Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Lives of Great Men ~ Stéphane Hessel

The death of Stéphane Frédéric Hessel (1917-2013) has been announced. By any standards, Hessel lived a most remarkable life during which he was a diplomat, ambassador, writer, concentration camp survivor, former French Resistance fighter and BCRA agent.   Hessel was born in Berlin and, in 1924, emigrated to Paris with his parents.  In 1939 he became a naturalised French citizen and the following year joined General Charles de Gaulle's group of resistance fighters.  He returned to France and organised Resistance communication networks in advance of D-Day (1944).

He was captured by the Gestapo and sent to the Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, where he was tortured by waterboarding.  He later escaped during a transfer to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and went to Hannover, where he met the advancing troops of the United States Army.

He participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.

His writings include the essay Time for Outrage!   where he argued that the French need to again become outraged, as were those who participated in the Resistance during World War II.   His reasons for personal outrage included the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, France's treatment of its illegal immigrants, the need to re-establish a free press, the need to protect the environment, the importance of protecting the French welfare system, and the plight of Palestinians.  He recommended that people read the September 2009 Goldstone Report.   After "Time for Outrage", came Hessel's new book "Engagez-vous!" where he appealed to his readers to save the environment and to embrace the positive.

It was from the horrors of the 1939-45 War that the Universal declaration of Rights was born.   The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10th December 1948 and is the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.  The full text is published by the United Nations on its website.

Eleanor Roosevelt asked - "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?"  Her answer was striking in its simplicity - "In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world."

The Universal Declaration begins - "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.  They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood"

Within Europe, there was a distinct move to adopt a European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (“the Convention” - now simply referred to as the European Convention on Human Rights) .  It was adopted in 1950, ratified by the United Kingdom in 1951 and entered into force on 3rd September 1953.  The Convention, in common with all international treaties, binds the U.K. so far as international law is concerned.  It binds the government of the U.K. (and other "High Contracting Parties") to meet the standards set by the convention - (Article 1).  It was not until 1966 that the U.K. government permitted British citizens to petition and it was not until the Human Rights Act 1998 that the Convention effectively became part and parcel of our law.  (Since Protocol 11, the right of individuals to apply to the court is now part and parcel of the convention).

The Convention comes within the aegis of the Council of Europe - an organisation of 47 member States with a total population of some 850 million people.  The Council was formed in 1949 by, at the time, by 10 States.  The late Professor Ian Brownlie QC described it as a "sort of social and ideological counterpart to the military aspects of European co-operation represented by NATO".  

Interestingly, the U.K. was not particularly keen on the Council having a court.  Even in 1950, Sir Hartley Shawcross KC, the Attorney-General, was stating that "we should refuse to accept the court or the commission as a Court of Appeal and should firmly set our faces against the right of individual petition which seems to me to be wholly opposed to the theory of responsible government".  Perhaps lying behind such statements was a reluctance, within government, to risk colonial matters coming under international scrutiny and, at the time, the U.K. still had many colonies.  Nevertheless, the UK did accept the jurisdiction of the court and there is little doubt that the court, through its interpretation of the Convention, has had a beneficial impact on the law in the UK.

At a time when the idea of human rights appears to be under attack within the UK, the life of Hessel is a reminder of the fact that the rights of the individual have been hard fought and the fight to maintain even the status quo is by no means over.  
Further background information may be read at - "What was the point of the European Convention on Human Rights?"  UK Human Rights Blog 21st March 2011

In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1915)- A Psalm of Life -

Lives of great men all remind us, We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time ; 

Footprints, that perhaps another,  Sailing o'er life's solemn main,  A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,  Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate ; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.

Stéphane Frédéric Hessel was such a man.

ooo ----- ooo

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