Don’t miss the High Commissioner’s words at MEA 2014 ceremony

October 10, 2014

The ceremony of the Martin Ennals Award 2014 is over (7 October 2014). It was again very impressive to hear and see 3 courageous Human Rights Defenders being honored. Some 450 people (my estimate) gave standing ovations to the 3 nominees whose work was shown in impressive films produced for the occasion. The film portraits are already available on the website: http://www.martinennalsaward.org where there is also a short summary of the whole evening.

Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders

Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders

Especially the film on Chinese HRD Cao Shunli is a masterpiece given that the film makers had almost no images to work with due to the modesty of the human rights defender as well as her untimely death in detention only 2 days after her nomination in March 2014.

The internet has buzzed with congratulations and encouragements to the other two nominees, Adilur from Bangladesh and Alejandra Ancheita from Mexico. The latter became ultimately the Laureate [see https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/breaking-news-alejandra-ancheita-is-the-2014-mea-laureate/#more-5648 ].

One of the nicest surprises was the address by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at one of his first public appearances outside the UN. UN HCHR Al Hussein The High Commissioner gave a moving and almost poetic description of the sorry state of affairs left to human rights defenders to correct: He said inter alia:The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders has become an important annual event for the human rights community, in this city which is so central to the architecture of the international system of human rights. We are here to recognize those who are extraordinary, who capture our imagination, like our nominees. There are of course tens of thousands of women and men – and children -who like them defy discrimination, corruption, the arbitrary abuse of power and every other kind of human rights violation, on the part of authorities of every weight and stripe – from school boards to community councils, from corporations to ministries – who have forgotten that they should serve the people.” He also commented, “Until we squeeze violence out of the human system altogether, and replace it with reason and kindness, compassion and common sense, we will live in the long shadows of a threatened life.”

As the speech was so impressive I give the text here in full or you can go to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15153&LangID=E

Excellences, Mesdames, Messieurs, Dear friends,

We have reached, seemingly, tragically, a state in our human affairs, where we must renew our search for the answer as to why so much pain still exists in so many of humanity’s rooms.  Why must so many weep with sobbing that neither day nor night will end?  Why is this so?  Why can there be so much suffering still?  Why is there so much poverty and hunger, corruption, bigotry, violence and disease?  And not just in one part of the world, but in so many places: North and South, East and West.  And so much of it connected together.

Ebola exists in humans today because of a web of interlinked factors, environmental, economic, social, political. And the poor are ravaged, once again. Violence exists around the world, horrifying now — both in scope and in intensity — because of wickedness but also because violence remains a currency of human interaction.  The line separating its legal use from its criminal use is so thin, the twins alas become indistinguishable to many who do not know the law, or care to know it, and criminal accountability for the worst crimes is still not yet universal.  Is it surprising then, the extent to which we live tenuously?
Until we squeeze violence out of the human system altogether, and replace it with reason and kindness, compassion and common sense, we will live in the long shadows of a threatened life. Xenophobia, bigotry, chauvinism, racism, ethnic nationalisms and greed, are growing again.  In our Office, so many are the worrying daily reports, streaming in every morning from so many parts of the world, it is difficult to know in which direction to swivel first.
What is certain is no progress will ever be achieved without human rights defenders.

Defending human rights remains a dangerous activity in many countries. Activists continue to be threatened, charged with criminal offences, arbitrarily arrested, attacked, tortured, subject to enforced disappearances and even killed. The space for civil society and defenders is under enormous pressure. Authorities seek to silence them and obstruct their work by labelling them foreign agents, hamstringing them with impossible administrative regulations or exorbitant fines, by public smear campaigns and by misusing the judicial system to harass them.

Those most at risk of violations include judges and lawyers; journalists; trade unionists; those working on sexual orientation and gender identity, and defenders who work on environmental and land issues. Women human rights defenders are especially at risk, because in resisting the oppression of the authorities they are perceived as rebelling against an entire orthodoxy of necessary submission.

Human rights defenders are not violent seditionists, criminals, nor bloody revolutionaries, as so many governments like to portray them. They are the best of us, all of us.  And they have a message.  To all governments, we say: focus on their message.  Listen to what they are saying.  Understand the message, talk to them about it, be persuaded or persuade, without violence, instead of silencing them, punishing them, their families, and their communities.  Is the State so fragile it cannot tolerate the criticism of a well-intended human rights activist?

The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders has become an important annual event for the human rights community, in this city which is so central to the architecture of the international system of human rights. We are here to recognize those who are extraordinary, who capture our imagination, like our nominees. There are of course tens of thousands of women and men – and children –who like them defy discrimination, corruption, the arbitrary abuse of power and every other kind of human rights violation, on the part of authorities of every weight and stripe – from school boards to community councils, from corporations to ministries – who have forgotten that they should serve the people.

These defenders are people who know that they risk personal security, personal liberty, the ordinary comforts and conveniences of a pleasurable life – and even, perhaps, life itself. And yet they choose to resist oppression; they stand up for the equality, freedom and dignity of all human beings – and do so peacefully.

Many of you may know the work of Victor Frankl. He was the Austrian psychiatrist who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps and emerged with a deep understanding of human resilience. He told us, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing — your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

And this is what these brave and astonishing individuals have shown. They are, in every other way, ordinary people, but they have stood, very simply, on principle, refusing to capitulate to the greater physical power of their oppressors. Their moral courage permits us the privilege of holding onto the passport we call humanity, and to be proud of it.

Their message to suffering people around the world is it does not have to be this way.  No, governments may not treat people in any way they wish.

No, raw, crude force is not legitimate.  States should be at the service of their people, and not the other way round.  And individual acts matter.  We can vote, teach, advocate, participate in boycotts, and volunteer.  We can combine our resources and draw strength and support from others in networks of activism.  And we will never support violence.

The determination and integrity of these human rights defenders overwhelms the normal hum of fatigue and passivity and cynicism. It brings me, and perhaps it brings you, a sense of humility, a feeling of a great and powerful debt being owed, and the will to continue working for the equal and inalienable dignity and rights of every human being.

Our job is to make it impossible for States to continue to suppress the voices of human rights defenders. Their peaceful and legitimate activities must no longer be criminalized or repressed. Abuses against them must be investigated and their perpetrators named and brought to justice. It is particularly vital, from our perspective, to ensure that defenders who interact with the United Nations and its representatives should be free from reprisals and intimidation.

Perhaps you have raised an eyebrow, thinking, “it all sounds very noble, but really, how do you propose to do it?” How will the polite ladies and gentlemen of the human rights community stand up against the abuses of state sovereignty and the misuse of state power?

Martin Ennals knew one way: awareness. The light of day is a powerful cleanser. It is our job to bring a powerful beam of light to patterns of human rights abuse, knowing that this light will bring shame to the authorities. We must raise these cases again and again, in every arena in which governments have vowed to uphold the equality, dignity and inalienable, indivisible and inter-dependent human rights of all. We must expose these narratives of violation and hypocrisy to the light, knowing that every individual who hears them will be inspired to take action, in his or her own way. And this is what we are here to do this evening.

I am humbled by our nominees.  We will not forget their stories. Thank you for inviting me to be among you tonight.

2 Responses to “Don’t miss the High Commissioner’s words at MEA 2014 ceremony”

  1. Boven van Th (IR) Says:

    yes indeed, a remarkable speech by the new high commissioner ! best, theo ________________________________________

  2. Teunis Kamper Says:

    Great that the Martin Ennals Award was handed to the winners by the new High Commissioner. His speech was impressive.
    Teunis Kamper
    (Ret. from the Netherlands’ MFA)
    +++


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