27.02.2013 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

Last encounter with Stéphane Hessel

© Phil Journé / SIPDH -Stéphane Hessel at the World Human Rights Forum in Nantes (France), 2008

First winner of the UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights in 2008, Ambassador Stéphane Hessel, who died on 27 February 2013 in Paris, received us at his home in December 2012 to talk about his friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the UNESCO-Bilbao Prize 2012. In this interview, he expressed his concern that human rights still too often violated, but also his great enthusiasm for progress made.

Four years after having received the first UNESCO/Bilbao Prize for the Promotion of a Culture of Human Rights, another emblematic figure, who has dedicated his entire life to the cause of human rights, takes your place. Your path has crossed several times the one of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Tell us about your encounters with him.

I have had the privilege of meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu sometime after the outstanding work he had accomplished in South Africa. I should begin by saying that the case of South Africa is a tremendously important example for us all.  Not only because apartheid, that prevailed for years and led to the expulsion of South Africa from the United Nations, has been overcome, but because we know now that, even after dramatic episodes such as apartheid, it is possible to bring together anew the citizens of a country and overcome, not always smoothly, but still overcome antagonisms of the past. Desmond Tutu’s role in this process was considerable! Later on, I also had the privilege of sharing with Desmond Tutu a session at the Roosevelt Institute in Middelburg, in the Netherlands, where every two years “Prizes of the Four Freedoms of the Atlantic” are awarded – freedom from fear, freedom to refuse misery, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. That year Desmond Tutu received the prize for freedom of religion, and I, myself the prize for freedom to refuse misery.

I again met Desmond Tutu last year at a meeting in Cape Town (where he was living)on the situation in Palestine. During this meeting, we worked together for the right to statehood of Palestine, and the Palestinian people. We wanted to make sure that what happened at UNESCO – where Palestine became a Member State last year – could also happen at the United Nations itself. At each of my encounters with the Archbishop, I had the same sense of wonder at his sense of humour and mirth even when dealing with tough problems such as human rights violations.

Reconciliation is a common ground in your work and that of Archbishop Tutu. Why is this so important?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu made us realize what it takes to have people living together who have fought with each other and experienced the dramatic era of Apartheid, the years of imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the coming to power of a new government repudiating the principles of apartheid.

Such a victory can only be consolidated and rendered permanent through a certain process - called in South Africa 'truth and reconciliation' – which should be made possible in all countries where people have experienced and overcome similarly dramatic periods.

The message of Desmond Tutu applies perfectly to numerous situations in countries where there have been unanswered claims, combats and conflicts. These conflicts, finally pacified, must be integrated into people’s consciousness through an effort of conciliation and reconciliation.

This is also the message that I have tried to convey in a few cases where I had a little influence. I think of Burundi, where on numerous occasions I have attempted to have conciliation prevail over conflict. I also think of what a young German, having arrived in France at the age of seven, and having to overcome the Second World War, may consider essential for relations in Europe, and between France and Germany: again, there is memory of conflicts and mutual aggressiveness that has to be replaced by knowledge and understanding of each other. This is what we have managed to attain in Europe and what we aim to preserve in this part of the world.

Sixty-four years after the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, what current trend preoccupies you the most as regards human rights?

I am particularly worried because global society is still stricken by conflicts, rivalries and tensions - religious, ethnic and between different civilizations. I am afraid we are heading to a confrontation rather than to a compromise which reconciles opposing viewpoints.

The rights of every individual, every man and every woman, are being restrained because States, and also large communities, have not yet found a way to live together on this small planet, showing each other the respect and consideration every human being deserves.

That is why, without underestimating the enormous progress made thus far, there is still much to be done so that women, men and children - living together and communicating with each other - can become genuine global citizens, living together in the mutual respect that is essential to their well-being.

Member States of UNESCO will define – at the General Conference next year – the Organization's priorities for the forthcoming eight years. What would be your recommendation on priorities in the field of human rights?

I think the central role that UNESCO has been playing since its inception over 65 years ago, is to ensure the education of the citizens of all its Member States. UNESCO has many Member States, and each one needs to develop its primary, secondary and higher education.

At a time when the goal of building peace in the minds of men, one of UNESCO’s objectives, is very far from being achieved, it is through education that current shortcomings can be addressed. There are still too many children not attending school; there is still an inequitable relationship between girls and boys - all these challenges deserve our utmost attention and effort.

I would say that in the coming eight years whatever the advancement in human rights, owing to UNESCO’s efforts, it will be inextricably linked to progress made in the area of education in all its Member States.

In 2010 and 2011, you appealed to the citizens of the world, and especially to young people, to show indignation and commitment. What is your message today?

I was thrilled by the success of these little books, of no more than 30 pages, translated into some thirty languages, which gave rise to diverse forms of mobilization in many countries - I believe more than thirty.
Indeed, we are still living in the middle of some unresolved problems and situations that I consider unacceptable. By stimulating in those who are experiencing these situations first indignation and then commitment, we may hope that new solutions will be brought to issues that have remained unresolved throughout the last century.

Of course, genuine respect for the rights of the human person has still not been achieved. In many countries some of these rights continue to be ignored. This situation must first outrage those who are enduring it and then bring them to commit to changing things.

There are, in many countries, non-governmental organizations working for human rights; there is UNESCO and  the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Their work continues, but often it still faces insufficient openness on the part of governments and sometimes on the part of groups that defend their economic, financial or political interests, and are opposed to the idea of a sometimes significant portion- of a country’s population having rights that are recognized by the Universal Declaration.

You have defended numerous causes related to human rights throughout your life. Which project is currently at the centre of your efforts?

Lately, I have been particularly concerned about the relationship between Israel and its neighbour, Palestine. I consider that since 1948, the moment of the creation of the State of Israel, it should have been possible to put side by side the Arabs, living in Palestine, and the Israelis, who had founded their State. Since then developments have always had a non-pacific character. In the beginning, it was the refusal on both sides to accept what the United Nations proposed. Then, a terrible war resulted in the loss for the Palestinians of an important part of their territory.

For all these reasons, and having visited many times the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, I am very worried about this problem. It was a great satisfaction for me when my friend Elias Sanbar, Ambassador to UNESCO, succeeded in having Palestine recognized as a Member State of UNESCO. It was an honour to have been present when this event occurred. I was also extremely happy when, a few days ago, the Palestinians received the status of Non-Member Observer State at the United Nations.

Of all the problems that are currently on the agenda of human rights defenders, the Palestinian issue is the one that has made the most demands on me  and in which I have invested the most without succeeding, to date, in having Palestine proclaimed, as it deserves, a full UN Member State.

Interview by Konstantinos Tararas

<- Back to: All news