Stand up for human rights | Den norske Helsingforskomité

Stand up for human rights

­- We should challenge governments to become bolder in criticising abuses and standing up for human rights defenders, ­and we should strengthen our support and protection for human rights defenders who face intimidation and attacks, said secretary general in the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Bjørn Engesland, in his presentation at the Oslo Freedom Forum's last day.


Dear human rights defenders,


It is an honour for me to speak at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum. I am proud that the Norwegian Helsinki Committee is among the supporters of this event.



Human rights activists these days faces tough challenges in many parts of the world. My organisation works primarily in Europe and the former Soviet Union, documenting abuses, supporting domestic organisations and conducting human rights education programs.



In some of these countries the authorities not only impede human rights work. Human rights defenders are physically attacked, and some of our colleagues – like Natalya Estemirova from Chechnya – have been killed.


Although these attacks take place against the background of enormous progress for the human rights movement over the last 20 years – we have become stronger and more effective in exposing government abuse – they also point to a backlash. In some ways we are back were we started.



The starting point of the human rights movement in Central and Eastern Europe was the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. While the 1948 World Declaration of Human Rights gave an authoritative definition of international human rights, the Helsinki Final Act brought them across the doorsteps of the communist states. For the first time these countries accepted the principle that human rights should be respected.



The Soviets accepted this principle, however, only because they believed it would have no consequences. That was a mistake of historic proportions. Civil society activists soon started to make efficient use of Helsinki principles, demanding compliance from the authorities.


That was why the Moscow Helsinki Group and other European Helsinki Committees were founded in the late 1970s.

To support brave individuals like Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee was founded in 1977.



The Helsinki effect became strong, contributing to one of the most astonishing human rights victories in history. The revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991 abolished communist dictatorship as a political system in Europe. This happened for many reasons, including economic problems and Gorbatchev’s reform efforts. But we should not overlook the role played by courageous women and men committed to the struggle for human rights.



Getting rid of communism was one thing, establishing democracy and rule of law is another. The legacy of disrespect for human rights, corruption and weak legal systems remain a challenge in many former communist states.


New authoritarian regimes have formally adopted liberal-democratic institutions, but instead of letting these institutions function freely they manipulate them.

Human rights defenders and independent journalists expose these manipulations, and that is why they are attacked.




How do we respond to these attacks?



From the speeches here in the Christiania Theatre, I think we can identify many of the most important answers to that question:



* We should strengthen our efforts to document abuses, to advocate and to conduct human rights education


* We should make full use of all international and regional human rights mechanisms, in particular we should strengthen our abilities to challenge grave abuses both in domestic and international courts


* We should make full use of modern technology to disseminate information and to communicate



* We should challenge governments to become bolder in criticising abuses and standing up for human rights defenders


* And we should strengthen our support and protection for human rights defenders who face intimidation and attacks





As you all know, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, just visited Oslo. Mr Medvedev admitted that Russia has some human rights problems, but stressed that Russia would solve these by themselves. Outsiders should not interfere.




President Medvedev dismissed the truly international character of human rights. As citizens of the world, we all have a stake in the human rights situation of other world citizens although they live in a different country.


That is why the Norwegian Helsinki Committee was founded.




That is why today colleagues from Chechnya are working in our Oslo offices, in order that they may not meet the fate of Natalya Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya.




The Oslo Freedom Forum reminds us of this obligation, being a testimony to solidarity among human rights defenders of the world.


Thank you.