Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Aase Lionæs, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1977 in the University Festival Hall, Oslo, December 10, 1977


Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year the Norwegian Nobel Committee is awarding two Peace Prizes, one to the initiators of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement and one to the organisation Amnesty International.

These two movements have one thing in common: they have sprung spontaneously from the individual’s deep and firmly rooted conviction that the ordinary man and woman is capable of making a meaningful contribution to peace.

This is remarkable in an age when we live with the desperate pressure of the conviction that only the military power blocs equipped with nuclear arms are in a position to decide, for one and all of us, the question of war or peace.

The two prizewinners have given a clear and simple No to violence, torture, and terrorism, and an equally clear and unreserved Yes to the defence of human dignity and human rights.

This is a philosophy and an attitude in harmony with the creed expressed by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg:

In brutal strife
your sword and shield shall be
belief in life
and human dignity.

The two awards today clearly emphasise the Nobel Committee’s interpretation of the peace concept. They establish the fact that peace is not merely abstinence from war, but in addition respect for the human rights proclaimed in the Helsinki Agreement of 1975; freedom of thought, conscience, religion or faith are essential prerequisites for peace.

The Peace Movement in Northern Ireland champions the right of the individual to live a life free from fear, from violence and acts of terrorism, in other words “external” peace.

Amnesty International fights for man’s right to freedom of conscience, in other words, to a life in “internal” peace.

Taken together, these two peace movements represent an aim which ordinary mortals associate with the dream of peace.

Amnesty International, founded in London in 1961 by the English lawyer Peter Benenson, can today look back on sixteen years of activity.

It was a mere coincidence that led to the establishment of this organisation, which today is global in its scope, comprising some 100,000 members and some 2,000 groups in 33 different countries.

Sitting in the compartment of a train in London, one day in 1960, Peter Benenson happened to read in the papers of two Portuguese students who had been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for making critical remarks on Salazar’s regime.

Peter Benenson was not only profoundly shocked, he decided then and there that he would try to help the two young men who had been the victims of this violation of justice.

His impulsive reaction to the sentence passed on these two may have sprung from an interpretation of the concept of freedom which says that: “Freedom merely for adherents of a government, or of one party, is no freedom; freedom will also mean freedom as well for those who hold different views.”

Together with a number of others who shared his views Benenson organised, in the years that followed, the movement which is known today as the prisoners’ friend, Amnesty International. The great and ambitious goal of this organization is to contribute to the implementation, in every country, of the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights.

It is now almost thirty years since this Declaration was adopted by the United Nations. A great many high-minded people have striven to put its ideals into practice; nevertheless, in recent times we have witnessed an increasing use of brute force, of violence on an international plane, of torture and terrorism.

A great many people have been seized with a paralysing sense of horror and impotence. Faced with this situation, Amnesty, so far from shrinking from its task, has stepped up its efforts to ensure that governments in all countries should feel morally obliged to abide by the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights.

A number of nations maintained during the Belgrade Conference that for one country to call attention to a violation of human rights in another country constituted interference in the internal affairs of that country.

I cannot believe that a ruse of this nature aimed at glossing over injustices perpetrated in one’s own country will be countenanced by international opinion today. On the contrary, the view is now gaining ground that no state can lay claim to absolute national sovereignty where human rights that are universally recognised are involved. These rights are man’s common property, and no power constellation, no dictator, is entitled to deprive us of them.

The primary aim of Amnesty International is to work to secure the release of people imprisoned for their opinions who have made no use of violence or incited others to do so. These prisoners are called “prisoners of conscience”.

The demand for their release only applies to this category of prisoner; as far as all prisoners are concerned, Amnesty International maintains as a general principle that they must be accorded legal defence and that their trials should be conducted openly. Furthermore, all persons in custody, both during the process of interrogation and the carrying out of their sentence, must be guaranteed humane treatment..

As far as the position of prisoners of conscience was concerned, it was first and foremost Articles 18 and 19 that needed to be emphasised.

These two Articles establish everyone’s right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion, and speech.

In recent years, too, Amnesty International has campaigned rigorously for compliance with Articles 5 and 9, which maintain that no prisoner must be subjected to torture or cruel and humiliating treatment, and no one must be subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, or banishment.

Finally, the movement is conducting a vigorous campaign against the use of capital punishment.

In its efforts to implement this programme, Amnesty International has based its work on three irrevocable principles: the organisation must at all times be neutral, impartial, and independent.

Neutrality means that Amnesty International is to work just as energetically for every single prisoner of conscience, no matter what political or religious views the prisoner may hold. This does not necessarily imply that the organisation shares the views of the prisoner, but that it maintains his right, under any regime, to give expression to his opinions.

Amnesty International is committed to political and geographical impartiality; its eyes are open to coercion and injustice, wherever in the world these evils appear, in the East or the West or in the Third World. In reviewing a case it must be blind neither on the right eye nor on the left.

This involves a difficult balancing feat in an age in which distortion and confusion of concepts often appears to have become a political weapon. But unswerving impartiality is a sine qua non if Amnesty International is to maintain its credibility and justify its existence.

The third principle of the organisation, independence, means that it may not base its activities on donations that might curtail its freedom or its activities.

Amnesty International is today financed almost exclusively by contributions from its national sections.

What are Amnesty’s chances of success in promoting its programme?

The organisation has refrained from intervening in the domestic or foreign policy of its “own” government; to avoid involvement in internal political strife an Amnesty group never “adopts” prisoners from its own country.

Nor does Amnesty organise demonstrations in support of its demands. Despite this, it succeeds in making its views known. This is due not least to the revealing reports published regularly by Amnesty on prison conditions and torture in various countries.

It is clear that the organisation’s future will to a large extent depend on its ability to reach the ear of a favourable, fair-minded world opinion. If it succeeds in doing this, the most important battle for human rights will have been won.

In its organisational form and working methods Amnesty differs from other movements. It is based on relatively small groups, so-called “adoption groups”, which “adopt” prisoners from countries with a different political background.

The various groups have close links with the head office in London, where the great task of tracing, helping, and securing the release of prisoners incarcerated for reasons of conscience is carried on. The “adoption groups” base their work for prisoners on a comprehensive body of information comprising the prisoners’ situation, the state of justice in the country concerned, and the possibility of despatching observers to investigate the prisoner’s case and his situation.

One of the main preoccupations of Amnesty International is the constant efforts being made to ensure the negotiation of international agreements capable of securing the human rights of prisoners, and to protect them against physical and mental torture.

The United Nations have admittedly long since adopted minimum standards for prisons, but the great question is whether these are practised.

In order to secure implementation of its demands that the Declaration of Human Rights should be adhered to by member nations of the UNO, Amnesty has mooted the idea of a special High Commissioner for Human Rights. Norway is one of the member countries supporting this proposal.

In the light of the fact that thirty-five nations have this year foregathered in Belgrade for protracted negotiations, on the very subject of following up the promises embodied in the Helsinki Agreement to promote human rights, it is tragic to observe that this year, too, the UNO has failed to implement the proposal for establishing a High Commissioner.

Still more deplorable is the fact that the very countries in which these rights are today so monstrously trampled underfoot should have opposed this proposal – and that they should be numerous enough to succeed. What, one might ask, are the results of Amnesty International’s activities during these last sixteen years? How many prisoners, for example, have been released as a result of Amnesty’s efforts? Perhaps the best answer is provided by a single set of statistics covering the period 1972 to 1975, which reveals that of the approximately 6,000 prisoners for whom Amnesty was working at that time 3,000 were released. A great many factors, quite apart from Amnesty, may well have contributed to this result; nevertheless, these figures provide some indication of the scope of the work.

I do not consider it so important, however, to submit exact statistics. Nor is it likely that this is possible. It is still more important to consider Amnesty International’s worldwide activities as an integral part in the incessant pressure exerted by all good forces on governments and on the United Nations Organisation, representing a coordinated and necessary effort to achieve an international society founded on justice.

The many thousands of individuals the world over, working in the “adoption groups”, develop, moreover, a close personal relationship to the prisoners they have “adopted”. It must be a great source of joy to be able in practice to assist an individual prisoner and his family, by sending letters and showing solicitude in so many ways.

Likewise, it must be a source of infinite comfort to the individual prisoner to feel that he has not been forgotten by the outside world, that someone is working to achieve his release, a release, maybe, from the most wretched dungeon.

Amnesty has shone a torch of hope into his cell, maybe precisely when its inmate is sunk in the depths of despair and degradation.

The prisoner derives comfort and strength from the knowledge that he is “not alone in his suffering”. He can shed his fear of the grim reality of the saying that “a person who has been forgotten is lost”.

In deciding to honour Amnesty International with the Nobel Peace Prize in the year 1977 – the year of “prisoners of conscience” – the Nobel Committee does so in the conviction that the defence of human dignity against torture, violence, and degradation constitutes a very real contribution to the peace of this world.

In a word, it may be said of Amnesty International’s activity today that this organisation has given a human answer to the appeal of the Norwegian poet Arnulf Øverland:

Don’t suffer too lightly, oh, never more
Injustice and wrongs that another bore.

But this work to protect human dignity is not a sacrifice we make for others: it is important that all of us should understand that in this age we must act accordingly in recognition of the earnest appeal contained in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s words:

You’re defending yourself –
Your future itself is at stake.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1977, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1978


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1977

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