3 Little Known Human Rights Activists


Natan Sharansky (1948-)

“The prison became for me the symbol of Soviet system. That was the place where there was an encounter between the last remnants of the freedom of Russia, between the last people who kept the survivors of freedom alive, and the leaders of the system which could be stable only if it controls the brains of all 200 million people. That was the place where there was no compromise. All the KGB will finally kill this worrisome freedom, or it will be defeated. And that’s why, for me, the symbol of the defeat of the Soviet system is not the Berlin Wall. It’s not the battlefields between East and West, and it’s not international congresses and even not demonstrations of our supporters. That is a punishing cell, or the KGB’s prison, where they tried to conquer the brains of the people, and where they failed.”

– Natan Sharansky, in an Interview with Frontpage in 2004

Natan Sharansky is a Ukrainian-born, Israeli chess master, politician, and human rights activist. Imprisoned for nine years (1977-1986) by the Soviet government on charges of consorting with American intelligence agencies, Sharansky was exposed to the brutalities of the Siberian gulag first-hand. Whether the charges leveled against Sharansky were true is debated, but what is known is that in 1973 Sharansky was denied an exit visa to Israel based on his knowledge of a sensitive piece of information that was vital to the national security of the USSR. After his run-in with the government, Sharansky founded the human rights watch organization the Moscow Helsinki Group, essentially sealing his fate in the labor camp. After his release in 1986, Sharansky was able to immigrate to Israel and begin a career in politics, founding the party Yisrael B’Aliyah (“Israel for Immigration”) with the support of expatriate Soviet Jews living in the country. During his rise to power and stint in the Knesset in the 1990s and early 2000s, Sharansky advocated for the rights of Russian immigrants. Today, he continues to expose issues of anti-Semitism and fight for the rights of Jews worldwide through his leadership of the Jewish Agency of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv.


Shin Dong-hyuk (1982-)

“The meaning of my book goes beyond my personal life experience. It’s about escaping Camp No. 14 and coming out into the real world, and the message it sends is that all prison camps must disappear.”

 – Shin Dong-hyuk in an interview with Jung Young of Radio Free Asia, 2006

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean prison camp north of Pyongyang in 1982. He lived there in total isolation from the outside world until the age of 23, when he escaped through a field of barbed wire into China. Dong-hyuk is the first known defector to make it out of a North Korean labor camp alive. During his teenage years, Shin was forced to watch the execution of his mother and older brother for attempting to escape.  This detail of the young Shin’s life makes his breakout all the more extraordinary; it most likely shaped his resolve one day to free himself from prison.

Since his liberation and subsequent relocation to South Korea, Dong-hyuk has joined forces with the Center for Information on Human Rights in North Korea. On his work with the center, Dong-hyuk states, “I discuss with other defectors our possible role in bringing democracy to North Korea. We also consult with American NGOs. Our work aims to try to educate people living inside North Korea, to help them learn how to think for themselves, gather their strength, and stand up for their rights.” In 2012, Shin Dong-hyuk teamed up with foreign correspondent Blaine Harden to publish Escape from Camp 14 in English. The book received much media attention, fulfilling Dong-hyuk’s goal of raising awareness of North Korean prison camps in the West.


Raoul Peck (1953-)

“We have no right to speak in the name of others without legitimacy. . .I think that we must get accustomed, and accustom our audiences, to other viewpoints. To adopt this stance, we must understand their problems, put ourselves in their shoes and, with certain humility, give them a voice. The cinema should be conceived in that way. Otherwise it remains a power trip. It is just a question of being ethically and politically sound.”

– Raoul Peck in a 2012 Cannes Film Festival Interview

Filmmakers do not often wear the hat of a human rights activist, but when they do, the results can be stunning. This is the case with Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, whose scintillating 2013 documentary Assistance mortelle has exposed the darker side of international aid to the moviegoing public. Over the course of two years, Peck followed the money donated to NGOs operating in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquakes. Peck found that much of the $11 billion in international aid that was funneled through these organizations failed to reach the people of Haiti. Essentially, Raoul Peck is calling for a new model of international aid in which the aided are given a seat at the table, a stake in their own fate.

– Josh Forgét

Sources: Fear no Evil by Natan Sharansky (1988), PBS, Deliberately Considered, Canada Haiti Action Network, IndieWire, UNHCR
Photo: Harvard University Gazette


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