And a lot more about Werner Lottje: the great German human rights defender

November 16, 2013

In the presence of the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, the MEA Laureates of 2013: the Joint Mobile Group, the family of Werner Lottje (his wife Margit and the children) and some 90 other participants we had on 13 November 2013 the first WERNER LOTTJE LECTURE in Berlin. It was an impressive affair and the organisers, Bread for the World and the German Institute for Human Rights, can look back on a successful launch of this annual event. There were many good tributes to Werner’s life and contribution. Igor Kalyapin of the JMG explained the terrible conditions under which his team has to operate in Russia and Margaret Sekaggya concluded with a wide-ranging overview of obstacles that HRDs all over the world face. A short, impressive film brought the person of Werner to life.

Here I am providing you the full text my own speech on this occasion, not only because I have it handy but because it concerns mostly the international part of his work:

Thinking outside the box – Werner Lottje as an international networker”

If you knew what an immense pleasure it is for me to stand here. My good friend – as the French say it so poetically: ‘mon vieux copain de la route’ – Werner Lottje recognised and honored in his own country. Werner, the quiet giant. I will of course speak about his legacy in human rights, but much of that is known. There is an excellent summary in today’s invitation as well as a whole range of tributes paid to him in the ‘Dankschrift’ that Diakonie published in September 2004, just before his death. At that occasion I said half-jokingly that I was the right choice of speaker on behalf of the international community as the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders – in whose creation Werner played a major role – has a Jury of 10 different NGOs. But on this occasion I must be more modest as the other speaker – UN Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya – represent the whole world!

I should also warn you that I am utterly biased: my personal association with Werner is as old as the Human Rights Desk in EKD which he created!. In 1977 I had just started working with the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva and was delighted to come across a young lawyer from Germany who was able and willing to think outside the ‘cold war box’. We started by sharing an interest in often-aborted plans to rejuvenate the German section of the ICJ. In the process we became very good friends and stayed in touch with each other throughout the next 25 years.

I will try not to repeat what you know already about Werner’s career but rather focus – in line with the title of this introduction – on Werner’s capacity to think outside the box.  And let’s be honest, in the mid 70’s when Werner started his crusade for human rights, there were – in Germany as elsewhere – quite a few efforts to keep human rights concerns in a box,  preferably a small one. The German churches themselves had to be convinced step-by-step and successive German governments were not charmed by Werner’s insistence that they had to exercise pressure in individual cases. Think of the Elisabeth Kasemann case in 1977! Werner would have been delighted to witness the much more active role of Germany in human rights today

Just when it became accepted that in some individual cases action should be taken, Werner moved the goal line by insisting, see his paper of 1978 “einsatz fur Menschenrechten – Dienst for den Frieden”, that human rights were of strategic value for the future of developing countries. ‘Mapping’ was one of Werner’s favorite approaches. At numerous, often chaotic NGO meetings, just after everybody had spoken at length and Werner had as usual had listened intently, he would come out with a quick and accurate survey of the battleground and remind everybody of the ultimate purpose of whatever strategy had been discussed.

But Werner also kept always a sharp eye on individuals and not just as victims – although they remained in his deep Christian conviction the cornerstone of his commitment to human rights – but also as actors. When I tried to explain to him in 1978 the need of the ICJ to have more resources to attract regional specialists, he did not give money but came with the idea of funding a number of young lawyers from developing countries to work in Geneva. In those days that was a relatively new idea: to give international experience to human rights people from developing countries and to strengthen the pluralism of the  staff. Later he broadened the concept and joined the Advisory Boards of both the International Human Rights Internship Programme in the US and the International Service for Human Rights in Geneva.

I am sure that others will address Werner’s creative role in Germany itself, from founding the Human Rights Forum, the platform of civil-society human rights organizations in Germany, to the foundation of the German Institute for Human Rights. The same goes for his central role in the Human Rights Desk from where concepts such as ‘partner protection’ were developed. For time reasons I will also not say anything about his crucial role in shaping the work of the World Council of Churches, but his thinking outside box there has been detailed by colleagues such as Chuck Harper and Clement John in the Dankschrift of 2004. Less well-known is some of his pioneering support – which by the way he was able to offer only by slaving away all these extra hours in the office – to new ideas and coalitions as they were emerging:

In the early ‘80s Werner was one of the first to support with advice and money the movement HURIDOCS, created to make information technology more accessible to human rights organisations around the world. If the human rights world today is very computer literate, it is certainly thanks to Diakonie’s early recognition of the value of IT in the human rights struggle; for years Werner was overheard to complain that many of his partners were better equipped than his own office!

In mid ‘80s the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights in Utrecht held the first Forum on Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Out of it grew, with Werner’s strong guidance and support, an organisation that became known as International Alert. He continued to take an interest in the organisation but above all in the topic of ethnic conflict that he had seen wrecking so many lives and well-intended development schemes.  Again, Werner was in the forefront of human rights developments.  Moreover, I have the faint hope that by seeing the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights at work Werner got inspired to create the German Institute for Human Rights. That it took twenty years is an illustration of one of Werner’s other features: an incredible tenacity.

The person with whom Werner had worked closely in the establishment of HURIDOCS as well as International Alert, was Martin Ennals, the former Secretary General of Amnesty International. After Martin’s death in 1991, Werner was one of the first to come out in support of an award in his name. It was Werner who proposed to make it an award specifically for Human Rights Defenders, thus – typically Werner – combining his personal loyalty to a friend with the creation of a new kind of tool for the protection of human rights defenders. Diakonie is still a valued member of the Jury, first represented by Michael Windfuhr and now Julia Duchrow. In recognition of Werner’s contribution the Board voted him as the only posthumous Patron. I will not say more about the MEA as its current value cannot be better demonstrated than by having the Laureate of this year present here in Berlin.

I want to terminate with a topic that one would not immediately link to Werner: the use of film images in human rights. One of the last projects for which Werner personally fought to get support was a 2001 study undertaken by the journalist Willem Offenberg into the capacity of human rights NGOs to produce – and make use of – film images. It was discussed at a Round Table and the conclusion was that the best thing the human rights world could do, was to take the initiative to pool their footage and ensure easier access (e.g. through a portal on the internet). No action was taken for years, but it was not the first time that Werner was ahead of his time.  Motivated by this study, I created in 2007 the Foundation True Heroes, Films for Human Rights Defenders which this year moved to Geneva. Its biggest ambition is to create a on-line Visual Gallery of Prominent Human Right Defenders. I would like to think that Werner would immediately have seen the potential and be one of the first to engage himself in spite of all his other burdens. The short film we saw tonight would certainly fit into work of True Heroes.

In short, Werner helped to shape German Protestant agencies to be both a donor and an actor. Actors that situate themselves squarely inside the worldwide human rights movement and are not shy to come out with a voice for justice. The capacity for sym-pathos, the passion to feel the suffering of others, is what has marked Werner and his legacy. If in this speech I have offended anybody in this room by mixing up EKD, Diakonisches Werk, the Human Rights Desk, Bread for the World, and the Social Service Agency of the Protestant Church in Germany, I have only one excuse to offer: I date from the days that we could simply call all this “Werner”.  But this gross oversimplification is perhaps also the greatest testimony to his central role. I once told Werner that he should move to the Netherlands because according to Heinrich Heine everything happens there 50 years later. If he had only listened to me, we would have had his company for another 40 years! But I am grateful that it has not taken that long for the institutionalization of the annual lecture in honor of this great German.

Hans Thoolen

3 Responses to “And a lot more about Werner Lottje: the great German human rights defender”


  1. […] This year’s Werner Lottje Lecture is dedicated to freedom of speech in Ethiopia, to which two Zone-9 bloggers (Zelalem Kibret und Jomanex Kasaye) have been invited. The Zone-9 bloggers were finalists for the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (of which the late Werner Lottje was one of the founders). See: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/11/16/and-a-lot-more-about-werner-lottje-the-great-german-hum… […]


  2. […] On 21 February 2018, Bread for the World and the German Institute for Human Rights organise for the 5th time the Werner Lottje Lecture [the lecture is named after the German activist who was a major force in the international human rights movement [see https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/11/16/and-a-lot-more-about-werner-lottje-the-great-german-hum…]. […]


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