Freedom of speech at risk, says rights activist

Stéphane Hessel says much has been achieved for democracy in many countries over the past 60 years

People who exploit the concept of religious defamation represent the greatest threat to freedom of speech, human rights advocate Stéphane Hessel tells swissinfo.

This content was published on March 10, 2009 - 09:43

The 92-year-old French-German diplomat, the last survivor involved in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was in Geneva to discuss his film on the human rights "Magna Carta" and the thorny topic of freedom of speech.

The documentary film, La liberté d'expression est plus nécessaire que jamais (Freedom of expression is more necessary than ever), by the Swiss Hirondelle Foundation, was being shown ahead of a debate on freedom of speech as part of Geneva's seventh International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights, which runs from March 6-15.

The concept of "freedom of expression" appeared as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But human rights defenders say new threats hang over freedom of expression and opinion, related to the criticism of religions, which some people consider defamatory.

The United States, Italy and other European states are threatening to boycott the United Nations racism summit, the Durban Review Conference, or Durban II, which is due to take place in Geneva from April 20-24.

Israel and Canada have already announced a boycott and more are threatening to stay away if Islamic countries continue to insist on imposing their concept of religious defamation or over-focusing on the Middle East.

swissinfo: What progress has been made on human rights over the past 60 years?

Stéphane Hessel: We should remember that the Universal Declaration was an ideal to be attained and not a state of affairs. We knew at the time that these rights and freedoms would be very difficult to secure, even in UN member states.

But over the past 60 years we have managed to make progress on democracy in many countries, and seen the end of the colonial period, the end of totalitarianism in many countries and the end of many military regimes. We have achieved certain things, but a great deal needs to be done.

There are violations of human rights and freedoms in many countries. Over the past eight years even the United States committed a large number of rights abuses, despite being the first to proclaim the Universal Declaration.

This is why a festival like this one is useful, as it shows the general public via films what human rights abuses are continuing in many countries.

swissinfo: Your film is entitled "Freedom of speech is more necessary than ever". How is freedom of speech at risk?

S.H.: Today freedom of speech is threatened on two sides. From an economic perspective, it's much harder to have means of information and expression that are not controlled by big business.

In Switzerland newspapers have considerable freedom, but even here there is a risk that the media can be monopolised and we should fight against that.

But today the gravest risk against freedom of speech is that posed by major religions that want to defend their principles against attacks from others.

Even when certain opinions and ideas shock people, as is sometimes the case with religion, it's normal that you should be able to clearly state what you think.

We shouldn't limit freedom of speech. For every expression of free speech it should be possible to give a contrary opinion.

I think it's a mistake to use the law to ban personal opinion, whether it's a cartoon, a published text, or something broadcast on TV or radio. As banning an opinion legally gives it a status that it shouldn't have. It's one opinion among many others and should be fought by other opinions.

That why we need dialogue between cultures that is not violent. We need to talk and understand each other's sensibilities and willingness to defend certain arguments.

That's what democracy is all about: a dialogue between opinions, which can sometimes be violent, but which should be based on mutual respect.

swissinfo: Certain nations and groups taking part in the UN racism summit, the Durban Review Conference, want the fight against racism to include the fight against defamation of religion. What's your opinion?

S.H.: This is a serious risk that we need to avoid. We really hope this conference doesn't result in the same violence experienced at the World Conference against Racism in Durban eight years ago.

We hope the issue will be dealt with respect and sensitivity by all sides. It's quite natural that some civilisations are sensitive to what happened to them over past centuries and demand the right to protest against attacks on their religious values.

The UN meeting has one aim: for the major cultures and civilisations to meet, discuss and better understand each other. Durban II is an opportunity for all nations to show their capacity to work together.

[A successful outcome] won't be easy, but I believe it's not impossible if each nation is willing to understand each other's sensitivities and to ask the other to recognize the basic values we are all destined to defend.

swissinfo-interview: Simon Bradley

In brief

Geneva's seventh International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights runs from March 6-15. This year's festival, which is dedicated to the imprisoned Chinese dissident Hu Jia, puts the focus on Georgia, Bosnia, Algeria, freedom of speech, illegal immigrants and globalisation.

Twenty films are competing for a variety of prizes.

The festival jury includes the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, French actor and film-maker Mathieu Kassovitz, international reporter and author Florence Aubenas, Burkina Faso script-writer and film director Idrissa Ouédraogo, and Algerian playwright Slimane Benaïssa.

Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz will present the world premiere of Jacques Sarasin's film "The world according to Stiglitz". Other world premières include Christian Zerbib's "En terre étrangère" and Patti Duncan and Skye Fitzgerald's "Finding face".

Other film highlights include "Kassim the Dream", about a Ugandan child soldier who exorcises his experience of violence in the boxing rings of North America; "The Choir" about South African prisoners; "To make an example" on the death penalty in Turkey; "Brides of Allah", that describes the life and state of mind of Palestinian activists in an Israeli prison; and "Yodok stories" that shoots scenes from life in North Korean labour camps.

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Stéphane Hessel

Born in Berlin in 1917, Stéphane Hessel is a diplomat and an ambassador.

During the Second World War, he was deported to the Nazi concentration camps before joining the French Resistance and obtaining French nationality.

Hessel participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and is the only witness of this unique event still alive today.

Hessel was a member of the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights and the High Council for International Cooperation. He is also a founding member of the international ethical, political and scientific Collegium, or Collegium International.

He is the holder of the Grand Officier de la Legion d'honneur and the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit French honours.

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