To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity –Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.
The world is witnessing an onslaught against human rights defenders perhaps more than at any other time in history.
Global Witness, the advocacy group, reports that on average three Earth Defenders were killed every week in 2015. Less than 1 percent of those who perpetrated those crimes were ever brought to book. One group of activists specially criminalised and targeted include those defending territories and fighting for ecological justice. Some of these brave people that have been murdered this year include Berta Caceres and Nelson Garcia of Honduras; Tendy Salamat, Nestor Lubas and Teresita Navacilla of the Philippines; Sikosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe of South Africa and Walter Méndez Barrios of Guatemala. These and many more are routinely cut down, assassinated simply because they have stood up for what is right.
The silencing of dissent, curtailment of liberty and the blatant violations of human rights, including assassinations of defenders of Nature, are all manifestations of a systemic rot. It is the decline of civilisation that acquiesces to trillions of dollars being spent annually on warfare, and the accompanying destruction and mass murders, while calls for climate finance is comparable to attempting to squeeze blood from stones.
Twenty-one years ago, on 10 November 1995, the then military dictatorship in Nigeria murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and other 8 Ogoni leaders who were in the campaign against the pollution of their environment by oil companies operating there and who were demanding for economic and political justice. Sixteen years after their gruesome murder, an environmental assessment by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) confirmed that the complaints of the people were genuine. Their report was published a year before I had the honour and privilege of receiving the much valued Rafto Prize.
A ray of good news is that five years after the report was made available to the Nigerian government, the clean-up of Ogoniland is in the process of beginning.
This gathering is a salute to the many brave women and men standing in defence of Nature, standing against the giant jaws of powerful, merciless political, military and economic forces. This gathering is a salute to the many peoples in diverse parts of the world defending their rivers, forests, lands and seeds at the risk of their lives. This gathering is a salute to the many persons, who, after being displaced by political repression, violence and the ravages of climate change are faced by huge physical and political walls denying them the right to migrate and to live in basic dignity.
In a world of growing uncertainty, we need women and men who are rooted in their convictions and strive to uphold equity and justice at all times. In a world wracked by multiple crises – climate, economic, political and moral dimensions, we certainly need models of stability and clarity rooted in the simple truth that our humanity is interlinked with one another and that the denial of the rights of one individual is a denial of the rights of us all. In a world where rights defenders are being co-opted by state and corporate forces; in a situation of shrinking space for expression by non-state actors, we must recognise the dogged stance taken by these our brothers and sisters.
This year’s award highlights the very dangerous circumstances in which Rafto laureates work. A fearless woman working in extremely difficult circumstances and in a very delicate sector fraught with risks. Yanar Mohammed the Rafto Prize laureate for 2016 is truly exemplary in her work in Iraq with women and other vulnerable groups in that country.
Thirty years is a milestone in the life of individuals and organisations. It is the age of maturity. Over the past 30 years, prizes have been awarded for defenders of human rights, including those engaged in the struggles for gender rights, right to self-determination, democracy, rights of children, climate justice and environmental rights, freedom from repression and exploitation, rights of minorities, and in support of victims of war. These individuals represent communities of struggle because no one could successfully fight alone.
We deeply thank the Rafto Foundation for making this gathering possible. Taking a pause to dine together and to reflect on human resilience in the face of extreme pressures helps us all to reaffirm faith in our collective humanity. It is an honour for me to give this speech on behalf of all recipients of the Rafto Prize. Let me end this by paraphrasing the words of Maryam al-Khawaja who received the award in 2013 on behalf of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights: the persons who should be sitting on this dinner table are not us, but the unnamed heroes on the streets of our communities and in the battle lines across the planet.
Dinner speech by Nnimmo Bassey (Rafto Prize 2012) at Håkonshallen, Bergen, in honour of Rafto Prize Laureates on Saturday 19 November 2016