Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Professor John Sanness, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee


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

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize for 1980 to Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

He has devoted many years of his life to the cause of human rights in Argentina and the whole of Latin America. He is an untiring and consistent champion of the principle of nonviolence in the struggle for social and political liberty. He has lit a light in the dark, a light which, in the opinion of our Committee, should never be allowed to be extinguished.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel is, furthermore, a champion of nonviolence in relations between nations. He has, for instance, warned of the danger of an escalation of the territorial conflict between Argentina and Chile.

The year 1980 has proved no more encouraging than 1979 in the struggle to promote human rights and peace.

In Asia last year one of the largest countries in the area, Iran, rose to overthrow a tyranny and a dictatorship, renouncing the protection of a major power that had cooperated with the old regime, and initiating a rapid reduction of its armed forces.

It has subsequently been attacked by a neighbouring country, and the ensuing war is still being waged. Moreover, for a whole year the Iranians have been perplexed spectators to a campaign launched by a superpower in an adjoining country. This war, too, is still being fought.

The war in Afghanistan, more than anything else, has cast its dark shadow on men and women in the part of the world to which we Norwegians belong. The fear of loss of liberty and human rights contends in many minds with the fear of war.

This autumn Europe witnessed the breakthrough of a movement for freedom in Poland. This movement has been marked by moderation and a realistic approach. It has set itself limited goals; it has clung to the policy of nonviolence; its unshaken spiritual foundation is respect for human rights. We await the outcome, in anxiety and hope, knowing that it will have a profound and lasting effect on our entire continent, as well as far beyond its borders.

The two courageous women from Northern Ireland who received the Nobel Peace Prize for 1976, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, have made it known publicly that they had nominated Adolfo Pérez Esquivel for the Peace Prize.

They themselves had been awarded the Peace Prize because, prompted by their own bitter experience, they were prepared to work actively for peace, brotherhood, and mutual respect in the relations between Protestant and Roman Catholic sections of the population in a Northern Ireland racked with terror, hate-riddened and strickened with fear.

The grievous, purely personal stresses and strains these two brave women, of their own choice, were prepared to undergo, and the tense situation that still prevails in their land, illustrate how arduous the struggle for peace, brotherhood and human dignity may prove.

From his closely confined exile in Gorky the laureate for 1975, Andrei Sakharov, has conveyed his greetings to Esquivel, through the medium of his wife, while at the same time the ranks of human rights protagonists around him have been decimated by arrest and banishment.

In his message Sakharov expresses his understanding for “the gravity and the tragedy of the problems facing your country and other countries in Latin America. Your vigorous struggle for justice and the help you have given to people suffering under oppression are cherished by people who live thousands of miles away, in another world”.

Last year, Nobel’s Peace Prize was awarded to Mother Teresa. She had worked among the most destitute, the lonely, the outcast, the dying in Calcutta and in other parts of the world.

The Committee made it clear that the reason for awarding her the prize was not the great scope that her activities had achieved, but the spirit that inspired and informed it. Those who came or were brought to her and her sisters were to enjoy “the feeling of being received and recognised as people with their own human dignity and the right to respect”.

To quote words used on the occasion of the presentation of the Peace Prize to Mother Teresa in this University Festival Hall:

“Can any political, social, or intellectual feat of engineering, on the international or on the national plane, however effective and rational, however idealistic and principled its protagonists may be, give us anything but a house built on a foundation of sand, unless the spirit of Mother Teresa inspires the builders and takes its dwelling in their building?”

In the opinion of our Committee it is this spirit, too, that inspires her co-religionist Esquivel, in his choice of a different and wider field of activity than Mother Teresa’s. He has heard and answered a social and political call to change the social and political world around him, so that respect for Man’s right and dignity can be aroused in the hearts of all, to the benefit of all mankind.

May I quote once again from last year’s presentation ceremony:

“Mother Teresa works in the world as she finds it, in the slums of Calcutta and other towns and cities. But she makes no distinction between poor and rich persons, between poor and rich countries. Politics have never been her concern, but economic, social, and political work with these same aims is in complete harmony with her own life’s work”.

In this respect the award this year has its parallel in last year’s.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was born in Buenos Aires in 1931. He is a well-known architect, and also a sculptor. His sculptures are to be seen in various public places in Argentina. In 1968 he was appointed Professor of Architecture and Sculpture at the National Academy of Art in Buenos Aires.

In 1971 his life took a new turn: the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America was subject to a spirit of ferment, which influenced him, too. Various circles within the Church raised fresh questions, with regard to the duties of the Church and of Christians to the community in which they live. They espoused the cause not only of respect for human dignity in the classical sense of the word, but also of economic and social reforms. They sought contact with workers and peasants, and supported the landless peasants’ demands for land and the workers’ right to organisation and solidarity.

Esquivel’s intense commitment to the cause of human rights and nonviolent methods, however, was fuelled by the special situation that was developing in his own country of Argentina. There was a risk that a wave of terror and counterterror might erupt. Esquivel joined a group who rejected terror as a weapon, seeking inspiration instead from Mohandas Gandhi and advocating a campaign of nonviolence as a means of achieving liberation.

At a conference in Montevideo in 1968 a joint organisation was set up embracing active nonviolent groups throughout Latin America. In 1974 it was decided to continue along more permanent lines, and Esquivel was entrusted with the post of Secretary-General, resigning from his professorship in order to devote himself wholly to his new vocation.

The name of the organisation – Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice) – clearly indicates the organisation’s fundamental views and programme. Its publication, bearing the same name, proved a link between groups of likeminded persons throughout Latin America. Their activities were, and still are, coordinated in the organisation’s modest offices in Buenos Aires.

As its Secretary-General Esquivel visited a number of other countries for the purpose of conferences and talks. On two occasions he was arrested and expelled – in Brazil in 1975 and in Ecuador in 1976. In 1976 the organisation moved to persuade the United Nations to establish a human rights commission. Documents were drawn up providing evidence of violations of human rights in Latin America. In order to solicit support for this Esquivel visited a number of European countries.

On his return he was arrested in Buenos Aires. No charge was preferred against him; he was not even interrogated. He has given us little indication of the way he was personally treated in prison. After fourteen months he was released, but under the obligation to report to the police, as well as being subject to other restrictions. These restrictions were somewhat relaxed in 1979. Meanwhile, he has resumed his work with Paz y Justicia. This year he was in a position to undertake a number of fresh journeys, which included Europe. This autumn he visited the neighbouring country of Chile, in order to conduct a series of talks with a number of institutions, organisations, and groups, among them the so-called “Group of 24”, which comprises lawyers of various political persuasions.

Early in the 1970s Argentina experienced conditions not far removed from civil war, with extreme terrorist organisations, highly organised and amply supplied with weapons, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear with murder, bomb attacks, abductions, and blackmail. A state of bloody urban warfare, much of it conducted at night, developed, with terrorists from the Right and terrorists from the Left ranged against one another.

Successive governments failed to solve the crisis and to stem the tide. The number of victims rose alarmingly right up to the year 1976.

The military regime that was then established has, however, itself resorted to extreme violence. Thousands of people have disappeared without a trace, and we know that in many cases they have been tortured and killed. This has been carried out under a veil of profound silence, without any public announcements, without any trial or verdict. The victims have been people far removed from terrorism in all its many forms.

In order to prevent the creation of a climate of public opinion, and to ensure an atmosphere of indifference and apparent assent to these methods, appeals have been made to people’s fear of Argentina once again reverting to the conditions obtaining in the early 1970s. There is no doubt that this fear is still very much alive today; but in order to ensure that the wall of silence is not breached, talking and writing about those who have disappeared – los desuparecidos – has at the same time become a perilous undertaking. Among those who have disappeared are journalists who not only knew too much but who were anxious to publish what they knew.

Throughout these troubled times Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has stuck unflinchingly to his principles. He was himself a supporter of far-reaching social and political reforms. To this extent he was in a position to appreciate some of the motives that prompted terrorism inspired by the Left. But when, with Mohandas Gandhi as his great example, he embarked on a hunger strike in 1970-71, he did so as a protest against terrorism, both from the Right and from the Left, and among other things against the abduction – and subsequent blackmail – of one of the directors for a Fiat factory in Argentina.

For this reason he occupies today a position of great moral strength in his campaign against the methods that are being used. He can reply calmly to those who regard his protests against such police methods as a defense and protection for terrorists. To quote his own words:

“We have denounced repression… of all kinds. We have denounced the killing of generals, colonels and innocent relatives of military officials. We have no connections with political parties of any sort, much less armed groups. We act by means of evangelical nonviolence, which we see as a force for liberation”.

The aims symbolised by the very name of the organisation, Paz y Justicia, go well beyond a protest against terror and violence. In his own words: “You cannot talk solely of human rights in terms of torture, imprisonment and killing. True, this is the gravest aspect. But we must also look at the case of the peasant who has no land and is dying of hunger”. For Esquivel, as for Gandhi, nonviolence involves much more than a mere passive acceptance of the world as it is. It is a strategy in a struggle to change the world, using means that will not stifle the good intentions and the results one aims to achieve.

This is what the movement and its Secretary-General represent throughout Latin America. It is divided into three regions, each with its own office, coordinated from the head office in Buenos Aires. It is ecumenical, and no one is excluded on religious grounds. Nevertheless it is rooted in the fermentation and new ideas that have been stirring in the dominant Roman Catholic Church in Latin America during the last fifteen years, the visible results of which have included the two meetings of bishops in Medellin in Colombia in 1968 and in Puebla in Mexico in 1978.

These new trends, however, which have also encountered a certain amount of resistance, aim to forge new links between the Church and the broad masses of the people. This means that clergy and laymen must undertake fresh obligations within the community. The Church must not be content merely to carry out its ritual functions – baptism, mass, funerals – which are part of its accepted routine. Nor must it merely be content to provide social relief to those in need, in a spirit of compassion and self-sacrifice – though this, too, has always been accepted as one of its tasks. Nor must it be content merely to exercise Man’s duty to his neighbour on the purely personal level, and in his immediate circle.

A new keyword in this Roman Catholic philosophy has been “evangelisation”, and this word has acquired an extended meaning. Numerous working and discussion groups have grown up, in which men and women debate and assume obligations to their community. The aim, too, is to include the poor and underprivileged. Attempts have been made to organise them in a struggle to achieve their rights, by the creation of fresh organisations or by support for the old ones. The Church is under strong pressure to define its own attitude to political, economic, and social problems.

A great many different trends are involved: the organisation possesses no ready-made models or systems engineered to produce the perfect community. Nor are there any recipes for economic strategy capable of ensuring a state of welfare that could be enjoyed by all. This lies outside the task of the Church in this world. But as a minimum society is expected not to reconcile itself to conditions that make it impossible for men and women to gain respect for their human dignity or to accord this respect to others. The leaders of society, too, are expected to show in their politics respect for human dignity, in all men and women, without any exception. The organisation repudiates any policy inspired by greed, selfishness, and lust for power, and which ignores the great mass of the people.

This is where people like Esquivel take their place in the social struggle; for him, the strategy of nonviolence is the only right approach. Poverty spawns terrorism, and terrorism increases poverty, he once said. It is clear to him that violence as a means to an end destroys the very aim one originally dreamt of achieving. Latin America is a subcontinent, embracing a great many countries with an extreme range of different conditions. Many of them are much poorer than Argentina; many of them have inherited far deeper historical sources of friction between sections of the population with different origins; and many of them are much smaller and more helpless than Argentina. Nevertheless, the Committee is of the opinion that Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has a message that is valid for the whole of Latin America – and not only for that part of the world.

A great many organisations in Latin America are working on the basis of the same fundamental principles. Paz y Justicia may not necessarily have the largest membership. These fundamental principles are supported by many excellent spokesmen in numerous countries, men who may be better known than Esquivel. The reason his voice reached all the way from Latin America to the Norwegian Nobel Committee was not because of its strength but because of its purity and clarity. It is our hope that his work will bear fruit in his own country, that it will hearken to his voice and break out from the vicious circle of terror and counter-terror, of anarchy and reaction, setting an example to the whole of Latin America.

Commenting on the Committee’s choice, an English-speaking newspaper in Buenos Aires had the following comment to make:

“The balance of power between those who are prepared to defend any means to achieve a particular goal and those who insist that a crime is a crime, no matter who commits it or for what reason, has now been changed in Argentina”.

It is also gratifying to note that one of the major Argentinian newspapers, which wrongly suspects the Norwegian Nobel Committee of ignoring violations of human rights in other countries with different systems and ideologies from those obtaining in present-day Argentina, concludes by stating that if this suspicion were to prove incorrect, then the award of the prize should be welcomed.

This inspires us with hope.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has frequently been accused, both at home and abroad, of looking at the world through Norwegian spectacles, from the standpoint of Norwegian attitudes and Norwegian interests.

But we gladly accept this description of our Committee, which appeared in the great Chilean weekly Hoy, written by the former Minister of Justice, Professor Sinhuega, after Esquivel’s visit, in an article entitled Who is He?:

“It [the Norwegian Nobel Committee] is familiar with Pérez’s work and ideas. It has been informed of torture and of persons who disappeared. There [in Norway] human life means a great deal, whatever human life is involved”.

Maybe the Committee’s choice reflects the Norwegian cultural background. This is possibly inevitable. But in this case, as in others, this background has surely served to build a bridge between us and champions of human dignity in other parts of the world, people such as Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and his fellow workers.

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


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1980

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