To end the worldwide cycle of violence, uphold human rights

December 11, 2003

The following are excerpts from the lecture delivered yesterday in Oslo, Norway, by Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi on her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.

IN THE PAST two years, some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of 11 September and the war on international terrorism as a pretext.

[U.N. resolutions] set out and underline that all states must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism must comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights and humanitarian law.

However, regulations restricting human rights and basic freedoms, special bodies and extraordinary courts, which make fair adjudication difficult and at times impossible, have been justified and given legitimacy under the cloak of the war on terrorism.

The concerns of human rights advocates increase when they observe that international human rights laws are breached not only by their recognized opponents under the pretext of cultural relativity, but that these principles are also violated in Western democracies, in other words countries which were themselves among the initial codifiers of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is in this framework that, for months, hundreds of individuals who were arrested in the course of military conflicts have been imprisoned in Guantanamo, without the benefit of the rights stipulated under the international Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the [U.N.] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Moreover, a question which millions of citizens in the international civil society have been asking themselves for the past few years, particularly in recent months, and continue to ask, is this: Why is it that some decisions and resolutions of the U.N. Security Council are binding, while some other resolutions of the council have no binding force?

Why is it that in the past 35 years, dozens of U.N. resolutions concerning the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel have not been implemented promptly, yet in the past 12 years, the state and people of Iraq, once on the recommendation of the Security Council and the second time in spite of U.N. Security Council opposition, were subjected to attack, military assault, economic sanctions and, ultimately, military occupation?

The people of Iran, particularly in the recent years, have shown that they deem participation in public affairs to be their right, and that they want to be masters of their own destiny.

This conflict is observed not merely in Iran, but also in many Muslim states. Some Muslims, under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with Islamic teachings and the traditional structure of Islamic societies, have justified despotic governments, and continue to do so. In fact, it is not so easy to rule over a people who are aware of their rights, using traditional, patriarchal and paternalistic methods.

The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, too, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the patriarchal and male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam. This culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy, just as it does not believe in the equal rights of men and women, and the liberation of women from male domination (fathers, husbands, brothers), because it would threaten the historical and traditional position of the rulers and guardians of that culture.

A human being divested of all dignity, a human being deprived of human rights, a human being gripped by starvation, a human being beaten by famine, war and illness, a humiliated human being and a plundered human being is not in any position or state to recover the rights he or she has lost.

If the 21st century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence, acts of terror and war, and avoid repetition of the experience of the 20th century - that most disaster-ridden century of humankind - there is no other way except by understanding and putting into practice every human right for all mankind, irrespective of race, gender, faith, nationality or social status.

Columnist Ellen Goodman will return Monday.

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