world to be on the right side of history. These were people like Kamal Al-Labwani, a great Syrian human rights activist, who spent ten years being tortured by Bashar al-Assad. And in 2006, from the depths of his torture chamber, he said that the Assad regime was going to lead the region towards a mass slaughter and extremism would rise in its wake. My friend, Karim Amer [Blogger Boardmember of], who spent four years being tortured by Hosni Mubarak, wrote from his prison cell in 2007 that Mubarak’s end was near and that regional tyrants would soon fall.

This was not all that different from the difference in prognostications of experts during the Soviet era who predicted long term stability in the Soviet Union and the sustaining of that regime in perpetuity. People like Robert Gates, former head of the CIA, who admitted that the very first year that the CIA predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse in its entirety was 1989.


Yeah…. Meanwhile you had poets like Andrei Amalrik who, from the depths of Soviet tyranny, wrote books in 1969 titled Will The Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? So I ask the question: why is it that the diplomats got it so wrong, that the experts got it so wrong? And why is it that the dissidents got it so right? And I think it has a lot to do with the fact that these individuals felt viscerally the nature of the regimes. They understood the link between internal freedom and external stability, between internal peace and external peace. And the great Vaclav Havel said [that] there can be no external peace without internal peace, and that the way citizens are treated amongst themselves is a great indicator of how those regimes will treat their neighbours.

There’s one anecdote which I think typifies this debate. And that is when my former boss, Natan Sharansky, was jailed for nine years in the Soviet Union, his wife, Avital, who heroically went around the world campaigning for his freedom, she went to a meeting at the State Department, she met with a very senior official. And that official looked at a huge map on the wall and said to her, “With all due respect, Mrs. Sharansky, you don’t expect us to relegate all of these geostrategic challenges to the release of your husband?” And she replied, “What you don’t understand is that these issues won’t be solved until my husband is free,” because she understood with crystal clarity that how the regime treated its own people was the best indicator of how that regime would treat its neighbours, treat America, treat the world.

And this is something that “Scoop” Jackson understood as well. He authored legislation to tie Most-Favoured-Nation Status to the right of free immigration. There were those that thought that this brinksmanship would lead to war. He understood just the opposite – that these confrontations, which lead to the opening of a closed society, actually increase the chance of peace.

And the West has a tremendous ability to stand up for democratic dissidents which is so often underutilised in the name of realpolitik, in the name of short term interests. Individuals in the front lines are rarely listened to. They’re much beloved but they’re rarely listened to, their prognostications for what will come. And the sort of people who I have been working with for years, who have been talking about the coming instability, were summarily ignored by the free world and the West. And armed and funded were the tin pot despots and the autocrats; and the liberals, and the democrats, and the dissidents, and the people who embody the values we hold most dear were systematically ignored and isolated. And I think, and my position has been, that this has been much to our detriment.

The role of the West in standing up for these democratic dissidents is, I think, greatly underappreciated. When Gorbachev was asked in 1997 why he freed Sharansky, he said, “Wherever I travelled in the world, nobody would speak with me about what I was there to talk about. When I went to Canada as Agriculture Minister in 1985 nobody would speak with me about agriculture – all they did was protest about this guy. And so I went back to the Soviet Union and I decided it wasn’t worth the international price we were paying.” And that’s a remarkable, remarkable admission on the part of the leader of the Soviet Union – a power which had killed tens of millions, which spanned eleven time zones, which put seventy million people in the gulag. To admit that these much derided students and housewives had that effect, that mass mobilisation galvanising people throughout the West could actually affect policy of such a vicious and cruel regime as the Soviet Union is, to my mind, an amazing admission.

I had my own little experience in the same vein two years ago, when I had a confrontation with Iran’s Foreign Minister in New York. I attended lunch with him with a few other people. I went up to him after the lunch and I said, “Mr. Foreign Minister, do you think that it’s ironic that you enjoy posting on Facebook when your government bans it in Iran?” And he laughed and he said, “Ha ha, that’s life.” I asked him, “When will Majid Tavakoli be free,” (one of Iran’s most famous student leaders and political prisoners). And he said, “I don’t know who Majid Tavakoli is.” And so I published this in the press and it went viral inside of Iran and thousands of Iranians on Facebook challenged the Foreign Minister and said, “How is it possible you don’t know who our most famous political prisoners are?” And it was written about widely in the press and a few days later they freed Majid Tavakoli from prison. It’s not a happy ending because they put him right back in prison as soon as the press attention died down. But this is one of the levers which is so tremendously underutilised by the West. Every time an Iranian diplomat steps out of his office there is a cacophony of protest, we haven’t fought in the most innovative ways to make their lives miserable, to provide more backing and hope to the democratic dissidents.

And even amidst negotiations over Iran’s nuclear deal, there’s almost no attention on human rights. And you contrast that with the Soviet Union; the head of bilateral arms negotiations in the 80s in the Pentagon told me that in every single meeting with his Soviet counterparts he raised the names of Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov and Natan Sharansky and he said, “The reason we can’t trust you on arms control is because you violate the Helsinki Final Act in your treatment of Soviet dissidents.”

And today, when the West and the P5+1 go to negotiate with Iran, human rights is not even remotely on the agenda. Instead dictators all throughout the Middle East are armed and funded. And, to my original point, I think that most people, both on left and right, have come to a consensus that this whole freedom idea has largely been nonsense that has brought about tremendous instability. But I think it’s precisely the opposite.

Dissidents are also, I think, a great reminder to both our society and theirs that freedom is immutable, that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that there’s a universality to the whole concept of human rights. As I’ve just heard a Belarussian dissident say in Sweden, who had been jailed for years, “There aren’t Russian human rights, there aren’t Western human rights – there are human rights.”

And [inaudible] dissidence comprised a third way between the dictators and the Islamists. And I think what’s been little understood is that when people say there are no liberals in the Middle East – there’s no one to support – one great contributing factor to that is that for decades more secular dictators have been supported by the West, and even more fanatic religious zealots have been supported by places like Qatar, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. And in the middle there are those democratic dissidents who could be a great force against both secular and religious dictatorship. But they have been, I think, completely marginalised by Western policy, which has prioritised stability over freedom and feared anarchy more than tyranny.

You, I think, have to ask yourself the question, “Where might liberals be today in the Middle East if they had gotten the kind of support dictatorship has gotten?” Hosni Mubarak got over US$50bn worth of military aid. The President of the United States just shipped US$60bn of arms to the theocratic, repressive dictatorship of Saudi Arabia – a country which beheads women like Amina [bint Abdul Halim] bin [Salem] Nasser for sorcery, for being a witch, which jails you if you try to leave the country without a man’s permission, which forbids you from driving, which throws you in jail if you write a few lines on Twitter questioning religion as Hamza Kashgari did. It’s a country where, if you go out and protest, and say, “I want more freedom,” as Khaled [al-] Johani did in the middle of the square in Riyadh, he’s immediately carted off to prison for years. It’s a country where, if you open a human rights centre like Mohammed [Fahad Muflih al-] Qahtani did, and you say the wrong thing, you go to prison for years. If you’re a lawyer defending human rights like Waleed Abulkhair, you’ll be sentenced to fifteen years in prison for defending human rights. If you’re a liberal, like Raif Badawi, and you open a blog forum to increase liberal thought in Saudi Arabia, you’re sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes.

Now, Raif Badawi only got fifty of his thousand lashes. And the only reason that Saudi Arabia stopped lashing Raif Badawi was because of this great international outcry. Now, you can’t open a newspaper without being reminded of this barbarity. And I think the dissidents are a great bellwether and reminder to us as to the true nature of these regimes, because it is very easy to be seduced by [Mohammad Javad] Zarif’s narrative.

In lunch with Zarif, the way he presented Iran was, without any exaggeration, a mix between Mother Teresa and Gandhi, that there was no regime on Earth as committed to human rights, peace, democracy, respect, as the Iranian regime. And anyone who follows the fate of lawyers, and women’s rights activists, and gays, and secularists, and students, and bloggers in Iran knows that they’re jailed by the thousands. That if you so much as raise your head and say something against the Mullahs, your fate is, more or less, sealed. And as students rose up in 2009, as I see in that inevitable revolution, I think that the free world missed a tremendous opportunity to stand in moral solidarity and to back those domestic, organic forces calling for more freedom.

So I think that there’s three things that leaders of the free world can do to change this balance. The first is to cease praising dictatorship. Every time a press release is issued praising the Saudi King as this great reformer it undercuts the chance of reform in Saudi Arabia. Every time that Assad is spoken of as a partner rather than the monstrous mass murdering criminal that he is it undercuts the chances of true democratic opposition strengthening in Syria.

The next thing that leaders of the free world can do is to raise the names of political prisoners. We saw the effect of raising one name with one diplomat in Iran. I came up with this idea to rename the streets in front of the embassies of dictatorships after the political prisoners. And the House Appropriations Committee voted to change the street name of the Chinese Embassy [to] “Liu Xiaobo Plaza”. And this was as they did with Sakharov in 1984 and every time the Soviet diplomat [stepped] outside, they were confronted with Sakharov’s name. And we tried to do the same with Liu Xiaobo Plaza. But why not rename every Iranian embassy around the world after Majid Tavakoli, or Shiva [Nazar] Ahari, or any of the other prominent democratic dissidents?

And the third thing that can be done is to revive that great idea of linkage. Foreign aid has just been restored to Egypt. And I think that the message that it sends is: arrest as many liberals as you want, jail as many journalists as you want, crack down on civil society however much you want, we [the West] are not on the side of progress and modernity and freedom and reform. And for the last seven or eight years all I’ve done is work with human rights activists from that part of the world and I can’t tell you what a dent that is in the credibility of Western democracies when they say. “You speak a lot about human rights but we see where your arms go. They go to these barbaric theocracies like Saudi Arabia, to prop up people who will behead you in the street for saying the wrong thing.”

I started Advancing Human Rights in 2010 with Bob Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch and the former head of Random House, who published such great people as Dr. Seuss, and Tony Morrison, and Andrei Sakharov, and Havel, etc. And we thought that there was a great need to return to the fundamentals of human rights, to focus on closed societies and basic human rights and to think of more innovative ways that human rights can be supported in dark corners of the world. And we were approached by the head of Google’s think tank in 2012 and asked to take over a group called And with some seed funding from Google, I spent a lot of time thinking about what was missing in the human rights field. And it struck me that there was so much that could be done that wasn’t be done. It’s not just leaders of the free world that can be mobilised – it’s all of us in this room, it’s average folks out there.

Every day I was in touch with activists from Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and Iran, and Russia, and China, who didn’t have access to even the most elementary things. They didn’t know where to send a press release, a woman who was jailed for driving in Saudi Arabia told me. They didn’t have basic documents translated. They had no access to policy makers. They didn’t know how to write an op-ed. They needed help circumventing censorship. They wanted a song written about their plight. And the traditional models of human rights, which is based largely on white papers and conferences, I thought fell far short of what could be done in order to empower human rights activists on the frontlines.

What’s the best way that [we can get] behind every single one of the thousands of political prisoners in Iran, [with] experts in PR, and technology, and journalism, translation, art, and poetry, and everything you could possibly imagine? Well there’s only one way to do that, and it’s not through an existing NGO. It’s only through reimagining how connections are made between people. And what Uber, and Amazon, and Airbnb understood is that [between] millions of people who have something and millions of people who want something, when the middle man is taken out, organic connections can be made. And this changes everything.

A few years ago everyone had cars and everyone needed rides and everyone had GPS but then the idea [of Uber] was solidified and people understood that that’s more efficient than taxis. And Amazon understood that the best way to spread an idea wasn’t to open a bookstore in Akron, Ohio, and try to sell three hundred books, it was to build a platform where anyone in the world can buy and sell books. And Craigslist understood the same thing when it came to couches and other things.

But human rights hasn’t yet grasped that potential and I thought to change that – to build a platform that would be the ultimate backer of democratic dissidents, which would give folks around the world the ability to speak directly with people who had been jailed in autocratic countries, their family members, their friends, to raise their names, to create – to recreate – that mass mobilisation that took place in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry. Hundreds of thousands of people marching on the Washington Mall, every member of Congress mobilised to defend the Soviet Jews. The Canadian Parliament completely engaged in the struggle for human rights. And fast forward to today and you’d be hard pressed to find an American or British man who knows the name of an Iranian political prisoner – you’d be hard pressed to find mass mobilisation in parliaments that prioritise human rights.

And so I would like to show you briefly, if we can connect the screen to the… Oh, thank you.

[Speaking in reference to the website of, projected on a screen behind]

So I welcome you to what has recently been launched at, a platform that crowdsources human rights. And on this platform an activist from a closed society can create a request or all of you can create an offer. And perhaps this activist has fled Assad. Perhaps this activist has fled Assad and needs a lawyer. Perhaps he wants a journalist to cover his struggle – you can click “journalist” [indicating the link]. Perhaps he needs technological help.

We deal with basic human rights and only in large, closed societies. And the activists can write whatever they need: “My brother went to prison, it’s very important that the Western media understands what’s happening.” We launched a few months ago and tens of thousands of people from around the world have come. And the real innovation here is that it gives average individuals an easy way to contribute to human rights. So according to your skills the journalist can click the “journalist” tab and see all the stories of political prisoners around the world and speak directly with family members who need help. The lawyer can do the same to find asylum and refugee cases. The artist can find activists who want art about their [struggle]. The PR experts (how much money goes to PR firms from dictatorships to whitewash their crimes, to convince you and [me] that they are not as bad as they say they are?). this platform gives PR experts the ability to connect directly with democratic dissidents and tip the balance away from the dictators and towards the dissidents.

The great variety of this platform is amazing. We have everything from comedians offering to make fun of dictators – we saw the response of North Korea to The Interview, right? Humour and satire is a tremendously powerful tool that can be mobilised against dictatorships. We have Juilliard jazz drummers offering to dedicate songs to political prisoners. And we also have members of Congress, and Senators, like Senator Rubio, who wrote, “Write to me if there are stories of political prisoners or threatened dissidents in Iran, Cuba, elsewhere that aren’t getting enough attention. I’ll work to make sure they’re not forgotten.” And when he posts this, dozens and dozens of former residents of Evin Prison, and Cuban prison, write directly to the Senator.

We’ve had Parliamentarians from Australia and Canada, and the only Russian MP to vote against Putin’s annexation of Crimea is on here, connecting with media. And it’s very easy to filter by the offers and the requests. It’s very easy to sort by the country you’re interested or the issue you’re interested in. And so just in the last few days, we have requests for bloggers, we have victims of ISIS who fled. When the family members of the liberals who are being lashed in Saudi Arabia post their family members’ words in Arabic, one person translates, one person edits, and the other one publishes.

It’s become a central hub for journalists to connect with political prisoners around the world. The Daily Beast has over twenty million readers and, every few days, family members and friends of activists are published. First they post on our site, then they are picked up. Samar Badawi – “Saudi Arabia Jailed My Entire Family” [indicating an online article] – her brother, and her husband, and herself, the daughter of an Iranian political prisoner – eleven political prisoners behind bars for the holidays.

We’ve had activists even from inside prison use smuggled cell phones to connect with parliamentarians in the free world and in the West. And when Bill Browder’s office posted that they want a song about Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who was tortured and killed in Russian prison, songwriters in New York wrote a beautiful song. And when the group Pussy Riot heard the song, they helped make this music video about Sergei Magnitsky.

[On screen plays a video on YouTube entitled “TRIBUTE TO SERGEI MAGNITSKY”, available at]

This is just one example, a song is not going to topple a dictator, there’s no single act. But I see all of these actions as little cracks in the wall of dictatorship. And we have only scratched the surface, I think, of the type of support that the free world can give to democratic dissidents and to political prisoners.

Our goal should be, I think, [initiating] behind every one of these pro-democracy activists this tremendous mobilisation – that we greatly increase the pressure on dictatorships, because these dissidents are the Achilles’ heel of dictators. And the reason that dictators spend so much time and money and effort jailing someone for a poem or for a picture or for a blog post is because they are absolute petrified of their influence. It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about the fact that this lone individual, who ostensibly has no power, is systematically shut down by an Iranian theocracy, by a Saudi theocracy, once a Soviet dictatorship. But it just goes to show what the infectious nature of dissent [is].

And that’s how I see the Arab Spring – that, what started with a few people in the street, suddenly the wall of fear fell and people said to themselves, “It started in Tunisia, we live in Egypt, why should they be free of a dictator but we have ours?” And, after Egypt, the Syrians said, “If Tunisia and Egypt got rid of their dictators, why should we be any different?” So they revolted. And these revolts were absolutely inevitable and it would behove us to spend more time and more effort and more money and more concentration to support liberalism in illiberal societies because that is the only long term guarantee of peace and stability and true economic prosperity.

And I think all we have to do is really listen to those wise words of the Soviet dissidents to trust states as much as they trust their own people. And, as Andrei Sakharov said, “In the end, the moral choice ends up to be the most pragmatic choice as well.”

Thank you so much for letting me present this and I welcome any comments or questions or critiques.


Davis Lewin

Well, David, I did say that you were the absolute epitome of the opposite of armchair activist and I think you’ve amply proven that to be the case with this innovative platform.

I wonder if I can go to the floor for some questions as regards David’s work and his presentation here. Who would like to ask the first question? The lady at the back, please.

Question One

That’s a very powerful medium we’ve got. Just looking at the future and particularly in the vacuums that are coming in after these dictators are falling, how and do you have any policy to bridge into the closed areas controlled by groups such as ISIS or in South Waziristan, for example, and have you a way of dealing with that if they reach out to you from within those areas?

David Keyes

Yes, great question.

We’ve had a number of posts related to ISIS and kind of in the worst societies. I think you’re right to point out that, you know, the most important aspect of this is not necessarily to get rid of the bad guy but to build good ideas. Because what we saw in Egypt was that the most organised, the most, you know, well-structured institution, and the reason nobody should have had any doubts as to who would have taken over Egypt is that, from 1928 to 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was plotting, and planning, and recruiting, and building, and growing, and providing a narrative that made sense to people, which is to say – I lived in an Islamist slum in Egypt in 2006, and the only place where you had a modicum of an ability to criticise Mubarak was in your mosque – between the social services and the narrative that we are more Islamic, we are cleaner, we are better than this guy who has destroyed our country, the Army’s theft of the country, controlling half of it, and here we stand, ready to take over, ready to be more pious than your leaders and that’s why you should be part of our organisation.

Liberals in Egypt didn’t really have a fraction of that, few and far inbetween, little points here and there, but they didn’t have the organisational capacity, I think, or really the strategic thought to go about convincing average Egyptians, a deeply illiberal society, according to the polls a majority of which says that if you leave your religion you must die. So how do you convince folks like that? Well, that likely will come from inside the faith, from people saying, “No, true Islam does not say this but we have a different interpretation which says, ‘No, actually that only applied to a certain period of time, under certain conditions,’” and to do what many other religions have done, which is to take deeply intolerant sections of a text and reinterpret them.

But to your question about ISIS and Wazirista:, we’ve had activists whose home towns have been taken over by ISIS and they’ve posted here. Here you see somebody wanting PR exposure about ISIS. We have a lot “save the life of Syrian gay refugees”, we have a woman – [citing article on] “I am Assyrian Christian and ISIS just took over my hometown; I am an Assyrian from Syria and my hometown has been overtaken by ISIS. Women and children are taken, they might kill them at any moment – I’m looking for media interviews to speak out about that. Please help us save the life of Syrian Christians.”

And here The Daily Beast immediately contacted her and she was on television and I think millions of people saw her story a day or two after she posted this. It’s very difficult in these societies because it all seems so overwhelming. What on Earth do you do when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi takes over you town and slaughters all the Yazidis or the Christians or the minorities, the women? And I think that the only thing we can do is provide as much comfort and aid to those fighting those forces and in a myriad of ways.

My Uber driver last night was from Somalia and he said, “It’s a shame that people aren’t doing more to combat Al-Shabaab, which is slaughtering people left, right, and centre and I wish I could do something.” And so, I was like, “This is a sign from heaven,” you know, I told him about Movements and, sure enough, he said he’s going to offer free rides to Somali refugees who have fled Al-Shabaab. You know, that’s not going to stop Al-Shabaab in its tracks but if all of us, in some way, came to the defence of the folks who are fighting ISIS on the frontlines, with everything including political will and I think a better understanding of what ISIS is about, because a lot of these organisations – you know when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996, a lot of people said, “Very far away, we know they’re bad but not our problem. Nothing really we should do about it.” And that problem metastasised in 2001 – we saw the results of a number of years of Taliban rule combined with hosting Al Qaeda.

So when it comes to ISIS, I think the threat is far worse because they have a lot more money, a lot more territory, and they’re better organised. And so I hope that by painting the picture of what ISIS is, and the real danger of ISIS, and drawing the link between what ISIS is doing internally and what it will invariably and inevitably do externally, we can play a very significant role in mobilising political and grassroots opposition to these extremist forces and to do everything we can hopefully through Movements to combat them.

Davis Lewin

Yes, please. Sorry, we’ll go with the lady first and then the gentleman.

Question Two

I just was interested in whether anyone showed interest in the data you’re collecting, people like the Global Peace Index or people like that and have you given any thought to support this [interest]?

Question Three

I was just wondering what could be done when people get in contact with you, say from states like Russia, who haven’t got great ability to access Internet traffic and things like that, what you’re able to do to protect their identities in case getting in touch with your platform puts them on the radar of countries like Russia where maybe they will be caught?

Davis Lewin

So data and cyber security.

David Keyes

As for the data question, we’re only about six or seven months in and so we wanted to wait until we actually had data that would mean anything. It started off very slow and there were a few cases and now we’ve had tens of thousands of people come and so we’ve actually just gone over the data and it’s very interesting to see where it comes from and what people are posting about, how to incentivise people to comment, to come back. These are not easy questions and what re quests are fully met, what are in progress, how do you know when something’s finished? What’s success when somebody says, “Get me out of here,” or, “Highlight my case”? Or, you know, there’s a huge spectrum…

Really just now we’re starting to analyse it. I talk with the Google folks every now and again and there’s a lot to learn. And it’s a really new field and there’s a lot of market places out there for other things but when it comes to human rights it’s kind of a new vista. And so we’re really learning. I mean, there’s obviously far more requests than offers because people are in desperate need, whereas it takes a little bit more for someone to say, “Let me take out a few hours of my day and contribute.”

I would say that the biggest member is media requests and it’s become kind of a channel [for] journalists from many, many news organisations on here pretty much getting stories every week.

Question Two (continued)

I was thinking more about the sort of Global Peace Index power of ranking countries and that being an incentive to improve.

David Keyes

It’s a great idea. I should probably reach out to them.

And just real quick about the cyber security question: we had pretty tough security built into the system but we make it very clear that there’s no… We were warned by the people who built our security that they said that the Chinese cyber army can hack you given enough time and effort. Don’t pretend like you can keep your site safer than, say, the White House, which was hacked by the Russians.

So we make it very clear with a lot of disclaimers on the site that this is a platform which is really meant for people who are open about their activism. We don’t promise that this is the anonymous network where you’re never going to be discovered. This is really for people for whom fear has already fallen and there are many, many activists in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, liberated parts of Syria, who are on Facebook every day pleading for the world to help, pleading for the world to hear their story, pleading for people to understand the nature of these totalitarian movements. And so we built it with that in mind.

That said, when you see a post, [indicating posts on] and this is Senator Kirk from Illinois, who’s also asking to hear from political prisoners, there’s a star rating from zero to five. Five means we know you personally, it’s definitely you, much like a Twitter “Verified Check” and anything short of that is, you know, as you put less information about yourself you get [fewer] stars. And we ask people to treat it a lot like email. If you’ve got an email from somebody that says, “Please help me,” before you send that person money or before you’ve met that person you might enquire about them, Google them, Skype with them, talk with them, ask for links to their stuff.

So it’s not a perfect solution but we try to strike a balance between providing some amount of verification and security and also acknowledging the shortcomings in any online platform.

Davis Lewin

The gentleman at the back over here first.

Question Four

You’ve largely answered my question. I was going to ask about vetting when you’re starting to put people together. There is that corporate responsibility; that you’re not aiding forces of evil.

David Keyes

Yeah, absolutely, and we try our best with our staff to find out who’s who but you could never do that perfectly unless you maybe visited with everybody. The challenge for us was: do you help a few dozen or few hundred people that you know perfectly well or do you open a platform which is open to a lot more people and has less verification and less security? But it’s a problem which, I think, kind of answers itself. There’s nobody that says we shouldn’t be using Gmail because we don’t know who everybody is emailing us. It’s a net positive and every Iranian wants Gmail and everybody wants protection inside their Gmail despite the inherent risks of a Nigerian prince emailing you and asking for fifty thousand dollars or pounds.


Davis Lewin

May I have the gentleman in the very far corner at the back please?

Question Five

Just a quick question: you spoke earlier about things that the individual citizen could do and the thought occurred to me from the whole question of the struggle for Soviet Jewry in the 70s. I can recall that a lot of people were walking around with these bracelets. And each bracelet would have the name of an individual dissident that you sort of sponsored and perhaps they tried to contact them, I’m not sure. But certainly you actually did make a symbolic statement by spending part of your time walking around with this bracelet. Today it could be a physical object like a bracelet, I suppose, or it could be something virtual like something on you Facebook page, whatever. But I was wondering if there is any possibility perhaps of doing something like that where individuals could be assigned a particular person they would learn about and whose plight they would promote – attention to their plight they would promote.

David Keyes

Yeah, there’s a few organisations that do exactly that and one of the things I’m struck by when I meet people, and almost any time that it comes up [that] I worked for Sharansky, [they] say, “Let me tell you what I did for his freedom.” And almost everybody tells me that they wore a bracelet, or they adopted someone at his Bar Mitzvah, or they chained themselves to a Soviet mission, or they threw something at Soviet diplomats. And it’s absolutely remarkable what a mass movement that was.

Today, I mean, it’s such a different world for many reasons, not just [because] they didn’t have a fraction of the technology, but the Soviet Jewry movement was largely about Jews and I think that’s part of the genius that it was such an individualised struggle. It wasn’t an abstract concept of tyranny, it was a guy who wanted to move to Israel and who couldn’t. And that was tragic. And because he was somebody who was identified with something you believed in, you could be mobilised. And, in fact, there are great studies that prove the amazing, amazing change where you individualise a struggle. There’s a sociologist at the University of Oregon named Paul Slovic, who studied what animates people. And he had three test groups and he gave all the test groups the same amount of money. And the first test group he gave facts about millions of people starving in Africa. And the second test group got a picture of one starving seven-year-old girl. And the third test group got one seven-year-old girl and one seven-year-old boy. And on average people gave twice as much money to the single picture of the single woman as opposed to the facts about the millions of people starving.

So ISIS taking over Syria and imposing theocracy and dictatorship doesn’t say much. But you get the ability of an individual to say, “ISIS has taken over my hometown, here’s what happened to my family, here’s why I need your support,” and there’s a lot better likelihood that that person will be moved to support.

As for the bracelets, the platform is a place for people who are already doing that. And there are such groups that are already doing that. You can all come and gain access to a wider audience and to more partner NGOs, and see this as kind of a clearing house and a hub where all of the people who are doing many, many different things can come together because there’s no silver bullet, there’s not one thing that, at least, and the more I learn about it, the more confused I am about what actually works as activism in the street. Is it computers or is it physical things? Or is it diplomatic pressure, economic pressure? Is it the Internet, is it traditional press, is it circumvention, is it… I could go on and on and on – I’m really not sure. But I think this is a hub where those sorts of folks can get even more help than they have.

Question Six- Davis Lewin, The Henry Jackson Society

So before I come to you, sir, can I add my own “chair’s prerogative” question to that: do you have any plans for the platform beside itself to become a focus for activism and, thinking of the kinds of sites that do campaigning? In particular, it crosses my mind that there are certain MPs here who have, many times, told me how much they hate various of these sites, which means they are very effective because they have to respond to them. And they hate them of course because they are not campaigning on the kinds of issues that they would support whereas this would be the kind of which they would support. So is there a plan to make into something that can also do these kinds of things, whether you begin with mass email and online campaigns, whatever else?

David Keyes

It’s a discussion we’re having internally, actually, because there’s an impulse to go towards more direction when you come into the site and to say, “Here’s the way you go about a campaign,” whereas this is very, very bare bones. This is a lot more like Craigslist than something which is guided. And there’s no real help on the site to say, “Here are the other cases like you,” or, “Here, X amount of progress has been done.” I think there’s a lot of places we can go with that. I’ve come up with a number of ideas to make it more in the vein of campaigns.

But frankly I’m also not persuaded that a really kind of completely bottom-up approach, where as ridiculous a request as you can come up with can possibly be met, because a campaign to lobby an MP is a wonderful and beautiful thing. But what does the campaign look like around, you know, a drummer dedicating a song to a political prisoner? It’s just one guy who wants to help, he read about something.

So I think we’ll go a little bit more in that direction but…. And there’s some other sites that do a lot of hand-holding. And frankly a fusion between the two might be the best approach but I’m not sure, frankly.

Davis Lewin


Question Seven

So I wanted to ask you a little bit about the policy questions. Are there kinds of requests you can’t handle, are there causes you won’t embrace? I’m thinking of stuff like Ferguson [the town in Missouri, USA] which, you know, seems like it would have a lot of people looking for this kind of help and support. But you mentioned before that you only work with large regimes, I was just wondering if you could explain your policy for us?

David Keyes

Yeah, sure. We focus only on closed societies and dictatorships. That is often misunderstood as us thinking that there are not human rights violations in democracies. Of course we know there are. There are many serious challenges in places like America, and Britain, and Western Europe, and Israel – real, difficult human rights questions. The reason we focus on dictatorships is not because there aren’t human rights violations [in democracies] but because there are mechanisms to address them – there are thousands of individuals engaged in very noble struggles to hold governments accountable, there are free and fair elections, there are independent judiciaries, and there’s routine critique in the press.

Question Seven (continued)

So it’s about targeting?

David Keyes

That’s right, and when I look at the world, a lot of people think your credibility to criticise a dictatorship comes from criticising a democracy. And I don’t believe that at all. I don’t think you need to criticise South Korea in order to criticise North Korea. I think that that actually undermines the very foundation of human rights, which is a true divide between open and closed societies – societies which have mechanisms to address and redress and fix real human rights issues. And so I thought what was most needed was to go to the places like Syria, and North Korea, and China where any opposition to these policies will land you in prison, tortured, killed.

And as for who we allow or don’t allow, the only thing we don’t allow is racism, violence, terrorism, or xenophobia – people who advocate illiberal ideas. This is not a platform for them. It’s not a platform for anything about anything for anyone. We’re very targeted in trying to support people who believe in the basic human rights of free speech, freedom of movement, freedom of press, freedom of association. And we’re not a neutral platform – for, say, anyone who wants to say anything. And I think human rights has lost a lot of that clarity. And we’ve seen groups that do more reports about open societies than closed societies.

I believe passionately and strongly that we need to go back to the original mandate of opening closed societies and to congratulate and to support democratic activists in democratic states, who are doing good work to hold governments accountable.

Davis Lewin

May I have the lady at the back please?

Question Eight

You mentioned that you don’t allow people advocating terrorism, and so on and so forth, but do you screen all the posts before they’re published or do they instantly go online and get screened afterwards? How does that process work?

David Keyes

Well, we try to see it as it comes through but you can post and we might not catch it immediately. But usually it’s flagged and you can report abuse much like a lot of other platforms. So we do our best and we’ve missed some stuff. Sure, we’re going to make some mistakes. And there’s definitely grey in terms of all of these issues – how open, how closed? You know, we chose freedom, how’s this: partially free or not free? And we’ve started with large countries.

Also, because we’re a very small staff and we can’t be everywhere at once, we’ve decided to focus on the big bad boys rather than the little bad boys for now but after the £50 million that I raise from this meeting I’m sure we can extend it to many other countries.


Question Nine – Davis Lewin

Any other questions?

Right, if there aren’t any I’m going to take the prerogative one more time and ask one myself. And might I ask you, just for one moment before we sum up, just to broaden it out, what I’m wondering is, what is your perception of… It seems to me HJS and you are natural allies in the way that we see the world on this kind of thing and it seems to me that the world is actually moving in the wrong direction, to an extent. Talk to us, just for a moment, about the current administration, about the Arab Winter, as it is called, and so on and so forth, in terms of where are the points of hope for doing this kind of work, where is this strongest? We all know Iran is of course one. Talk to us a little bit about that in terms of where one might focus now, where are the opportunities, what do we need to hit hard?

David Keyes

Sure, I think that there’s been a widespread withdrawal from the very idea that freedom should be supported abroad, that both left and right, for different reasons, have said to themselves that these are not people which should be backed forcibly, that we should cut deals with dictatorships, that we should return to the status quo of arming and funding autocrats, that there’s no hope, that the only game in town is radical extremism, and the best way to fight that is to back slightly less crazy people or slightly less religious [people].

I don’t think that that’s a smart long term strategy. I don’t think it’s a smart way to fight extremism. I think you need to replace bad ideas with better ideas. And so, when you see an autocrat who’s throwing his opposition into prison and closing down space for any dissent or critique, that’s not a way that the Middle East is going to move towards progress and sanity and peace and tolerance.

I think that the priorities need to be on certainly Iran, given its great influence throughout the region, essentially taking over for capitals. The amount of money that Iran is throwing at regressive forces in the Middle East is just mindblowing. I think that Saudi Arabia… Almost every activist that I’ve spoken to in the last almost decade,from the region believes that Saudi Arabia is the root of all evil. And we bury our heads in the sand at our peril and I think really misunderstand the amount of extremism that’s exported by a regime which is so deeply intolerant at home, that great pressure can be applied, certainly given the economic relationship between Saudi Arabia and America.

But essentially I think that there needs to be a deep revival in the faith of our own power, that a lot of these short term deals come about because Western countries don’t see themselves as powerful enough to confront bad regimes, [as in] Russia, that Putin is [seen as] simply too powerful. I wrote a piece with Garry Kasparov and he’s fond of talking about the differences in power in the 60s and 70s and he asks the question, “Is Putin really more powerful than Khrushchev or Brezhnev?” I mean, can we really say that? And the answer is “No”, it’s not even close and yet you had very brave people like “Scoop” Jackson who were willing to stand up to dictatorship and prioritise human rights and take great risk in the service of a noble end.

And that’s what I really admire – I think we need to convince ourselves that we are immensely powerful and that dictatorship is extremely brittle, it is extremely insecure, it is extremely weak despite its brutality. And this is a moral duty and strategic opportunity to back democratic dissidents, to empower them, to utilise them, and to understand that countries which wage war on their own people are unlikely to wage peace with their neighbours. So if we keep that in mind and prioritise liberty over stability, and fear tyranny more than anarchy, I think that that’s a good framework to go about the Middle East. And to not lose faith that, over the long period, the only solution to these endemic problems of corruption, and tyranny, and instability, and chaos is to open closed societies. And we have allies in the region, we just need to stop treating them so poorly.

Davis Lewin

Thank you so much.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, as I’ve said at the start, I am somebody who’s very strongly of the view that, given the dire human rights situation that exists, this is a situation to be addressed by rolling up your sleeves, not by sitting around and thinking too much in that way. And I think we’ve seen one of the most admirable examples of that today.

I would wholeheartedly encourage you to visit, to sign up if you do have something to offer in regard to what it is that David has put together there, in that way. And please join me in thanking him in the usual manner.


David Keyes

Thank you.