Nedan följer en förkortad version av mitt inledningsanförande vid årets prisutdelning av Stockholm Human Rights Award i Berwaldhallen den 20 november.
The Stockholm Human Rights Award was established in 2009 by the International Bar Association (IBA), the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) and the Swedish Bar Association. Our three organizations represent lawyers, judges and prosecutors from all around the world. Our principal goal is to support the democratic state built on the rule of law and to promote and protect the advancement of human rights, wherever those interests are being challenged.
The Award is to be bestowed upon an individual or an institution for outstanding contributions to democracy based on the rule of law and the promotion and protection of human rights.
This year, the Award will be given out for the 10th consecutive time. It makes me happy to be able to award those women and men, throughout the world, who fight and defend what I would call the building blocks of civilization. Yet, it makes me sad to see that so many others try to undermine them. For a civilized society to remain civilized, it is imperative that its fundamental components are properly safeguarded. This Award is given each year to recognize those who fight towards this end. This year’s laureate The Honorable Thomas Buergenthal is one of these remarkable persons.
Free and universal elections are a cornerstone of democracy. This cornerstone is an important right. But in a truly civilized democracy, it is not enough that the majority is given a free reign to rule over the minority. Such an unfettered mandate would not even be acceptable. A true, civilized democracy is based on fundamental values: on the rule of law and on human rights. It maintains transparent and effective institutions to ensure that democracy will not be used as a tool to undermine those values. Such a society ensures that there is a free and independent press, able to review and question authority. And it guarantees the existence of independent courts as well as a body of free and independent lawyers able to enforce the law.
Many forget that all of these elements: democracy, rule of law and human rights, are necessary to maintain a civilized society. They are the building blocks of a civilized society. But no system is stronger than its weakest link. We are all responsible to ensure that these elements function well. To do so, we must question and think critically – stay clear of “fake news” – and always act so as to promote humanitarian interests.
In this context, we should not forget that the largest crime of all times, the Holocaust, was to a large extent carried out based on “laws”, starting with the so called Nuerenberg laws: laws holding that Jews could not be German; laws that determined the boundary of what is ”German” and what is ”Jew”, laws determining that those who fell under the definition of ”Jew” would be deprived of rights enjoyed by those who were defined as ”German”: step by step, Jews were banned from having relations with Germans, marry a German, holding certain professions, conduct certain activities, and finally, Jews were forbidden to live altogether, and were eventually murdered. All supported by the formal legality of laws passed by the German Parliament.
Many now say that something like this could never happen again. It is said that today we subscribe to the rule of law, we respect human rights, and we have constitutions, international conventions and organizations that will ensure that these values are respected. In civilized societies we do indeed have many of those elements. But sadly, these fundamental elements of civilization that have kept us at peace and prosperity ever since the end of the Second World War are increasingly being challenged. In our neighborhood, we can see horrific developments in Turkey and Russia, but similar developments also happen right here in Europe – Poland, Hungary and Romania are prime examples – and the recent developments in Italy is worrying. Even in the United States, long seen as the bastions of democratic values, these very values are now being challenged. Leaders of these countries have all come to power after electoral processes that sought their legitimacy under the banner of democracy. But some of those leaders have unfortunately used their newly acquired power to undermine the legitimacy of the institutions that are set to protect it.
Two American political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors at Harvard, have attracted much attention in the United States with the book ”How Democracies Die”. This book sounds the alarm to warn us for the seriousness of what is now happening.
The authors have investigated how democracies were curtailed or abolished after the end of the Cold War – in Peru, Venezuela, Hungary and other countries. They have noted that, earlier, democracies were abolished by military coups. Today the same result is often attained by sneaky processes, often initiated by small, seemingly harmless changes in the democratic systems: a new government for public service television, rhetoric against media and judges, voter district adjustments – so called gerrymandering -, new rules for appointing judges, or for buying books to the libraries. The authors refer to those leaders responsible for such actions as “democracy assassins”.
Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude that constitutions, conventions and institutions are of course important means to protect our values and institutions. But as with all written rules, they have worked well not just because of their words, but also because politicians and citizens have usually acted in ways that support those words. It is therefore no coincidence that leaders that are “democracy assassins” immediately attack the media, courts and international organizations like the EU. Without a strong, democratic culture, they may succeed. Again, we are all responsible to resist such attacks and for safeguarding our democratic culture.
Even here in Sweden, we begin to see worrying signs and that in the very heart of our democracy, our Parliament. After the 2014 election, the Swedish Parliament elected as a deputy Speaker a parliamentarian representing the Sweden Democratic Party – a political party largely formed by Nazi sympathizers and racists only some thirty years ago. This politician was appointed in spite of well documented and recurring outrageous racist statements and extreme political views. While a deputy Speaker, he even argued that Samis and Jews could not be Swedes. The rhetoric is scarily similar to that heard in Germany in the thirties.
There are many who consider it unwise, excessive and directly misleading to compare the emerging xenophobia in Sweden and Europe with the Jewish persecution that began in Germany in the 1930s. I do not agree. There are apparent and unpleasant similarities. One similarity, indeed, is the rhetorics. Anti-Semitism, as well as hatred against Muslims, is wide-spread today. European parliaments, including the Swedish Parliament, contain strongly undemocratic and xenophobic forces. These dark men and women have gained -increasing influence. What should be abnormal in any civilized society has become increasingly normalized in a number of areas in a number of countries.
This development makes it necessary for all of us to do everything in our powers to prevent the abnormal from becoming the norm: our voice must be heard in open debate, and or views must be transformed into action.
The voice and actions of Judge Thomas Buergenthal are particularly outstanding. In his book ”A Lucky Child”, Judge Buergenthal shared his experiences from the ghetto in Poland, as a single ten year old Jewish boy separated from his parents in the death camp, during the death march from Auschwitz to Sachsenhausen and from liberation, as well as the emotional reunion with his mother. It is a most touching story which provides an intimidating perspective on how seemingly normal people can turn into a death machines, programmed to kill innocents for the sole reason that they were seen as different from their attackers.
Judge Buergenthalś story tells us what can happen in a society, when the abnormal becomes the norm: for ordinary, kind, honorable people, for fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers. As we have learnt from what happened in Germany, discrimination, persecution and abuse of people do not come suddenly. The starting process may be long. That is how it happened in the thirties. That is how it can happen today. The “normalization of extremes” is one of the most dangerous threats to our democracy. Lawyers have a clear task to respond and address these challenges. This is not about party politics that some want to claim. No, this is about protecting our civilization; the democratic state, based on the rule of law and human rights.
Judge Buergenthal’s long and distinguished career as an international jurist was shaped early on by his experiences as a survivor of the Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. He has devoted his life to international and human rights law.
Thomas Buergenthal earned a Bachelor of Arts from Bethany College, a JD from New York University and a LLM and S.J from Harvard University.
Over a period spanning more than half a century, he has served as a judge and taught at several leading law schools.
A widely respected scholar, Judge Buergenthal has held many professorships and academic positions, including dean at Washington College of law as well as his present position as Lobingier Professor Emeritus of Comparative Law and Jurisprudence at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught international law and international human rights law. He has written more than a dozen books and numerous articles on the subject. He is also a member of a number of editorial boards.
Thomas Buergenthal served as judge and President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for a decade. He was president of the Administrative Tribunal of the InterAmerican Development Bank and he sat as a judge of the International Court of Justice another ten years 2000-2010. Our laureate has also been a member of many international commissions. Judge Buergenthal was the first US national to be elected to the UN Human Rights Committee. He was a member of the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador and Vice chairman of the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Bank Accounts of Holocoust victims in Switzerland. Thomas Buergentahl has among many other things been chairman of the US Holocaust Museums Committee on Consience, a member of the Advisory board of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International law in Heidelberg. He is also honoraray doctor of the University of Heidelberg. He is a recipient of a large number of awards. Among them he was the co-recipient of the 2008 Gruber for Justice price for his contributions to the promotion and and protection of human rights in different parts of the world and particularly in Latin America. And in 2017 the German Order of Merit was bestowed on Thomas Buergentahl. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Price.
Thomas Buergenthal is an international leader and advocate for human rights. And last but not least he has exceptional personal qualities.
Against this background, Judge Buergenthal is particularly deserving to be the 2018 laureate.