In the presence of remarkable individuals, who were sharing with the Oslo Freedom Forum’s audience harrowing testimonies of survival, the resilience of human dignity and strength of character in conditions beyond hope, I was thinking: “what could I possibly say? What coherent thought could be added, after having heard a series of talks that left everyone pretty much speechless?”
The answer came from some of the speakers. Former Vice President of Bolivia, Victor Hugo Cardenas, spoke about the different nations, or indigenous groups, that form Bolivia’s society. Cardenas belongs to the Aymara nation, same as Evo Morales, but as he would clarify, unlike President Morales, who’s is a brand of sorts in Cardenas’ opinion, he does speak the indigenous language of his ancestors. A mob supportive of Morales recently attacked Cardenas and his family for political reasons: as he would put it, not even in the worse periods of Bolivia’s past dictatorships, against which he made his political career, had his wife and children suffered violence from foes. Racial hatred, the exacerbation of which originates from Bolivia’s highest office, is tearing apart that country’s society. But Cardenas remains hopeful, in the face of adversity, and stressed upon the ability of different nations or indigenous groups to live in peace and harmony.
Former President of Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis, expanded upon the need to make the concept of human rights understood and understandable to all, and, more importantly, make every civilised nation accountable to violations of same. The working definition seems accommodative to political expediency and accountability appears to be inversely proportional to the economic power and military might of nations nowadays.
Vladimir Bukovsky said that human rights violators are to be demanded to have, at the very least, the courage of perpetrating their heinous crimes in front of the world, for that, the act of facing international criticism, is more taxing than the actual crimes.
Others stressed the sheer hypocrisy of most governments when asked to reconcile commercial relations with regimes that systematically crush human rights. When it comes to business, it seems most are eager and prepared to deal with thugs so long as gains can be realised.
Benedict Anderson wrote a book called “Imagined Communities”. In it he argues that one of the fundamental principles for nation building is language. Once upon a time Latin was the language of choice of the educated elites in Europe, and regardless of country of origin people would communicate in it. The printing press brought about a significant change, for books started to be printed in vernacular languages, reasserting national identities and contributing with mass distribution or democratization of knowledge.
After listening to some of the speeches I couldn’t help but notice that our gathering was in fact epitomy of Anderson’s “Imagined Communities”, read a group of people sharing fundamental beliefs, principles and a language, in sum a nascent nation. I have more in common with Leyla Zana than with Cilia Flores*. Likewise, I am more inspired by Armando Valladares than by the dictator who incarcerated him for 22 years for refusing to toe the communist line. Palden Gyatso’s suffered prison and torture for 33 years for refusing to renounce his religious beliefs, while Elie Wiesel’s family did not have such luck, if it could be termed as such. Vladimir Bukovsky says that an encounter between torturer and victim is nothing but a clash of wills, whoever comes on top has broken the other’s mind. Armed with nothing but conviction these people have won, which shows that imposed collective thought or group thinkers will never conquer a spirit committed to his own convictions.
I felt that every one of us there in Oslo has been victimised, in different degrees, by the same kind of individual: he who fears our inherent capacity to discern, to reason, to choose and to voice an opinion. For it is not violence they dread, rather it is the expression of a language, i.e. words, that throws enemies of freedom into a spin. A shared language makes us members of an imagined community, that of the advocates of freedom.
But there remains a lot to be done, for our nation to grow strong. As Jack Healey said, only a tiny fraction of the world’s population knows the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaties. Thus the task of education must start in earnest, for a society where there’s no transfer of knowledge is bound to repeat past mistakes.
*Head of Venezuela's National Assembly