When legendary former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky sought help from the outside world to fight for freedom decades ago, he had to rely largely on individuals he knew to get help from outside the Iron Curtain. The dissidents of the 21st century now have a new tool to connect them instantly over the internet to hundreds if not thousands of people around the world already standing ready to pitch in.
Today, the organization Advancing Human Rights will unveil a new web platform called Movements.org, a site where dissidents and human rights activists can go to access a growing network of lawyers, publicists, journalists, and human rights advocates and ask them for help on any range of tasks from seeking asylum, organizing their efforts, or just getting the word out to the world about their struggle. The project began with a $250,000 seed grant provided by Google, which has been expanding its involvement in the internet freedom space.
Sharansky, also a former Israeli parliament member, told The Daily Beast that the site could be game changer in the field of human rights activism by enabling people in free societies to become active in closed societies on a grand scale without risk.
“It’s like a whole new world,” he said. “A dissident can connect himself to practically all the world. In two seconds, a dissident can give all the information he wants to give but also to make connections and to reach to the right advocates in the free world. If we had this tool back in my day, I think the Soviet Union would not have been able to exist as long as it did, because they had to control all of this kind of information.”
David Keyes, the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, told The Daily Beast that hundreds of activists and dissidents have already been connecting on the site during its testing phase. The platform removes the need for a middle man between those in need of help and professionals who can help them, he said.
“There’s an awful lot of human rights activists and dissidents who are desperate for help and this platform can play a key role in helping connect those most in need with individuals with skills,” he said. “Engaging individuals around the world in standing up for dissidents around the world can be a force multiplier to protect and advance human rights in closed societies.”
Activists still have to reach the site on their own, escaping efforts to censor or monitor the internet in their home countries. But once on the site, dissidents and activists will be now be able to connect and communicate better than before.
Already the site is boasting about some successes. In May, Syrian activist Kamal Labwani posted a request for press on the site, later publishing an op-ed on the Daily Beast website. Syrian activists successfully got lawyers in New York to handle their asylum cases after contacting them through the site.
The former business associates of killed Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky posted a request on the site for a song about him and a New York based song-writer joined with Russian activists to produce one. A Saudi expert fighting against laws restricting freedom of speech connected with German officials using the platform, AHR said.
“Dictatorships are paying hundreds of millions to PR firms. Why shouldn’t every democratic dissident also have PR help? This platform can be a force multiplier for those struggling against tyranny. It gives average people with unique skills the ability to help dissidents in need,” reads a press release about the site, obtained by The Daily Beast.
Ahed Al Hendi, a Syrian who heads up Arabic programs for AHR, told The Daily Beast that activists inside Syria, Russia, and Iran have been using the site to find help for everything from building websites to connecting with reporters.
“A lot of these people are individuals, they don’t have capacity, no support. Movements.org is giving them resources and access to services,” he said. “This will really empower them undermine dictatorships in the region and abroad.”