Amnesty International

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1977 by Mümtaz Soysal

We are gratified that the Nobel Committee should see fit to award the 1977 Peace Prize to the 168,000 individuals in 107 countries who comprise the active members and supporters of Amnesty International. I am here in their name.

We are gratified for this acknowledgement that the concern for peace and the promotion of human rights are inseparable. Peace is not to be measured by the absence of conventional war, but constructed upon foundations of justice. Where there is injustice, there is the seed of conflict. Where human rights are violated, there are threats to peace.

This conviction has been central to the evolution of the contemporary philosophy of international human rights. The two World Wars in the first half of this century unleashed a wave of previously unthinkable destruction. The toll of human life and the shadow of human extermination by thermonuclear war led inevitably to the search for a new order in which armed conflict would never rise again.

Thus it was when the newly formed United Nations turned to consideration of the tap roots of war and the construction of a peaceful society, it began to work on an International Bill of Rights. The first step was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 in the belief that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

The integral relationship between the cause of peace and the concern for human dignity was perhaps an all too obvious and easily reached conclusion in the aftermath of a universal holocaust. But with the passage of time this vision of the just society as a precondition to a peaceful world has grown dim. The vision must not be lost.

People everywhere need to be continually reminded that violations of human rights, whether arbitrary arrest and detention, unjust imprisonment, torture, or political assassination, are threats to world peace. Each violation, wherever it occurs, can set in motion a trend towards the debasement of human dignity. From individuals to groups, from groups to nations, from nations to groups of nations, in chain reaction a pattern sets in, a pattern of violence and repression and a lack of concern for human welfare.

This must never be allowed to start. And the place to stop it is at the level of the individual. Therefore, the protection of the rights of the individual to think freely, to express himself freely, to associate freely with others and to disseminate his thoughts is essential to the preservation of world peace. This is equally so with the right to live in decent social and economic conditions, to have a job, to get an education.

The ultimate aim of economic and social development is not to be measured only by rates of growth or magnitude of production but by its impact on human dignity and the quality of life. The ultimate end of such development is the individual, made freer, more able to express and fulfill himself, more able to contribute to the family of mankind. Communities of individuals free to act and conscious of their own potentials as well as the potentials of the land on which they live will reduce the exploitation of the weaker by the stronger, whether by a social class, a nation, a group of nations or a multinational body. Such exploitation, by the fears or expectations it arouses, by the tensions and connivances it creates, is the root cause of many conflicts. Therefore, the promotion of human rights as a whole is directly related to the preservation of lasting peace.

The circle can be drawn still larger. In a world dominated by nationalistic passions, the rights of ethnic minorities are also a source of much tension and conflict today. Here again, scrupulous respect for the human rights of minority peoples, adequately protected within the framework of the rule of law, is an undeniable contribution to the cause of world peace.

* * * * *

The information obtained by Amnesty International shows that human rights are violated in all parts of the world, in all major regions and in all political or ideological blocs. As many as 117 countries are mentioned in the Amnesty International Report 1977, a region by region, country by country survey of the world human rights situation. In most of these countries serious violations of human rights have been reported. And this survey is far from being a complete picture: Not only is Amnesty International’s work in the field of human rights limited to prisoners, but the movement does not yet have the resources to undertake the comprehensive research that is needed on all countries.

It is not only the number of countries where violations have occurred which is alarming. The hopeful events reported in 1977 are few: there have been substantial releases of political prisoners in certain countries but these are outweighed by deteriorating situations in other parts of the world.

In some Latin American countries security forces and paramilitary groups have been used as instruments for a policy of political murder. There, and in other parts of the world, the system of justice no longer functions in practice. Emergency laws have been misused to legalize brutal repression – even when by objective standards there are no emergencies.

Government-sanctioned torture is still practised in a horrifying number of states, in spite of the declaration against all forms of torture adopted by the United Nations in 1975. Several regimes have introduced the death penalty for new crimes and the rate of execution is still high, especially in Africa and Asia. Some governments still retain punishment such as flogging, or the cutting off of hands.

In many countries, especially in Asia, a system of long-term detention has been developing. Prisoners are kept in poor prison conditions year after year and the authorities do not grant them the basic right to a trial. This means that innocent people are deprived of their freedom for five years, ten years or even more. In other countries where political trials have taken place the defendants have been denied the opportunity for a proper defense. The laws themselves have in some cases constituted appalling violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making a mockery of justice. The trial procedures have been such that they could only serve the interest of the rulers.

Some would consider certain of these violations of human rights worse than others. However, Amnesty International has not presumed to rank governments or countries, nor desired to single out any regime or group of regimes as “the worst on earth”. Even if the organization wanted to establish such a list it could not. Lack of detailed information on some countries in itself would be an obstacle. But what remains of overriding importance in Amnesty International’s strictly country by country approach is that the techniques of repression and the impact of these techniques vary. There are differences not only in the number of victims, but also in methodology, objectives, duration and both short-term and long-term consequences of the violations. In some countries, regimes allow paramilitary groups to kidnap, torture, and assassinate political activists; in others, prisoners are kept in detention for years without trial. In some police stations torture is carried out with electric shocks; in others with psychological methods. In some prisons the inmates are refused all communication with their families; in others they are starved. There is absolutely no point in trying to judge which measures are categorically “better” or “worse” than others. Similarly, it would be a misleading exercise to grade or rank regimes. In the end, what matters is the pain and suffering the individual endures in the police station or in the cell. The depth of that can never be catalogued by outsiders.

Not only governments but also certain political organizations outside government control violate human rights today. Individuals have been taken as prisoners or hostages, torture and executions have been carried out in the name of different political causes. Such acts are deplorable – they are no more acceptable than repression by governments.

* * * *

For the sixteen years of its existence Amnesty International has been concerned with these issues.

Today’s occasion offers an appropriate moment to share some of the thinking on human rights which has arisen out of the experience which Amnesty International’s experience has had with prisoners of conscience. On certain points, a consensus within our international movement seems to have developed. Other matters are little more than postulates or questions which our membership has only begun to explore.

The items I wish to raise fall conveniently under five headings.

First, human rights are ends, rather than means. In the world of international politics it is a perennial temptation to use human rights as a weapon, to ignore the deficiencies at home and exploit those elsewhere as points to be scored in the international power game. To use human rights as a means to some other end is perilous. Only when human rights are seen as ends will the violation of human rights be approached universally, impartially, constructively. Only when they are seen as ends will adequate attention be given to violations of human rights wherever they occur, within the borders of one’s own country or in remote corners of the world.

Second, human rights are indivisible. The temptation to oppose civil and political rights, on the one hand, to economic, social and cultural rights, on the other, must be resisted. The conflict is a false conflict, manufactured and propagated for reasons alien to human rights. Both categories are needed. Often these rights complement one another. When those deprived of their socio-economic rights cannot make their voices heard, they are even less likely to have their needs met. If a person is deprived of one right, his chance of securing the other rights is usually endangered. The right to education and the right of freedom of information and open debate on official policies is necessary to secure full public participation in the process of social and economic development. The freedom of the human mind and the welfare of the human being are inextricably linked.

The all too frequent use of emergency regulations, preventive detention, and martial law need to be considered in the light of the indivisibility of human rights rather than in the context of so-called conflicting rights and liberties, or economic development versus political freedom. Attempts to justify human rights violations through the concept of the defense of human rights itself are common. Liberties are restricted in the name of Liberty – with a capital “L”. Countries call themselves “free” when their restrictions on various freedoms are made in the name of Freedom. These same countries claim that nations whose restrictions bear other labels are not free. It is often overlooked that human dignity and the free mind presuppose a whole network of interconnected rights which equally require protection, and the violation of any one of these, by implication, truncates the whole. Attempts are made to justify curtailments of human rights on the ground that a larger national interest is at stake. These are often the first step in a deliberate reduction of the whole network of human rights, when these are perceived as a threat to established interests.

Third, human rights are concrete and specific. All governments are tempted to occupy themselves with abstract and generalized formulations. The repetition of these formulas tend to become a substitute for responsible action. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted thirty years ago by the United Nations, states unequivocally that no one shall be subjected to torture – and yet torture persists in the world with the knowledge, and often even support, of governments. This discrepancy between word and deed is even more obvious if one studies the implementation of the legally binding international covenants on human rights, which have now been in force for more than a year. Even governments which have ratified these covenants are breaching them. Such international hypocrisy risks the erosion of public respect for international institutions and human rights declarations. It is here, at the conjunction of rhetoric and reality, that non-governmental human rights organizations have a role to play. They have no other cause to serve. They may not always be welcome in the halls of government, and certainly they are not always popular. But they have a task to perform which is crucial to the peace of the world.

The protection of universal human rights requires the establishment of machinery to provide for effective ways of individual appeal and redress, starting at the local level and moving upwards to the national and international levels. Much remains to be done among the nations of the world to secure an independent judiciary, procedural guarantees, and observance of legality.

However, the more serious deficiency appears to be at the international level. At the drafting of the Charter of the United Nations, a clause was inserted to protect matters within the domestic jurisdictions of each member state. Yet it was envisaged at the time that human rights would be protected internationally. Through Articles 55 and 56, all members pledged themselves to take joint and separate action to secure human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, and Article 68 called for the establishment of a human rights commission.

An International Bill of Rights came into being with the adoption in 1966 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, together with its Optional Protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In 1976, when these covenants were ratified by the requisite number of states, they came into force. As provided for by the first of these covenants, an 18-member Human Rights Committee has now been created. Made up of independent experts, this committee holds out the promise of an effective international human rights mechanism. Unfortunately, at present only a few states are signatories to the Optional Protocol and therefore subject to the Human Rights Committee. The strengthening of such legal machinery is, in the opinion of Amnesty International, a key element in the struggle for human rights.

Fourth, human rights are universal. Human rights are the birthright of every single individual. No one is excepted, neither man, nor woman, nor child, This was emphasized in the very title of the first United Nations declaration on human rights – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The full implications of the universality of human rights is not yet sufficiently recognized. Such recognition would entail a rethinking and revising of a fundamental principle of international relations – non-interference in the internal affairs of a state. The application of this principle in the field of human rights is the most formidable obstacle to the creation of effective implementation machinery. It will require a major effort of international re-education to extricate human rights from the grip of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.

Individuals need to be made aware of the rights which are theirs, and of the national machinery which exists to protect these rights. The whole of mankind, from the ordinary citizen to the statesman, needs to learn that real concern for human rights and effective machinery for their protection is in the interest of all. This interest can be summarized as living in freedom in a peaceful world.

Fifth, human rights will not be protected if left solely to the governments. Individuals of goodwill must everywhere concern themselves with and act to curb repression, and to defend human rights. The ordinary individual can make a difference. This is the experience of Amnesty International. An aroused public opinion is a powerful weapon. Important as bills of rights and legal mechanisms are, still more important is the concern of one individual for another, one group for another, one nation for another. The active concern of public opinion is everywhere of help. But nowhere is it more essential than when an individual human being remains helpless before a repressive regime, a frightened national community, and an inadequate international machinery for redress.

* * * *

It was upon this commitment of individual human beings to each other’s welfare that Amnesty International was founded. It began as the idea of an international movement of concerned individuals working to secure for all people the freedom to hold and express their convictions. It began with the outrage of one man who, when confronted with the plight of unjustly detained individuals, called on others to join with him to rouse international public opinion, to do something concrete, to end the feeling of solitary impotence in the face of persecution, and, where human beings are at stake, to break down all barriers.

What began in 1961 as an Appeal for Amnesty launched in the world press is today still a young and growing movement. Its aim, however, has remained constant:

to work for the immediate and unconditional release of persons imprisoned, detained or restricted for their political, religious or other conscientiously held beliefs, their ethnic origin, sex, color or language, who have not used or advocated violence. They are called “prisoners of conscience”.

to work for a fair trial within a reasonable period of time for all political prisoners.

to work for an end to the imposition and infliction of torture or any other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners or other detained or restricted persons.

to work for the abolition of the death penalty.

The basic task of Amnesty International has been to spotlight the victims in every society where imprisonment results from political or religious belief, or from racial, linguistic or sexual discrimination. The issues and the opinions involved are not ours. What to us is essential is the right to be that person, to have that faith, to express that point of view. There are people in prison because they belong to a particular party or group, and because they do not. Because they want social change, and because they do not. Because they have spoken out, and because they have kept silent. Because the regime has changed, and because it has not.

For each name that is known, there are the countless unknown: anonymous prisoners of conscience held in secret interrogation centers, in overcrowded jails, in labor camps on remote islands. There are young people who have been born and who have grown up in the prisons where their mothers are held. There are children who have been kidnapped and kept as hostages by government agents seeking to arrest their relatives. The victims of arbitrary arrest and detention come from all walks of life: workers, peasants, lawyers, journalists, professors. Among them also are the voices of the human imagination, painters, actors and actresses, film-makers and dancers, musicians, poets.

In an alarming number of its prison cases, Amnesty International has encountered instances of torture. The Amnesty Report on Torture of 1975 publicized allegations and evidence of torture from over 60 countries. What is more, in over a third of these, the practice of torture could be accurately described as an administrative, systematic and integral component of the political system.

Most victims of torture survive. Some however are disfigured or crippled for life. Others suffer long-term psychological disturbance. Those who die are added to the toll of unexplained suicides in police stations, or of those who fall from windows during interrogation, or of those whose bodies are never returned to the families.

Amnesty International’s work on behalf of prisoners of conscience and the Campaign for the Abolition of Torture are better known than its efforts to combat the death penalty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right to life and asserts that no one shall be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. Amnesty International also opposes the death penalty because it is irrevocable, is capable of being inflicted upon the innocent, and does not act as a unique deterrent to crime.

Recent years have seen an alarming increase in disappearances, and the use of summary execution without benefit of fair or even of any trial. This is particularly true of military regimes and of extra-governmental forces acting with or without official sanction. Increasingly, Amnesty International receives information about the sudden disappearance of individuals in countries where clandestine torture and killings by faction groups have reached almost uncontrollable proportions.

In response to both the retention of judicial execution by governments and the incidence of extra-judicial murder committed or tolerated by governments, Amnesty International has initiated a program of work aimed at the total and global abolition of the death penalty. This very weekend Amnesty International is convening in Stockholm its first world conference on the death penalty.

Political imprisonment, torture, the death penalty – these are the specific issues that Amnesty International has sought to grapple with during the sixteen years of its existence. We have also tried to find constructive ways to prevent such injustices in the future. Our program has been carried out mainly by individuals and small groups of men and women, bearing the cost of their own labors, working together in a worldwide non-governmental organization. The heart of our movement is the adoption group. There are now 2.000 such groups around the world. Comprised entirely of volunteers, it is these groups who undertake the vital work of articulating on a personal basis international concern for the protection of the basic human rights of individual men and women.

Needless to say, the tasks ahead of us all are enormous.

* * * *

One of the ironies in Amnesty International is that whereas the repressive forces in the world all know us, many of the prisoners of conscience for whom we are working may never have heard the name “Amnesty International”. Many have had all contact with their friends and families cut off. Correspondence from abroad is intercepted. In no few cases we only know their names and some scant details. There may even be no way of locating them.

Another irony often mentioned by our members is that at times they have gained more from the prisoner they sought to help than the prisoner has gained from them: much of courage, of the value of human dignity and freedom, of the durability of the human spirit.

It is for this reason that our last word should belong to a prisoner.

Some time ago, one of them, now dead, was able to send a letter from prison in which she wrote:

“They are envious of us. They will
envy us all.

For it is an enviable but very difficult
task to live through a history as a human
being, to complete a life as a human being.

Soon the night will fall and they will
close the doors of the cell.

I feel lonely.

No… I am with the whole of mankind.

And the whole of mankind is with me”.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1971-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997

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