10 December 1999


10 December 1999

Press Release



Human Rights Day Announcement by Office of High Commissioner

Seven internationally renowned figures from the worlds of literature, music and human rights advocacy will serve as the first “goodwill ambassadors” for the world conference against racism in the year 2001. This was announced in Geneva today by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Their mission will be to promote awareness of the conference, which aims to take concrete steps to fight racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance.

The seven are: Nobel Prize laureates for literature Wole Soyinka of Nigeria and Seamus Heaney of Ireland; Panamanian actor and musician Ruben Blades; Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun; Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar; former Icelandic President Vigdis Finnbogadottir and children’s rights defender Marian Wright Edelman of the United States.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights and Secretary-General of the conference, Mary Robinson, will “induct” the goodwill ambassadors later today as part of the commemoration of Human Rights Day in Geneva and New York.

“The commitment of these outstanding individuals to tolerance and understanding among peoples and communities is the leadership needed as we prepare to tackle in an international forum one of humanity’s most insidious and persistent ills”, Mrs. Robinson said. “We in the United Nations are greatly heartened to see that these great artists and humanitarians have decided to use their talent and time to help the international community fight racism and intolerance.”

Action against racism and the 2001 world conference are the focus of this year’s Human Rights Day at the United Nations. In Geneva, the Office of the

_________ * Press Release PI/1208 of 8 December should have been PI/1207. ** Press Release PI/1206-HR/4448 of 8 December should have been PI/1206-HR/4449.

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High Commissioner is hosting a commemoration that will open with a message from Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Participants will include the President of Switzerland, Ruth Dreifuss; the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Vladimir Petrovsky; and goodwill ambassador Tahar Ben Jelloun.

Video messages will be received from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias; United States President Bill Clinton; the President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel; and former Indian President Venkataraman.

The world conference is to be hosted by South Africa in July 2001, with regional meetings taking place around the world before then. Preparatory sessions will be held in Geneva in May 2000 and 2001.

Poet Seamus Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past". He was born on a farm west of Belfast in Northern Ireland 56 years ago. After studies and marriage he moved to the Irish Republic and has been living in Dublin since 1976. In collections of essays such as "The Government of the Tongue" (1988) and "The Place of Writing" (1989), he discusses the role of poetry and the poet, a theme he often returns to. Experiences from the lives of Osip Mandelstam and other twentieth century writers lead him to the conclusion that the task of the poet is to ensure the survival of beauty, especially in times when tyrannical regimes threaten to destroy it.

Mr. Heaney has held a post as visiting professor in rhetoric at Harvard since 1982, and from 1989 to 1994 he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986, was born on 13 July 1934 at Abeokuta, near Ibadan in western Nigeria. After preparatory university studies in 1954 at Government College in Ibadan, he continued at the University of Leeds in England where, in 1973, he took his doctorate. He was a playwright at the Royal Court Theatre in London 1958-1959. In 1960, he was awarded a Rockefeller bursary and returned to Nigeria to study African drama. At the same time, he taught drama and literature at various universities in Ibadan, Lagos, and Ife. In 1964, he founded the "Orisun Theatre Company", in which he has produced his own plays and taken part as actor. He has periodically been visiting professor at the universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Yale, and is now at Emory University. Mr. Soyinka has published over 20 works of drama, novels and poetry, all in language that is marked by great scope and richness of words. His poems, which show a close connection to his plays, are collected in Idanre, and Other Poems (1967), Poems from Prison (1969), A Shuttle in the Crypt (1972) and in the long poem, Ogun Abibiman (1976).

Last year, the Moroccan poet and novelist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, set out to answer questions about racism posed by his ten-year-old daughter, Merieme, after the two participated in a protest against changes in immigration laws in France. In doing so, Mr. Ben Jelloun purposefully described racism as a universal phenomenon and not one limited to France. "Racism, as Explained to My

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Daughter", published by Editions du Seuil last January, became a No.1 best- seller in France and across Europe where it has been translated into 15 languages.

"Racism, as Explained to My Daughter" was written as a simple, yet compelling, dialogue between the author and his daughter, the book has been praised as "an excellent tool to fight racism; everybody should read it" (Le Monde des livres). A trained psychologist, Mr. Ben Jelloun "has a fine sense for the cruelties even the most civilized people can inflict on one another" (The New York Times). He won France’s Prix Goncourt for his novel “The Sacred Night” in 1987 and the Prix Maghreb in 1994. Born in Fez, Morocco, in 1944, Mr. Ben Jelloun moved to France in 1967. A novelist, essayist, critic and poet, he is a regular contributor to the newspapers Le Monde (France), La Republica (Italy) and El Pais (Spain).

Born on 16 July 1948, in Panama City, Panama, Ruben Blades has achieved almost legendary status both as a musician and community activist. He has described his body of composed work, including more than 20 albums, as “musical journalism” and an “urban chronicle”. He has also developed a successful film- acting career and his films include Critical Condition (with Richard Pryor, 1987), The Milagro Beanfield War (with Robert Redford, 1988), and The Two Jakes (with Jack Nicholson). He has won an ACE (American Cable Excellence) award for his portrayal of a death-row prisoner in Dead Man Out (1989); he also composed the music for Sidney Lumet's Q and A. The president of the Papa Egoro movement in Panama, Mr. Blades, ran in 1994 for the country’s presidency, finishing third with 18 per cent of the vote.

The legendary sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar is considered India's most esteemed musical ambassador and a singular phenomenon in the classical music worlds of east and west. A performer, composer, teacher and writer, he has written two concertos for sitar and orchestra, violin-sitar compositions for Yehudi Menuhin and himself; music for flute virtuoso Jean-Pierre Rampal, and music for Hosan Yamamoto, master of the Shakuhachi. He has collaborated with Philip Glass (Passages), and George Harrison produced and participated in two of his albums (Shankar Family and Friends and Festival of India). Mr. Shankar has composed extensively for films and ballets in India, Canada, Europe and the United States. He is a member of the United Nations International Rostrum of Composers.

Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund in the United States, has been an advocate for the disadvantaged for her entire professional career. Mrs. Edelman describes the mission of the Children’s Defense Fund as “[educating] the nation about the needs of children and [encouraging] preventive investment in children before they get sick, drop out of school, suffer too-early pregnancy or family breakdown, or get into trouble. On the eve of a new century and millennium, the Fund seeks to ensure that no child is left behind and that every child has a healthy start … in life, with the support of caring parents and communities”.

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A graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, she began her career in the mid-1960s, when, as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the Legal Defense and Educational Fund Office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1968, she moved to Washington, D.C., as Counsel for the Poor People’s March that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had begun organizing before his death. For two years she served as the Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University, and in 1973 began the Children’s Defense Fund.

Vigdis Finnbogadottir was the fourth President of Iceland, and the first woman to be elected a constitutional head of State. She was first elected in 1980, going on to hold the presidency for four terms. During her period in office, President Vigdis -- addressed on a first name basis according to the Icelandic tradition -- devoted herself to the cultivation of Iceland’s language, its distinctive culture and its youth. She is a founder and patron of the “Save the Children” Association (Barnaheill) in Iceland. A dedicated spokeswoman for human rights, she was made a lifetime honorary member of the Women’s Rights Association of Iceland upon leaving the presidency.

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For information media. Not an official record.