Holocaust Survivor Still Fights For Human Rights | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 10.12.2008
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Holocaust Survivor Still Fights For Human Rights

Stephane Hessel lived through the Holocaust and survived. He went on to help put together the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has since devoted his life to promoting human rights around the globe.

Stéphane Hessel

Stéphane Hessel continues to advocate human rights at age 91

Stephane Hessel calls himself a darling of fortune. But it isn't exactly the term that comes to mind when hearing his biography.

Born in Berlin in 1917, Hessel moved to Paris with his parents when he was 16 years old. He initially studied philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre, then international relations. In 1939, he was drafted into the French army. Two years later, he fled to England, but returned to Paris 10 months before the end of the war with an espionage mission.

The Gestapo arrested him there on July 10, 1944 and deported him to one of the largest German concentration camps, Buchenwald. Later, he was moved to the notorious off-premises camp Dora. Yet he was set free after he successfully managed to take on the identity of a deceased fellow prisoner.

So indeed, Hessel was a darling of fortune.

Back in Paris, Hessel was supposed to travel to Beijing as a diplomat. The route went via New York and things took a turn when he met Henri Laugier, the first assistant secretary-general for social affairs at the UN.

"He asked me to work with him as an international official and no longer as a French diplomat and I accepted gladly," Hessel said.

Just the right thing

The Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, envisaged a declaration on human rights in order to help achieve its goals. A political and moral standard for countries was supposed to result. In his new function as a staff member of the UN Secretary-General, Hessel was able to observe negotiations at close range.

Book cover Stéphane Hessel

Hessel's memoirs are called "Dancing with the Century"

"Of course, this was just the right thing for someone like me, as a survivor of the concentration camps in Buchenwald and Dora, who perceived human rights as the new motto of a new society," Hessel said.

He worked with Logier at the UN for five years. The most important thing they did in that time was to think about the Universal Declaration on Human Rights until it was finished in 1948, he said.

"We, the survivors, wanted to work in groups in order to gain a sense of solidarity," Hessel said. "And we wanted to accomplish something."

The delegates to the UN Commission on Human Rights had the horrors of National Socialism and Japanese militarism clearly before their eyes. According to Hessel, the rejection of the horrors of the Second World War united the countries, despite all of their difference.

"The eastern nations, the Soviet Union and its nearby states, the United States and its values, Europe and its values, South America, Asia -- we wanted to bring everyone together," he said. "Even China was part of it. We wanted various sides to be engaged."

Eleanor Roosevelt's contribution was decisive

It took 12 sessions until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formulated. According to Hessel, one person was influential for its success: Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of US president Franklin D. Roosevelt. With her great sense of social worth, it was her role as chairperson that was decisive.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt regarded the Universal Declaration as her greatest accomplishment

"She managed to bring together the various contributions in 30 articles," Hessel said. These articles contained all rights, not only civil and political rights, but also social, economic and cultural rights.

"It is her major contribution that she led these various delegates of this small group so that they together accepted a short text."

On December 10, 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed by 48 member states. Only South Africa and Saudi Arabia, as well as six Socialist countries abstained from voting.

Even when the Declaration was initially not legally binding, it opened a new chapter in the history of human rights, said Hessel. For the first time, people were given equal rights from birth on -- independent of skin color, sex, language or world view. It was a key experience for Hessel.

Still on top of things at 91

Hessel went on to spend his entire life working for the realization of human rights. His diplomatic career later took him to Saigon, Algiers and Geneva. At times, he was French ambassador, went to Africa as a development aid worker and was active in many areas for human rights agencies.

The 91-year-old still remains on top of things with the current political developments worldwide, for example terrorism.

"I consider terrorism to be an exhibit of small, hating groups who are acting against civilization in general and want to topple it, without suggesting an alternative," he told a human rights conference in Nuremburg this fall.

According to Hessel, terrorism has become so strong because too little has been done to help developing countries.

"The result is that we live in a society in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and unhappy," Hessel said. "They don't have anything, just two dollars a day and are starving. This is our greatest responsibility in the 21st century."

Hessel gladly shares his passion for a better world -- and his criticism of the George W. Bush administration. In view of climate change, globalization and the financial crisis, he has some advice for the younger generation.

"You have to recognize the new dangers better than you do now," he said. "You have to know where the dangers are and how you can work against them. These dangers are all violations of basic human rights."

For Hessel, treating the earth poorly made it a human right to treat the earth well.

"That isn't written in the universal declaration yet, but it is very important today," he said. "So you have to recognize the new tasks and mobilize yourselves for them, as well, like we did for our tasks of the time 60 years ago."

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