Speech by Shirin EBADI, Nobel Peace Prize 2003

I feel very happy and honoured to be here today, and to intervene at the opening session of the Third World Social Forum.

This Forum is a symbol of hope in this changing world, torn by conflicts, violence, inequalities and injustice. This Forum gathers thousands and thousands of people who, all over the world, believe that another world is possible, where globalisation would not be synonym of inequalities and wild liberalisation, people who believe that the human being should be at the center of globalisation.

Worldwide, 54 countries are poorer than they were in 1990. In 2002, nearly 1.2 billion people lived in extreme poverty, defined as an income of less than US$1 per day. Asia bears the greatest number of people living in extreme poverty. Forty-two million people live with HIV/AIDS, and the number will surpass 100 million within a decade unless a massive response begins immediately.

Extreme poverty is a violation of human rights since people are deprived from the rights to healthcare, education, food or housing. It also results in further human rights violations since, without resources, many rights become pure theory - rights to a fair trial, freedom of expression and opinion, right to free and fair election. I believe that this situation is not ineluctable : remedy lies in a greater respect for human rights.

By reforming international institutions, including the WTO, the IFIs or the UN Security Council, and making them more democratic, the gap between those who have and those who have not could be reduced. By ensuring the justiciability, and consequently the effectiveness of economic and social rights, we can make them a reality for the majority of the planet. By making all actors responsible for the human rights violations to which they contribute, including the transnational corporations, human rights can concretise much more widely. These issues are on the top of our agenda. The FIDH, to which I belong, will devote its next Congress to the issues of accountability, justiciability of rights and civil society participation. Those elements are prerequisites for the democratisation of globalisation.

Women are the first victims of extreme poverty. In addition, they face discrimination in law and in practice in many countries in the world. We have to struggle against a patriarchal culture. Women and men should work hand in hand against that culture, which denies equal rights for women and men. In my country, Iran, patriarchal attitudes are prevalent : many women are high level graduates, but men occupy the decision-making positions. The legislation discriminates against women as well: under criminal law, a woman’s life is worth half of a man’s; the legal value of a woman’s testimony is half of a man’s testimony.

Women and children are also the first victims of today’s wars. According to the UNDP, in 2002 more than 50 countries were either recovering from or embroiled in war or natural disaster. In today’s wars, 90 percent of those who die are civilians. Conflicts are the occasion of extremely serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Injustice is often at their root cause.

I would like to recall here the situation of Palestine. Violations of human rights and humanitarian law are perpetrated daily in the Territories occupied illegally by Israel since 1967. The right of the Palestinian people to self-determination must be firmly reaffirmed. The situation can be solved only through a just and fair solution. There are people who want peace within the Israeli and Palestinian civil societies. In that regard, any peace initiative based on the UN resolutions should be supported. The international community should urgently send a UN interposition force, as requested by the Palestinian people, in order to provide a protection to the civilians. I deeply regret the absence of international initiative in that direction.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. But the Great Lakes region is still torn by conflicts. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, eight years of war led to the death of three millions people. Peace process are under way in the DRC and in Burundi, but the many human rights violations remain a source of insecurity in the region. The illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC has been repeatedly denounced, in vain. Child soldiers is an important phenomenon in the region : it is easier to put a weapon in their hands than to provide them with schools and books... Sustainable peace implies justice for the victims and the struggle against impunity. The International Criminal Court announced that the first case that it will examine will probably regard the situation in the DRC. And the Protocol establishing the African Court on human and peoples’ rights will enter into force by the end of this month. This is a great victory for African human rights defenders and for the people of Africa.

In Chechnya, war crimes and crimes against humanity are perpetrated on a daily basis by the Russian army, without any sanction by the international community. Since 2000, special operations have taken place, resulting in arrests, torture, extrajudicial executions and massive disappearances against civilians. Those violations are mainly perpetrated by the Russian armed forces, who benefit from a total impunity. The gap is increasing between the official position of the Russian authorities who pretend that normalisation is under way and the reality of a lengthy war. The war on terror is used by the authorities as a justification for the massive human rights violations and contributes to the absence of effective condemnation by the international community.

Colombia is the prey of a conflict since forty years which opposes the State to guerrilla groups. The paramilitaries are responsible for the majority of the violations and often act with the complicity of the army. The only solution to that lasting conflict is the struggle against impunity and a negotiated peace. In that regard, I am concerned at the draft law proposed by the Colombian government which would allow an amnesty of the authors of crimes against humanity, be they paramilitaries or members of guerrilla groups. I wish to visit Colombia soon in a gesture of solidarity with the human rights defenders of Colombia.

I would like to take the opportunity bestowed to me by the organisers of this Forum to raise the issue of the growing number of terrorist attacks, and of the subsequent measures that have been taken by some states during the past two years using September 11 and the war against terrorism as a pretext. Combating terrorist attacks is legitimate and necessary, on the condition to fully respect due process of law and the rule of law. However, under the guise of the struggle against terrorism, some States, including the United States, consider legitimate to take measures which violate international human rights law. This is notably the case for the prisoners detained in the American base of Guantanamo.

Afghanistan and Iraq are occupied, after armed interventions in violation of international law. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating every day, where the fanaticism is on the rise again, and where a new civil war might burst at any moment. In Iraq, the situation is dim as well. The effective power should be transferred as soon as possible to the Iraqi people. They must be allowed to take their fate in their own hands and to exploit the wealth of their country themselves, for the benefit of the population appears irrelevant to certain states.

In Iran, since about fifteen years, and notably on the occasion of the last three presidential and legislative elections, the large majority of the Iranian people, in particular youths and women, asserted its will that reforms take place in Iran in order to establish a democracy and respect for human rights.

Unfortunately, the conservatives, who detain the non-representative bodies in Iran, have put many obstacles and a serious crisis is presently in under way with regard to the electoral lists for the forthcoming legislative election, in February. I recalled several times that Islam should not be instrumentalised to deprive the people of democracy and human rights.

More generally, the present context which emphasises excessively on security issues makes the defence of human rights more difficult. Human Rights defenders have always been harassed, repressed, and sometimes killed because they are working for the respect of universally recognised human rights. I have myself, as a lawyer and a human rights defender, been in prison in my country for my activities in favour of human rights. There are still many prisoners of opinion in the Iranian jails : they should be released.

In the present context of war against terrorism, human rights defenders are confronted to a climate where defending the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence or the prohibition of torture is considered as irrelevant by many states. The security issues bypass any other rights and principles. Their message of peace and justice is more difficult to channel in a climate of radicalisation, rising communautarism and growing repression.

Solidarity between human rights defenders throughout the world is crucial to enhance their protection. The support of regional and international NGOs is also determinant.

I wish to end this speech by recalling the universality of human rights. Contrary to what certain governments say, human rights are universal. Arbitrary detention, torture and discrimination hurt the human dignity of anybody, whatever his or her country of origin, religion, descent, or any other ground.

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