10 December 2008


10 December 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Recipients of the 2008 United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights, along with family members of those who had died carrying out their work, expressed hope that the award would inspire others to stand up for the dignity of humanity, at a Headquarters press conference this evening.

“The award is for those who say no to the abuse of the rights of others.  We have a responsibility, all of us, to take that work forward,” said Carolyne Gomes, co-founder of Jamaicans for Justice, which defends marginalized groups in that country against abuses of the criminal judicial system and other violations of civil rights.

Dr. Gomes was presented with the award as part of the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Human Rights Day, along with former High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and former United States Attorney General and supporter of civil rights Ramsey Clark.  Also receiving the Prize were Denis Mukwege, director of a hospital that treats victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, represented by its director Kenneth Roth.

Receiving the award posthumously were Sister Dorothy Stang, defender of the rights of poor and indigenous people in the Amazon, and Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan.  Sister Dorothy was represented by David Stang and Sister Joan Burke.  Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Ms. Bhutto’s son, stood in for his mother.

The Human Rights Prize is awarded every five years to individuals and organizations in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, explained Margaret Nowicki of the United Nations Department of Public Information, who moderated the press conference.

To evoke his mother’s presence, Mr. Zardari read a passage from her diary that expressed her hopes and fears as she was about to return home before her assassination late last year.  In the passage, she writes both about her hopes for democracy in Pakistan and the possibility that she might be killed.  “But I do what I have to do,” she says.  Mr. Zardari said that she maintained her faith that democracy was possible until the end.

Mr. Clark said that the struggle for human rights went on at every level, but he maintained that the greatest threat to those rights was war.  He called for individuals around the world to band together to strengthen the United Nations to allow it to fulfil its primary purpose -- to end that scourge.  He also called for a nuclear-weapon-free planet, saying that if some nations have the bomb, other nations would seek it.

Calling for an end to the brutalities experienced by women and girls in the midst of conflicts, Dr. Mukwege noted the magnificent texts that had been produced to support human rights, from the Declaration to the many treaties that turned rights into international law.  But, the horrors on the ground told a different story.  “Like it is a different planet”, he said. 

Mr. Stang and Sister Joan recounted that Dorothy Stang, whom they said was called “Dot” by everyone, had kept her commitment, for 40 years, to the poor people in Brazil who stood up against the forces of greed and violence that wanted to destroy the rain forest.  Most of that time, she had lived under a death threat from those forces, and was finally murdered in 2005.  They called for everyone within hearing to be inspired by her life.  “Dot’s work is now our work”, said Sister Joan.

Finally, Mr. Roth pointed out that the Declaration was not only important because it gave birth to binding international human rights law, but also because it engendered the human rights movement that countered the temptation of Governments to violate inconvenient human freedoms.  He called on States that had the capabilities to stop making excuses for doing nothing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to deploy a serious force there.  In addition, he urged the Security Council to stand up to President Omer al-Bashir of Sudan.

Other current human rights priorities were making the Human Rights Council work and bringing the fight against terrorism under international law.  In that regard, he said there were some big questions in front of President Elect Barack Obama of the United States, such as what to do with the prison at Guantanamo Bay and how to keep what he called the lawlessness of the current Administration from occurring again.

In response to correspondent’s questions, Mr. Roth elaborated on some hopes he had of the new United States Administration, such as signing back on to the International Criminal Court, and applying for membership in the Human Rights Council, which very much needed American engagement.  He said he thought the United States was too tied up in Iraq to assist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, however.

Asked how he felt about fellow Prize recipient Ramsey Clark’s role in defending Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein at their trials, he said that both had a right to counsel as part of the rule of law.  At the same time, he himself had worked very hard to make sure both were brought to justice.  To other questions, he said that curtailing the serious rights violations by both sides in Kashmir would go a long way towards a peaceful resolution of the problem and that a better accountability system was needed for the behaviour of United Nations peacekeepers.

Asked about extrajudicial killings and other abuses during his mother’s Administration, Mr. Zardari said that she had done everything possible to assure human rights were protected, but she had been undermined by rogue elements.  In answer to other questions, he denied that he and his father were bequeathed their party leadership.  They had accepted the choice of delegates, who felt that they were the only ones who could save the country from chaos at that point.

Much needed to be done to establish proper rights protections in Pakistan, but democratization would help, he said.  Unfortunately, the crises of terrorism and the economy were overriding priorities at the moment.  He called upon the youth of his country to spread the true interpretation of Islam, which he said was a message of peace.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.