Frank La Rue (UNESCO-Assistant Director General)
Über Wahrheit und das Recht auf Zugang zu Information
Frank La Rue im Interview mit Dr. Irmtrud Wojak
Paris, UNESCO, Februar 2018
“Yes you have to be brave, but often times as important as being brave is to be consistent.”
FLR: You know that I also participated in a case of genocide in Guatemala?
IW: Yes, we are coming to this, but I would like to start with your youth, I think you grew up in El Salvador?
FLR: In Guatemala.
IW: In Guatemala? Okay, your native is Guatemala or El Salvador?
FLR: It’s very funny. I was born in El Salvador because my father was paving the Pan-American Highway. But since I was four years old, we moved to Guatemala and I grew up in Guatemala all my life. I am Guatemalan by nationality. I’m actually both, because of my birth country.
IW: So the question is who were the people you admired growing up in Guatemala?
FLR: Well, there were many people, I mean Guatemala was interesting, (…) I also had a very religious upbringing on my mothers side, so we were, I am catholic, but it was very much the time of the catholic grassroots communities and more the inculturation with local communities, indigenous communities and the commitment for the poor. And that was really important for my upbringing as well. So there were figures that were very important but irrelevant in general in Latin America, many theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez or Leonardo Boff or some of these very progressive theologians. And then there were figures in Guatemala itself, I mean there was a very famous poet, Otto René Castillo, had been killed by the military, who was a poet, there were other personalities. One of my university professors, with whom I studied law, labor law specifically before it was human rights, was then assassinated by the military as well. So these became very relevant figures of the history of Guatemala.
IW: So the history of Guatemala somehow shaped your life and your campaigning or commitment for human rights is a personal story and a political commitment?
FLR: It is both, you are right it’s a personal story, because it was very much sort of principal. When I went into the law school for instance I went with the idea of struggling for justice, this was my big idea. Very soon I discovered that not everyone who studies law necessarily wants, a big group of people want to make money, but not necessarily wants to find justice. I discovered that it was not always so easy and then may be I didn’t want to spend all my time looking at just papers and doing the legal stuff. So I was looking for human rights within have human rights as a profession then in Guatemala.
We began working on labor movements and labor law (…) it was the closest we could get, several of us, who studied together, when we graduated we began working with one of the big labor federations, the Central National de Trabajadores, the CNT. And we were very young, I must have been eighteen, nineteen, no a little bit more, twenty-one, when I came on the university and we were moving along in these movements. And this, what used to be a sort of ideals very much in the theoretical sense, became very much a reality by sharing these struggles with these people.
I mean there was clearly injustice and they were being attacked and being confronted. And then we moved into the rural areas to try to teach Mayan indigenous communities the constitutional rights and their rights. And then it just became worse and worse. It taught me how to speak to people, because yes I was Guatemalan, we all spoke Spanish, but when you move to the rural areas, I found there was a horrible communication gap, they could not understand me, so it forced me to rethink my communication skills as well and to begin adapting all the principles and the knowledge I had to a different language: to make me to be able to be understood. And this is probably one of the biggest lessons in life, because this taught me to be able to speak to any public, whether it be a parliament in Europe or to a local indigenous community in Guatemala sitting around the fire and floor. It gives you a different sense of communication and human being. So for me, this was probably one of the biggest lessons, when I was very young, this trying to bring this knowledge.
IW: You think this is possible, let’s say to bring theory into practice?
FLR: I think it is possible: I mean in those days (…) for instance, people used to see that all of us who were young university graduates from the city, who were physically very different, because we were all from European origin, were sitting there next to them in the strikes or in their demonstrations in the street. And it was interesting because we used to go in Jeans and dressed and one day I was asking a worker how he felt I should even dress, and he thought of my problem, he said: “Look, the business sector brings in the lawyers, and the lawyers are all dressed on and the judges pay attention to them. We want our lawyers to be as important as theirs and to look as good. So don’t worry about it.” So he immediately saw there was a much more pragmatic perspective(…) But when we had go to court we were dressed as lawyers, because this is exactly what the workers wanted, they wanted good lawyers, presentable lawyers. So you kind of discover how pragmatic life was, but at the same time how much of a bondage.
I mean, I was picked up by the police in Guatemala many times in the strikes with the workers. They would release me and they would not release the workers, but they could see that we were sharing. Those were the days, when being a labor leader was risking your life, you didn’t get any added benefit. You were really vocationed to serve your colleagues and your friends and this was very important. And then in the rural areas it got worse, I mean the rural areas, when they began displacing the indigenous people from their land (…) and this is when the protests grew and when really the civil war got worse and when they began the killings. And the more we raised our voices, the more people would be killed, until our own federation was raided, the Central National de Trabajadores was raided by the military in June of 1980, on a Saturday morning, and there were several, thirty seven leaders meeting and they just took them on and they disappeared. We never heard from them again. Just by chance, no one, we were nine members of the legal department, but none of us were there, because they were having different meetings.
So from then on life became very difficult, many of my colleagues were leaving into exile. I tried to stay as long as possible. We didn’t have any headquarters any more, because it had been raided, so we would meet with the workers in the streets or in their factories, but on different times and locations (…) And then in 1981 I began to see my name on different lists, they were publishing lists of people (…) It was very clear that my time was up and they eventually came to my parents home, which was my public address, I didn’t live there, two unknown individuals looking for me, and the message was very clear that it was time for me to leave, because my time had come up.
IW: And your parents?
FLR: My parents were very shocked and very scared, but…
IW: …they stayed?
FLR: They stayed, yes, my father by then was a retired man. He had been a construction man all his life and worked in constructions. So there was really no no relevance and no link to political life at all. As a matter of fact he was a bit of shocked to have a son to… I mean they were very supportive but it was still a world difficult for them to understand in a way. Especially for my father, my father was American, you see that’s because of the name, so he had come to Central America paving the Pan American Highway. He met my mother and they got married and he stayed forever. For him this was craziness, that was very complicated and it was very difficult.
We also used to work with the church, with the church grassroots communities in the rural areas, this was the time of the theology of liberation and that was also part of what we were doing, working with very progressive priests. Several of my friends the priests were subsequently murdered later by the military.
IW: And is there one moment or one especially memorable part of this time you remember, before you went to Washington and had to emigrate?
FLR: Oh, there were several. For instance their was one time when we had a group of peasants from the highlands of Quiché,(…). They were planning to come to the city to protest, because they were really suffering not only their lands being taken over, but many of their young leaders being disappeared. So they had decided to come to the city and we had meetings with them and we actually had one meeting with religious groups in support of them in a religious celebration. And one of these individuals, the leaders, was Vincente Menchú, the father of Rigoberta Menchú. And it was very interesting, because this, he said to us, we know as peasants, as Quiché-Mayan people coming from the highlands – they were running a big risk for being here in the city protesting – but he says, I think it was no risk, because I discovered that if I give a meaning to my death, I will automatically give a meaning to all my life.
He said this and a week after when they did the protest by taking over the embassy of Spain and a sit-down, a peaceful sit-down they did in the embassy, which was raided by the police and all of them were killed, himself included and the staff of the embassy by the police of Guatemala. So this was the beginning of the most horrible period in history for us, after the conquest, this was in January of 1980. Then in June of 1980 they broke into our headquarters at the labor movement, so it was just a sequence, first in January the embassy, in June the headquarters, and they just began killing people and kidnapping people. This was a very shocking period. Hell began with one massacre, called the massacre of Panzós, an indigenous region, a Quiché region in the north, where they had killed 110 people. It took three days for the news to get out to the city, but we were able, through the different church networks, we were able to launch the information even world wide, even though it was late. It was really very shocking, that information.
I left in ’81 with the idea of trying to go back as soon as possible. In ’82 we had the coup, the coup d’état, which was the coup by General Ríos Montt, and supposedly at the beginning they had announced this, that this was a coup of young officers to reform the country, but in reality at got worse. They moved from the individual killings and abductions and disappearances they moved into mass killings. This was the period of genocide Guatemala went through in the 20th century, between 1982 and ’83 600 villages very destroyed and burned to the grounds. It was really a horrendous period.
In the meantime I was always thinking of going back and every day things got worse and got worse and got worse. Pretty soon we were all of us in exile and recognized that we were not going back soon and that it would take really some time.
IW: How long did it take?
FLR: I actually, we went back a couple of times with internationalgroups, because we were doing work at the UN, we were trying to denounce what was happening in Guatemala, we were working in the General Assembly in New York and then in what was then the Human Rights Commission, now the Council in Geneva, we went every year to both, the Council and the General Assembly, and we got resolutions on Guatemala. So in one of those cases, one of the Guatemalan ambassadors said, “Ah, because all these Guatemalans are here in exile, talking of their country they have not seen the country has changed, nothing is happening, I invite them to go.” We all said: “Yes we would take your invitation.”
So in 1988 we went back the first time with an international delegation. We had staff people from congress in Washington, from Mexico, a member of parliament from Britain, many people, international, very much to make sure that nothing happens. And we were still stopped by the police in the airport, and they faked that there was just sort of force, they had 200 policemen in the airport to give a show of force. But they let us stay a week in the country and this was very important. And we went back, this was in May of ’88, and we went back in August of ’88, and then we went back in ’89. It was interesting, because in ’99 there were many student associations that had supported us and organized marches to receive us every time we went, nothing happened to us, because we had international accompany, but many of the student leaders, at least twelve of the student leaders, were subsequently abducted and disappeared. So it was very tragic to see-
IW: This happened after you left?
FLR: Yes, after we left, they had been with us in 1989.
IW: And who is “we”, you’re talking about “we”? You built up a “Center for legal Action” in Washington, what was the task of this center? I mean, when I read the name “Legal Action for Human Rights” it’s again action to bring into practice legal rights?
FLR: It was precisely for legal cases. I based myself in Washington originally because I thought I needed to be in place that would project the cases more, that I can speak out more. But also Washington has the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, from the OAS. So, what I had not been able to do in Guatemala, I studied human rights in Washington, I began learning and I studied about the Interamerican system and how to take cases there internationally to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. And this was probably one of the best things. We formed this association there with the idea of bringing strategic litigation on human rights against the state of Guatemala for all this horrendous atrocities that were happening and very few people know. So we began filing cases at the Interamerican Court, the Commission first and then the court. And this was really one of the most important elements. And so we would investigate the case, we would give advice to the victims and then bring the case to the Commission.
IW: And you have got the material from Guatemala?
FLR: There were people doing research and bring them out. I went back, we formed this organization, the Center for Legal Action, in 1990 exactly, and I went back in ’93, so three years after we had formed this organization, because I, there was a coup d’état, there was a president, Jorge Serrano, who decided that he wanted to be a sort of dictator, without the Congress and the Supreme Court and consolidate the power, but this was a big mistake, he did this with the support of the right wing and the hardliners in the military as well, but the whole question collapsed. Guatemala is a small country and obviously the whole, I mean Latin America was moving into democratic rulers and away from dictators, so no one was going to accept sort of a coup like this to consolidate one more dictator. A week after his coup there was a general assembly, a special assembly at the OAS, all foreign ministers went, and all of them condemned, from the Americas, from Canada all the way to Chile, they all condemned the coup, isolated Guatemala and the government collapsed.
And this for me was the big opportunity to return, alone, for the first time without any international accompany. By then my father had died, in 1990, they did not allow me to go to his funeral and to be with my mother, I mean, I could have gone, but I spoke to the embassy and I spoke to the government, and they said no, if you come, we don’t guarantee your security. But by 1993 with this coup that has failed and the hardliners in the military that had lost this coup, I said this is the chance. I called my mother, she picked me up in the airport and this is when I went back in ’93 and from ’93 I was living back in Guatemala.
IW: And wasn’t it even a more dangerous task to go back and to bring up the truth in Guatemala?
FLR: It was very dangerous.
IW: It must have been more dangerous then before.
FLR: In a way yes, but by then I was already known, very well known internationally, you see, I had been in New York, I had been in the UN, I had been in Geneva, I had spoken before Congress in Washington, a had spoken in parliament in London, I had spoken to many parliamentarians around the world, so it was not so easy.
This time I changed this: before, when I was younger, our idea was to be unnoticed and very private, this time my strategy was to be very visible, to show that I am there, that I am not hiding, and to make it known to the world as well. This is one of the issues that saved me all along, I immediately did an interview with a friend who was a journalist in one of the big newspapers, I had a two page interview, I am back, I am here in Guatemala, so I was being very obvious, everyone could know that I was there and what I was doing. First I would not arise any suspicion, I was very transparent of my position, but secondly it would allow me to carry out human rights and speak up publicly, which is what I did.
And then began the peace process, right after that, and the situation began to change, because since 1990 the peace process had begun with the first agreement in the city of Oslo. So it was very important for us inside the country doing human rights to support the peace process and to demand the peace. It took six years from 1990 to 1996 to sign the final agreements.
Boutros-Ghali made I think a very important contribution. He said we have to make a difference between the peace making and the peace building. So the peace making is precisely the period of negotiation until you sign peace and effectively demobilize those military forces that are in confrontation. And the peace building is what comes afterwards to consolidate the peace process. I think we were successful in the peace making, in this process there was a tremendous support of the international community, imagine that the first meeting was carried out in Oslo in 1990, during the first year as a matter of fact we had different meetings in different cities, we had meetings in Oslo, in Quito Ecuador, in Mexico, several countries proposed different cities for the different parties to meet and different sectors of civil society. And then in 1992 something changes, we had negotiated the insurgent movement with the army and the government had negotiated what was called the global agreement of human rights. Everyone agreed that human rights had to be the basis of the peace process.
And the UN decided to establish a peacekeeping mission in Guatemala. This was a bit abnormal, because normally they don’t like to put a peacekeeping mission until the peace process has concluded. And here it was very uncertain, in El Salvador they had done it before, but only about three or four months before. But this was ’92 in Guatemala and they actually established a peace mission, it was MINU, Missión de Naciones Unidas in Guatemala, which was there to verify only one agreement, the human rights agreement. So I think, it was very brave of United Nations to take this step and to actually play such a proactive role in a peace process. And having a permanent mission there, looking at human rights, made a big difference as well. Also to allow the peace process to continue with the mediation of the UN, but also to protect those who were negotiating with the different social sectors. So yes, when I say we were very successful, this was, because we had ten agreements of different nature, including a socio economic agreement, on refugees, on indigenous people, on human rights. So in all of them, in terms of substance, we were very good. We had a good amnesty law, they did not allow amnesty for crimes against humanity or acts of violence against civilians. So it all went and this was a country, which had just come out of genocide in the 1980ies, in ‘81/‘82/’83.
IW: A very fast process.
FLR: Yes, to reach this was very important. But then, where we have I think failed, is in the follow up, is in the peace building process. Because when you sign peace, you have to strengthen the state, the institutionality of a state. And even the government that signed peace was not interested in that. They were interested in making business and privatizing everything, they sold everything they had in the state, there was no interest in strengthening the justice system or anything else.
And we did have a truth commission, which was very successful, we had a three members truth commission, one person was appointed by the secretary general of the UN. And this was professor Christian Tomuschat from Germany, who plaid a very, very important role. A wonderful man, I had met him since the days he was raporteur, he was always absolutely professional. And then there were two Guatemalans, Alfredo Balsells, who was a very progressive social democratic lawyer, and Dona Otilia Lux de CotÍ, who is a Mayan leader, a woman expert on education. So I think the composition of the commission was very good, they were very brave, they were very powerful and they came up with great conclusions.
The document itself was so good, that president Arzu, who had signed peace, did not even want to receive the report of the truth commission in 1999 when they presented it. Because it said everything. It said we looked at all the cases and 93% of the cases appeared to be responsibility of the military, 4% appeared to be responsibility of the Guerillas, and three more percent of unknown actors. So of course the army and the right wing sector that supported the army did not like the report, but this was the truth. This was an army that had declared war on his own people.
I agree, I think establishing the truth is a fundamental element of a transition, but you not only must establish the truth, you also must recognize the truth. And these are two different steps. Establishing the truth was done by the truth commission, but the recognition comes afterwards. And this is, if you look at the cases we have been battling, the genocide case against Ríos Montt, we had a decision by a first degree court (…), they declared it had been genocide and condemned Ríos Montt. For the people that had suffered, for the victims, is not so much the question of whether Ríos Montt, who was a very old man now, goes to prison or not. It’s the ethical question whether justice is served, whether he actually can be condemned for a crime. Then he can fill the sentence in his home, if he wants, because of age reasons and humanitarianism reasons, but justice has to say that genocide existed and that he was responsible for that period of genocide.
The first degree court did it, but then the constitutional court reversed it for absurd little things, little details, so clearly that justice is not ready, and this is just recently, this is only four or five years ago, so the justice system is still not brave enough. We had very brave judges, especially that woman, who was the head of court at first degree, head of the criminal court, but not in the constitutional court, this was the tragedy. And I think, this is what we are suffering a little bit today. Yes, we had been able to acknowledge, to look at many cases to establish the truth.
I eventually (…) was also then invited by Vice President Stein to be part of the cabinet in 2004 and I was in the Presidential Commission for Human Rights. I put two conditions, I was not campaign, I was not a member of any party, I had no interest in their parties, but I said if you let me speak the truth and recognize the responsibility of the state in all the international cases. He said “yes” and the President said “yes”, and they fulfilled their promise. I was in charge of all the cases at the Interamerican system and at other international courts and in every single case we went to recognize the truth of the victims and to ask for forgiveness in the name of the state.
But one of the most significant elements for me was the moral recognition activity we had in the rural areas. There was one lady, who they had killed her husband in a very rural village, (…), her husband had been assassinated leaving their little hut in the middle of their cornfield. So when we said yes, the state recognizes and the state will recognize the right to reparations and recognizes everything and will put a plaque in the municipal, she says okay, I will accept the forgiveness of the state, if the state comes and ask me for forgiveness in my own home. And we said yes, and this was a very beautiful thing, because of course I never asked her, where she lives, so when we discovered that she was up in the highlands and you had to walk down (…) in the middle of corn, there was no road, no path, no nothing, and it was raining and so it was a very, very wet and muddy walk. But it was fantastic, I think the feeling of being able to walk to this woman’s house for her and her four children, to be there and have the state come and say that the state was responsible and that they would ask her for forgiveness.
These were the elements, I can tell you hundreds of stories like that of recognition, there was an other lady who had her daughter abducted, and in the rural areas indigenous communities keep a very close relationship with their deceased, they go to the cemetery, they have celebrations on the cemetery, they take bread and water for certain holy days, and she was, it was always very painful, that she did not have a tomb to do this for her daughter so we said: “Would you like to have a tomb for your daughter even she is disappeared.” She said yes and we asked her for a photograph and we had a sculptor made a bust of her daughter from the photo. So we actually built in the cemetery a tomb with the bust of her daughter on top. And we opened it and took the covers off, this woman had organized a celebration with the entire village, because now she could also go to the cemetery with everyone else to celebrate with their deceased. This was incredible important within their tradition. This is what I talk about as acknowledgement. These were individual actions of acknowledgement. But I’m sorry to say that this is not the attitude of the state of Guatemala yet. I mean the state of Guatemala still in a way allow me to recognize responsibility in individual cases, but the attitude of the elites of Guatemala and of the military is still an attitude of denial. They still say this didn’t happen, let’s forget the past, let’s not talk about the past, let’s ignore the past. And I keep on saying you can’t move to a different chapter, you can’t move to a different era, if you don’t close the one before, if you don’t get closer to a certain period. And this is probably one of the most important lessons. I think the difference between knowledge and acknowledgement, to say we have to have the truth and the knowledge, but we also need acknowledgement by the state and by the authorities of what they did and what was wrong, and the fact that have never to be done again.
IW: That’s very interesting, we have a discussion in Germany about this “culture of remembrance” on the one hand and on the other hand the “culture of acknowledgement”. Now, after years of Holocaust remembering, people say the culture of acknowledgement isn’t enough, too, because it’s coming from above and not from the perspective of the victims and survivors, because it’s not recognizing the resistance of the victims, who resisted through surviving.
FLR: This is true. The acknowledgement, I would agree with the principle, that the acknowledgement has to have both elements, those who were responsible have to acknowledge that they did it and why, but there also has to be an acknowledgement of dignity of the victims. They were people struggling to change the situation. This is what I was mentioning with this lady that demanded that the state go to her house, because they killed her husband there as she was leaving.
IW: In her house?
FLR: In front of, it was actually outside, but he was walking out, these was a green area and they were hiding in the corn (…). I think it was very important for her in that very remote little village in the mountains, that the state not just make some document or symbolic act of acknowledgement, but that they go to the place where they committed the crime, in front of her, and acknowledge in front of her what they have done. I think this was the dignity of her husband being recuperated, this was very important.
IW: …to go there and to…
FLR: Exactly, for her this was the most important symbolism. With the students, that were abducted, I had also an activity at the university. We decided to do that at the university and it was interesting because we asked a sculptor to think of designs and he designed a series of tablets with the shape of the desk (…). You know, you have your tablet, where you write, so he did the twelve tablets like desks in a garden in university campus, because he said, these were students, and they have to be recognized as students and leaders, so we are acknowledging their identity, we are acknowledging that they were killed, but we are also acknowledging that they were student leaders, what they were doing at that time and in the university.
I think people miss the point, some of these things are of course symbolic, and some people think because they are symbolic they are less important, they are not, they are very important, because they go deep into the feelings of an individual but also of a nation. You have to create the mentality of a nation of reconciliation, and to have the reconciliation, you have to have the acknowledgement. And then you can move on. All I will say is that the people of a nation that does not (…) recognize their past, will never be totally free to design their future.
IW: Is reconciliation a new form of nation building, of nationalism perhaps?
FLR: I think reconciliation is a form of nation building, yes. And I think this is very important. I think, one of the elements, that we have missed, and this is one of the elements of violence today, is the question of identity. Nations are defined by their identity. And identity is defined by the triumphant periods, yes, but it is also defined by it’s tragedies and it’s horror periods. And you have to acknowledge both, to be able to have a true identity as a nation.
IW: Is this a personal identity or…?
FLR: …no I think it’s a peoples’ identity.
IW: I’m asking this, because here in Europe, we can read every day in the newspapers about the criticism of the “new nationalism”. What is the difference between your idea and the new nationalism we are criticizing?
FLR: Ah, no, because you see the new nationalism is based on marking differences, it’s not based necessarily in acknowledging identity. Because when you are acknowledging the identity, you’re acknowledging the history and the values of a nation. The people, each society, has a history, parts of it is good, parts of it is bad. Out of that they develop certain values, certain ethics, and this is what makes them what they are. But of course this can be distorted, this is what some people do, they want to mark the differences and not the values.
What was the difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis really in Ruanda? Not very much, almost nothing, so those that (…) use this sort of national identity to build violence, was a sort of disinformation of what a real identity is. I think identity is peace building, because we have a diverse world, and we recognize our diversity and the origins of our different values and the understanding. But yes, if you are a right wing movement, that wants to define your racial superiority and out of that your domination of the world, than yes, this is not identity, this is disinformation, this is mobilizing the wrong feelings.
IW: So identity is also self-consciousness of one’s history?
FLR: Absolutely, yes.
IW: I have a few questions more, Mr. la Rue, and one of it is: What do you fear most for the future?
FLR: I always thought that history always moves forward and especially in human rights my feeling is, that we always move ahead, sometimes very slowly, but we always move ahead, and we cannot backtrack. And this is not entirely true. I don’t think we are necessarily quite backwards, I think history yes always moves forward, but I have discovered that history is a little bit like quantum physics. It doesn’t move in a straight line, it moves in waves, like energy, and sometimes the wave is going up and sometimes it’s going low.
IW: But it’s not going back, you would say, it’s going down, but not back?
FLR: I don’t think we can go back. I would hope to believe that we can never go back. Which is even worse, because sometimes, when you look at some things that are being done today, and the racism, the xenophobia, the incitement of violence, which could lead to genocide again in some places, looks like a setback, and I think, what that is a very cynical position, because people already know what that generates, they already know what that can course. But I think we are going through a very low slump in this sort of waves and it is has shocked me.
I mean there are things happening, political leaders around the world, that they say things, that I never thought we could see openly said, by political leaders. This is coming from many parts of the world, which are astonishing and I think are a very bad symptom of our times. Those of us, who are human rights activists, begin to see ourselves like a minority again, I feel, as if I were in Guatemala on the old days, when you were scared to talk about human rights, you know, because everyone…
Let me tell you a secret, which is not gonna be a secret after we say it on camera, but in UNESO, here, people tells me, I have delegations, telling me, no, no, no, you’re to much of a human rights activist, human rights is for Geneva, leave human rights for Geneva, but Paris no, this is UNESCO, you should only talk about education. I think this is unconceivable, UNESCO was the first institution to talk about human rights, before the UN was established, two years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UNESCO was established in ’46 and the Universal Declaration was in ’48. It was the first institution to talk about freedom of expression and the free flow of ideas and all this. You cannot separate an institution like UNESO from free expression and human rights. But this is serious people, I hear these things, and it shocks me, this scares me.
IW: This is a sort of fear, they…?
FLR: I think it is a fear! I think talking about human rights is again like this, he, he (makes a rejecting gesture, I.W.), very tense moment, I’m living through moments of tension every time we talk about freedom of the press and journalism.
IW: So what do you think the next generation should learn or should stand up for?
FLR: I think, one learns in life, may be even the most important value is, yes you have to be brave, but often times as important as being brave is to be consistent. Because I find many leaders around the world have not been that consistent, I think consistent in the message.
IW: Consistent in the message, what does this mean exactly?
FLR: I think that if you have struggled for human rights when you were young, you will doing it all your life.
IW: When it was your own experience to be segregated or something like that?
FLR: Yes, and to suffer like that and also when you felt uncomfortable raising your voice because this put you in danger or in an uncomfortable position. Life makes us, when we grow older, look for an comfortable position again and I think – I mean, that’s fine and I have nothing against trying to have a peaceful and comfortable life – but I think we must never allow that to make us silent. We must never allow comfort to silence our ideas, we should always be young at heart and maintain the ideals as strong as always. I think, this is the consistency, and I think eventually this will make us happier, too, because we will feel the energy of our lives and what we do.
IW: What is the first image or name of a person, that comes into your mind, when you think of “to be consistent”, to have courage or to resist?
FLR: There are several special people, that I have a deep admiration. Some are public figures and some are not. The public figures: one of my biggest sort of ideals was always to meet and I never had a chance to meet was Nelson Mandela. I think this was the man, who, and similar to him by the way, just to mention the other example, is president Mujica, Pepe Mujica from Uruguay. These are men that struggle about life and even went to armed struggle at some period for justice and liberation of the peoples and eventually became to be recognized statesmen and came to the most powerful poste of their country. But they never allowed that to swallow them, they were always themselves. Mandela was always Mandela, and he always would keep his principles and his priorities. He said it very clearly: I am the president of all South Africa, I am to serve everyone, even those that I confronted before. He also said: I want to be here one period, I don’t have the need to be more. And he committed himself to that. And Mujica was exactly the same. So I think that, in a way you have people that even if they had reached the epitome of power, they never lost their priorities and their principles and their sense of service. I never have many examples in my own country of less known people, my son, my second son is called Mario, because he was exactly born on the day they killed one of my strongest colleagues in the labor movement, Mario, when my son was born, many many years ago, 37 years ago. And for me Mario Mujica was the symbol of this man, who was an intellectual but living in the north west province of Guatemala, (…) giving his life for others. And equally I had a very bright woman who had been the head of personnel of big corporations and she was a mid age wife with two children and left her comfortable position, went back to law school, studied law to become the defender of many people beginning with the workers. She, tragedy, was disappeared by the military. But these were wonderful people, were real symbols in my life, people that I met that were very close to me, and that were all their life dedicated to what they had decided to do. And many of them had changed, like her, Yolanda was her name, had changed mid life, because they decided to engage in a life working for human rights and giving their effort for others.
IW: Your are working here at the UNESCO in education, what does this mean for you concerning courage and resistance? Can education help to bring up a consciousness of courage and resistance and, let’s say of the necessity for disobedience?
FLR: I work in education, but from a different perspective. I am the Assistant Director General for Communication and information, which is an area, it’s interesting, because it’s not the press department – we have a very good press department in UNESCO – but communication and information is an area less known, people know UNESO for education. But this is the area of communication, where we build education through ICT, through internet technology, education at a distance. How to build access to information, how to build knowledge societies, how to build freedom of expression, how to have a free press?
This is the area, and for me, as you may know I was rapporteur of freedom of expression before of the Human Rights Council and for a long time doing human rights, because I am a lawyer but also a journalist, I did radio, and I’m a visually impaired person, so I worked on issues of people with handicap, but also on communication especially through radio, and for me communication is an essential element of building peace, of build, of having a more dialogue system of education, of building a better understanding between societies and nations, of building knowledge societies and having development.
The new agenda, that we have all accepted, the “2030 Sustainable Development Goals”: The goal 16 is a wonderful goal and I think there was an afterthought of all the states they were meaning but very important, because goal 16, they say one of the conditions for development in the world. In the world you need to have societies that are in peace, that are inclusive – there is no discrimination of any kind –, that guarantee access to justice for everyone, they are transparent in all what they do, and the guarantee public access to information.
IW: This means to the internet nor not?
FLR: To everything, exactly, public access to information means to public information, to what the state does, what state authorities do, but also means to guarantee a free press.
IW: But what about the inter action? I mean it’s not only information, you can always look for information in newspapers, in documents, in libraries, in the internet, but what about the participation of peoples?
FLR: This is the consequence. I always say, having public access to information is the first element of participation. This year we had an interesting celebration, we had in 2016 the Freedom of the Press Day was celebrated in Helsinki. And it was in commemoration of the oldest law in the world, of freedom of expression and access to public information. And the initiative came from a young scientist, who was really a biologist but who was also a philosopher and thinker in those days (…). And he decided to distribute a pamphlet on issues that were essential for civil rights. This was in 1752, many years ago, 250 years ago exactly, and it was very interesting, because (…) in one of his paragraphs he says, in order to seek the common good, we need to guarantee the effort of all. Exactly what you are saying, and in order to guarantee the participation of all, we have to guarantee that everyone has the relevant information and can discuss it and can openly debate. So for him it was all in context, we are looking for the common good, we should all do it, but we should do it in the context of being well informed and having the possibility of debating public policies and also accessing public information. We have to know what the state knows, everyone should know. So I think this was, it actually not drafted into al law, in 1766, even before the declaration of independence of the US and certainly before the constitution, the first amendment. It was very interesting, because 250 years of this law, which was than Sweden and Finland together, of course the law only lasted 10 years and then King Gustav decided to go back to authoritarianism and took the law away. But it was interesting that a philosopher of those days wanted to guarantee public participation, participation of all, and also guarantee freedom of information and access to information.
IW: I think this is very necessary for the poor people …
FLR: …for everyone…
IW: …to realize this is to stop with social injustice and I think it’s obvious that poor people don’t have access to the internet. The richer one’s can use the internet, they have their PCs, there computers, their telephones, their cellulars and so on – I think it is also a problem of underdevelopment.
FLR: I think there is an economic gap, yes, and not only of nations, developing nations, but also within every nation of urban societies and rural societies. But I also should add, and this I say with deep pain, there is a gender gap as well. Because in societies we are still relegating women in many places of the world to a second place, (…). And this we know, because we have done some research and this for us is one of the priorities, we have to guarantee connectivity. Everyone talks about connectivity of the next billion, we say, yes, but with certain social criteria. We don’t want just connectivity to increase the business the big platforms. We want more connectivity to make sure that the rural areas are connected. May be not in individual life, maybe not in every household, but it could be in a collective way, in libraries or in internet-centers. The important element is, that people receive the access to internet and the right of information. So we also connect connectivity with the necessary information, information that liberates, that is education, that is science, that is gender-sensitive, that can actually produce results. This is important, because often people think only of the technical part of connectivity. That’s not enough, we have to engage in the human side of connectivity in internet. We also have to engage in the dangers by the way and have a prevention policy with children and young people (…).
IW: Do you agree that the internet database of stories of victims and survivors could be helpful to this idea of the UNESCO and education?
FLR: I couldn’t agree more. I think that an interactive database of people that had given their testimony and often their lives for the world is probably the most important database that we can have. If we don’t learn from our valiant people, those who were willing to give it all, then we will never learn from anything. I profoundly feel that this is a very important database.
IW: Thank you so much for your time and this interview.
Interview: Paris (UNESCO), April 2017
Transcription: BUXUS STIFTUNG gGmbH, July 2017
Camera: Jakob Gatzka