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Forum moves to the beat of human rights

Singer Jimmy Cliff said he was impressed by Switzerland's environmental efforts Keystone

Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff has opened the 2008 International Human Rights Forum Lucerne with a charity concert in aid of Unicef.

The proceeds are to go to the United Nations body’s water, environment and sanitation programme – staying very much in line with the theme of this year’s forum: human rights and the environment.

Cliff, famous for such hits as “You can get it if you really want” and “The harder they come”, has a long interest in human rights. His protest song “Vietnam” was described as one of the best of its genre by Bob Dylan. For Cliff, giving a concert at a human rights forum is “natural”.

“These are the themes which I’ve always been singing about,” the 60-year-old Jamaican singer-songwriter told swissinfo at a media conference before Monday evening’s concert.

“I’m inspired about things which touch me in life and I write about that, so it’s a natural part of my daily occupation,” he added.

Cliff, who has been to Switzerland several times during his long career, said that he was impressed by the environmental situation in the country.

“I grew up with an environment that was in the country, with clean air, fresh water, and I see that Swiss people really put a lot of work into keeping the rivers and everything clean,” he said.

Open discussion

The environment is the main theme of the two-day forum, which starts on Tuesday. It is organised by the Teacher Training University of Central Switzerland with the aim of bringing together people from politics, the economy, academia and the public to debate human rights.

“We want to reach the goal of it being a neutral discussion so that everybody can come, perhaps even people who have a little problem with some human rights topics,” forum co-director Thomas Kirchschläger told swissinfo.

He said that the environment was chosen because this major concern could no longer be separated from human rights.

Experts agree that the human impact of environmental degradation, such as water shortages and rising sea levels, will mostly affect the poorer and more vulnerable members of society.

Lalita Ramdas, international board chair of the non-governmental environment group Greenpeace, who will speak at the forum, said that the trouble was that people had compartmentalised their thinking so that the environment became separate from what was happening to people.

“More and more people are realising that unless we look at the two things within the same kind of framework we are missing something terribly important,” said India-based Ramdas.


For Jorges Daniel Taillant, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment, a non-profit group in Argentina, the forum is a helpful contribution to a topical debate.

“Switzerland is a country that conglomerates a lot of actors, you have some very important international organisations, including the UN,” Taillant, who will also speak in Lucerne, told swissinfo.

“And to begin to cross-fertilise the environmental community with the human rights community is fundamental to understanding the problems that many people still face because of environmental degradation,” he said.

Taillant’s organisation has found another way to get the green message across – it has just launched the Woodstock Principles, ten ideas musicians can adopt to become more environmentally sustainable in their work, such as reducing waste and using less energy on tour.

“People listen to pop stars, much more than groups like ours or even such important environmentalists as Greenpeace, so if the music industry starts to go green that’s fantastic,” he said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Lucerne

The International Human Rights Forum Lucerne (IHRF) aims to support and develop the debate around human rights.

It is run by the Teacher Training College of Central Switzerland and takes place on April 22-23.

More than 70 people will present contributions to the forum and there will be more than 30 workshops.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR