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Speech by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the 2016 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders Ceremony, Geneva, October 11, 2016

October 11, 2016

(Speech at 59:20-1:07:08)

Unofficial Transcription by Human Rights in China

Madame Calmy-Rey, university rector, Foundation Chair, excellencies, colleagues and friends, 

I’m honored by this invitation to speak, which has become a tradition on the occasion of the presentation of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, by a unique collaboration of ten of the world’s leading human rights NGOs. Our community of human rights activists and workers is formed by hope and empathy, principle, and by the sharing of pain. When we come together, even in a place as generous and filled with fellow feeling as this one, our thoughts are being unsettled. The world is in turmoil: massive, avoidable, entirely unnecessary emergencies are being generated by a wind of hatred and violence sweeping through more and more countries.

The situation in Eastern Aleppo is simply inhuman. The city is being pounded to rubble by bombs, including indiscriminate incendiary weapons. As schools, hospitals, and water systems are attacked, tens of thousands of children, women and men under siege, unable to leave the city, are enduring hell on earth. They are dying and we can see and hear them dying. The photos of the small, starving, broken bodies of Yemeni children which have been in the media in recent weeks are agonizing to see. The humanitarian crisis created by the warfare in Yemen is now one of the worst in the world. Millions of people are suffering from malnutrition and starvation—and, as always, the majority are children and women. The economy and infrastructure of the entire country is devastated, all basic services are in near total collapse. For all of us, I think it is fair to say that our inability to alter this horror is very, very difficult to endure.

Syria and Yemen are only two of the many places where the vulnerable people of the world are being betrayed, stripped of their rights to equality, robbed of their rights to speak and act freely, deprived of their rights to fundamental services and opportunities and their rights to choose.

Despite the massive advances that humanity has notched up against poverty and disease, against prejudice, against oppression, millions of people, from the manicured avenues of Paris to shanty towns in Peru, face injustices every day of their lives.

No country in any region has an unblemished record of respect for human rights, and every violation suffered is being inflicted unnecessarily by institutions and authorities which fail to protect their people. In the Americas, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia, and here in Europe, I am alarmed by the shrinking space for human rights defenders and civic activism.

A narrow and brutal mindset is spreading which crushes liberty and rights.

We need to speak out to protect our fellow human beings, and because the most effective way to create cohesive, resilient societies is to build a system that protects human dignity and human rights and dignity of every individual. Collectively we could end poverty, prevent conflict, and make rights real. Humanity has that capacity.

But to do so, we must find a way to overcome the narrow mindset that seeks to use warfare for advantage on some national, regional, or global chessboard, more imaginary than real—even to the extent of bombing children in hospitals for assumed territorial or political gain; the mindset which views the pitiless exploitation of human beings, draining the common resources of humanity for private gain, and outright theft as ordinary, even admirable ways to amass wealth; the mindset which would ride to power by stoking the poisonous energy  of hatred on the broken destinies of people crushed by discrimination and violence.

Dag Hammarskjöld said, and I quote: “To build for man a world without fear, we must be without fear. To build a world of justice, we must be just.”

And so we need to be principled, lucid, and vigilant. We must act to the full extent of our ability. And where our action alone is not enough, we must raise the alarm. We must stand for the rights of every individual, including her or his right to criticize authorities. The Martin Ennals Award is a powerful example of that advocacy for human rights defenders and civil society actors around the world.  It reminds us that although individually none of us can save the world, all of us can serve the world, and together we have impact.

It takes moral courage. But like the human rights defenders we are here to support and honor,  we can stand up for others, voice the common good, act to support inclusion, equality, and human dignity. We can guide our actions by our principles.

I am convinced that service to our fellow human beings benefits all of us, that it constitutes the only meaningful way to live. António Guterres the UN Secretary-General-designate has said, “We are bound by our shared duty towards the people we serve and to whom we must deliver protection, assistance, and solutions.”

Tonight’s ceremony stands for that bond of shared duty, for the work we do to protect the rights of human rights defenders. It is work that is unceasing—we are honored to do it, honored by the example of courage, decency, and moral depth, which are demonstrated by these and many other human rights defenders around the world and which give us hope.

I thank you so much.


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