Alba Viotto – a lifelong human rights defender from Switzerland

December 6, 2013

On 7 December 2013, Satur C. Ocampo wrote in the Philippine Star a remarkable tribute to a Swiss woman, Alba Viotto, who died recently. After a short context of the human rights scene in his country, he then describes the work of a Swiss human rights defender that most of us will never have heard of. “……………As the international campaign unfolds, four names come to my mind: Alba Viotto of Switzerland, Renee Destribats of France, Gloria Fairclough of Australia, and Teresa Davis of Canada. As a political detainee under the Marcos dictatorship, and the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations, I cherished the long-standing personal and political interactions with these wonderful women.

Sadly, Alba Viotto is no longer with us. Weeks ago I was informed that Alba, whom I last met in Geneva in 2007, passed away in May at age 88. Her demise will surely sadden the hundreds of former political detainees who benefited from Alba’s relentless endeavors to help regain their freedom. Sending modest financial aid, she kept their morale high through her heart-warming letters. In the late 1970s, Alba visited us at the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center in Taguig. Thanks to Alba’s friend, Carol Sheller, and to Rose Salvador-Palma, widow of a fellow political detainee who passed on to me Sheller’s English translations from French of testimonials to Alba, I’ve learned other aspects of Alba’s superb lifetime dedication to human rights. Here are excerpts from two testimonies:

“There is no word in French for what English speakers and the United Nations refer to as ‘empowerment.’ But if anyone has ever lived the meaning of this word, it is Alba Viotto,” said Stella Jegher, Amnesty International Swiss branch coordinator.  She added: “Her whole life long she dedicated her competences, her resources and her energy to the cause of people deprived of their rights. Not that she wanted ‘to help victims’ but rather to give the oppressed the means to act as their own agents of change. “Whether they were students in nursing, Filipino trade union activists, women raped in Rwanda, or workers without a legal status in Switzerland, Alba worked to bring to public light the situations of individuals whose basic rights were denied. She made their voices heard, insisting that their dignity as human beings be respected.”

From Olivier Dufour, head of the department of mental health and psychiatry at Geneva University Hospital, I glimpsed another aspect of Alba’s humanitarian commitment. Well-known as a psychiatric nurse, Alba mentored generations of students whom she taught that “…work with mental patients meant reaching out to them as people suffering from psychic problems, searching for a meaning to life…”  She urged them “to draw on our professional capacities and personal experiences and take a strong ethical viewpoint in defense of our patients as human beings, against their being excluded or passed over in silence.” Alba, said Dufour, “did not hesitate to upset or question what was taken for granted…and insist(ed) on the responsibility of one human being for the wellbeing of another.”

She was, as the mayor of Geneva so aptly said, the “Great Lady of Human Rights.”

A lifelong human rights defender from Switzerland | Opinion, News, The Philippine Star |


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