Opening speech by Souhayr Belhassen, President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)

24/10/2008
Press release

Who knows Olga Marina Vergara ?

Or should I say, "Who knew her ?"

Human Rights defender and leader of the Antioch section in Colombia of the NGO Ruta Pacifica de la Mujeres, Olga campaigned for the implementation of a humanitarian dialogue between the Colombian authorities and the FARC rebels. A campaigner, a pacifist, or should that be "just" a pacifist campaigner, a mother, a grandmother.

Olga was assassinated in front of her home, on the 24th of September last, at 8 o’clock in the evening. Her son, Wilmar Alejandro, her daughter in law, Yudi Andrea, and her grandson, a little boy of only five years old, were assassinated with her.

Olga died in anonymity. Her murder will not have caused the government of her country to resign, albeit responsible for the safety of its citizens, in a country that sadly boasts, for too many years already, the highest record for the assassination of human rights defenders. Olga was one of those soldiers of peace, an anonymous dove, cut down by bullets, in a nameless warfare that thousands of people routinely carry out throughout the world in favour of the recognition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Souhayr Belhassen, I have been elected at the head of an international organisation for the defence of Human Rights called FIDH, the Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’Homme or International Federation for Human Rights.

Created in 1922, born from the ashes of another war, the FIDH initially gave itself a mandate to enjoin the world leaders to call for the elaboration of an international treaty on Human Rights, which became, a couple of decades later, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights.

A woman, a Tunisian, hailing from a world where culture and tradition shackle women and halt their emancipation, I campaign, through my organization, for the universality of Human Rights, and to make those rights exist and flourish throughout the world.

I came from one of the member organisations of the FIDH, The Tunisian League for Human Rights, in a country that doesn’t shine by its success in Human Rights, where Human Rights defenders are harassed, beaten, criminalised and condemned for their actions in promoting Human Rights.

I could have chosen more famous people to speak of, better known in the sphere of Human Rights, which, for 60 years, have carried the torch in the name of the victims, calling for justice for the oppressed, but it is Olga that I chose first, dead without being noticed, on the battlefield.

There was also Andreï Sakharov, there is still Shirin Ebadi, there was Anna Politkovskaïa, also cut down by bullets, and then Bronislaw Geremeck, one of yours, one of ours.

These names, all famous, are part of the same army of defenders, who are subjected every day to backlash from their fight for a better, fairer and free society, and of whom Olga is one of the latest victims.

They are in their hundreds, every year, those for whom we intervene in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program between FIDH and the OMCT, the World Organisation against Torture.

Ten years after the adoption of another declaration, the one on the Human Rights Defenders, the international and regional mechanisms for the protection of defenders have multiplied. The increasing international focus on defenders affords them better protection. They are nonetheless still subjected to constant harassment and laws, forever more restrictive of liberties, which thwart them in the scope of their activities. How can we progress ?

The European Union has adopted, with the guidelines on the protection for Human Rights defenders, a most pertinent instrument, asking its ambassadors to support these women and men on the ground, these actors of change. It has also thought up and created a financial instrument to aid Human Rights defenders in danger, or to help support local actions thus bypassing the need for approval by the local governments concerned. It will surely succeed, tomorrow, in granting emergency visas to defenders in need, so that they may leave the frontline, just for a while, to take a breather, or more permanently, because the frontline is so deadly.

However, the real challenge is far greater because it will not suffice to distribute bullet-proof vests or emergency visas, it will not suffice to free some prisoners when others are still locked away, it will not suffice to denounce or to cry over Olga’s remains.

It is necessary to go yet further, further in learning to listen, to listen to the voice of those women and men who see and speak the declaration. To listen and act accordingly. To act to for them, to act for Human Rights.

The stakes are high, maybe even higher than one even thinks, deep down. I am thinking, for example, of the recent appeals that have surrounded the adoption of the "returns directive". At the heart of a Parliament that claims to be the largest democratic enclave in the world, a Parliament that has denounced, and continues to denounce injustice throughout the world, at the heart of this Parliament, the voice of Human Rights was quelled.

All the Human Rights NGOs, followed by the ten special rapporteurs of the United Nations, in a single voice, denounced the project of a "returns directive" harmonising the conditions for returning illegal immigrants, a potentially violating text, that allows the detention of men and women for up to 18 months, introduces a ban on returning to European territory for 5 years, without guaranteeing the rules to a fair trial.

However, beyond the text, its adoption possibly hides a more sinister threat, voiced by a Parliamentarian who, to justify his choice, denounced the " ideological and unreasonable campaign of numerous organizations against this text which they instrumentalise and deform for political purposes" (own translation) or this other who applauded the victory of "realism" over "ideology".

This is the first step down the road towards the deconstruction of Human Rights, and against which we must muster all our energy. For behind, many are those who will fall prey to temptation, or use the situation now offered to abuse and justify their abuse. There is today such a wealth of so-called "realism" to justify the inhuman.

Yes, respecting and promoting Human Rights is no easy task. But the greatest steps in humanity will be taken by those men and women who will have the eyes, the words and the actions that will advance Human Rights. It will not be enough to protect Human Rights defenders, we will need to act, to act with them.

Olga, we fight on.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you.

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