BY GERHART BAUM
We bow to your courage
How much courage does it take to go to a demonstration early in the morning, not knowing if the evening will end in prison? How much inner strength and conviction is required to rebel against repressive regimes and those in power? How unbreakable must one's sense of justice be to fight against the oppression of an entire people and thereby become the target of ruthless dictators? "We are born free to be free," says Hannah Arendt. Oftentimes, the moment people seek to make use of their freedom, they lose it. Maria Kalesnikava, one of the faces of the Belarusian opposition, tore up her passport to prevent her deportation from Belarus. She has been in detention since September 2020. It is the goal of the regime to wear her down and humiliate her. Her fighting spirit remains – even in detention – despite the attemps to break and destroy her – similarly to the case of Alexey Nawalny.
All over the world, we are witnessing large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations – and they are bringing change.
One pertinent example is Sudan where the long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was chased out of office and faces charges before the International Criminal Court. As the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan, this fills me with a certain degree of satisfaction – after all, I had held him responsible for serious human rights violations in my reports. We are also seeing spontaneous demonstrations against the dire living conditions in Cuba. Unfortunately, both in Cuba and many other places like the in Hong Kong, in Myanmar, in Belarus, in Russia, the demonstrations are met with large-scale repression by the regimes. But some people refuse to be deterred by this.
The will to live freely is innate in every human being.
There are no differences according to culture or religion, as some people in power would have us believe. During my many travels, I have met people all around the world who want nothing more than to live as freely as we do. And the promotion of human rights always also has to mean interference. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, they are all built on the idea that every single person needs and deserves protection – even against their own state. The human being is the object of protection. Individual perpetrators are held personally responsible – increasingly so by criminal courts and international criminal law. The German Federal Court of Justice has just ruled that the punishment of war crimes and other serious offences by subordinate sovereigns in this country cannot be excluded by reference to immunity. Therefore, the perpetrator cannot hide behind his state. The principle of the Responsibility to Protect also promotes the responsibility of the international community to protect individuals against repression by their respective state. Let us look at those who resist. On the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the
UN General Assembly dedicated a strong resolution to the tireless commitment of these courageous people: the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Unanimously adopted by the international community, this declaration provides human rights defenders with certain rights to protect them against oppressive regimes. It is a self-committment by states to pay special respect to and protect the committment of human rights defenders. Oppressive regimes perceive the Declaration as an inadmissible interference – but this is deliberate. Over the decades, the awareness has grown that the protection of human rights depends on individuals resisting arbitrariness, exploitation, poverty and disregard for civil rights. These individuals are guided by the deep conviction in human dignity. It is human dignity that serves as the moral leitmotif of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and which has inspired the German Constitution.
Human dignity is a combative force that is freedom-loving, unbound and future-oriented. Human dignity is expressed in the will to live in a self-determined way and to have a say over one‘s life.
Article 1 of the German Constitution obliges all state authorities to respect this principle not only in Germany, but in all their international activities. Thus, for example, protesting against the oppression of the Uyghurs is a Constitution obligation. It is for this reason that we need brave individuals who put their lives on the line and stand up for democracy, freedom and human rights. As individuals, they give a face and a name to the discontent and lack of freedom of many and campaign for change with their names, their lives and their freedom. Oftentimes, they are active within non-governmental organisations. The indispensable role of NGOs in the implementation of human rights was reaffirmed in the final declaration of the 1993 Human Rights Conference in Vienna. Who are the individuals fighting for freedom? We can see them all across the world. They are young and old, women and men. They work in small villages for better health and food situations and for the education of their children. Their activities in the large refugee camps, for example in the Middle East, are admirable. They strive to ensure that elections and meetings can take place in remote places, that people are informed about the risks of pandemics or that nature is protected from overexploitation and environmental disasters. The activities of human rights defenders are diverse and depend on the specific situation on the ground and of those who require support
The committment of these human rights defenders contributes to a better world and and a better coexistence.
Anyone can become a human rights defender. No school degree is required, no specific profession necessary. What is needed is courage, the will to be free and intergrity. Human rights defenders set themselves apart through their actions and their will to promote freedom and human dignity. Their bravery and work stands in clear contrast to the inability of those with political responsibility to act. It is only through their commitment that human rights are repeatedly put on the political agenda, even where governments are actively undermining or disregarding them. Frequently, the physical integrity and well-being of human rights defenders is at risk. While criminal offenders often enjoy certain standards and safeguards that are regulated globally under international human rights treaties, human rights defenders, on the other hand, are frequently discriminated against, persecuted or even locked away, tortured in prisons and murdered. The UN Declaration sets out standards for human rights defenders. It does not lose its importance just because dictatorships do not adhere to it, even though they had given their consent in the UN General Assembly. The same applies to many agreements under international law. The absolute prohibition of torture will never lose its importance, even when it is not observed. However, such an obligation on the part of the international community puts pressure on those in power. If they cannot deny non-observance, they try to justify it by allegedly overriding goals, for example by declaring human rights defenders as „terrorists“. This has just happened with the movement of Alexey Nawalny in Russia – it is a terrorist and „extremist“ organisation in the eyes of the Putin state. Anyone who stands up for the movement is labelled a terrorist. In these cases criminal law becomes a farce and is politically instrumentalised. Even in exile, human rights defenders like Masih Alinejad from Iran and Mu Sochua from Cambodia continue to be persecuted and showered with hatred. However, this does not stop them from continuing to stand up for other victims, to raise their voices and to give a voice to others who are persecuted. "My commitment to defending human rights, the disadvantaged and the marginalised has not diminished just because I am now a victim myself," says Filipino liberal opposition politician and human rights defender, Leila de Lima, who has been imprisoned for four years. Many have no choice. Either they leave the country, if they still can, or they stay to resist. There is a special motivation for us Germans to fight for human rights. The first reason is our past. Our country is responsible for crimes that, as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it, "have outraged the conscience of mankind". But it is also the present. We have not liberated ourselves. We have built a democracy, we have been helped to do so. We have reconciled ourselves with the world. We built trust worldwide, which eventually led to reunification and the liberation of Eastern Europe. We live in a united Europe. Who should be more motivated than us to be allies to those around the world who do not have this good fortune. "To serve the peace of the world in a united Europe". We have to fulfil this mandate of our Constitution. It is the guiding principle of our policy, even if this is sometimes not done consistently enough.