Speech by the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid at the Federal Foreign Office Christoph Strässer on the occasion of the award of the Otto Hahn Peace Medal to Prof. Manfred Nowak on 17 December

19.12.2014 - Speech

– translation of advance text –

Pandora’s Box is a famous object from Greek mythology. According to the legend, the box contained all sorts of evil that were previously unknown to mankind, including labour, disease and death. Zeus had entrusted this box to Pandora and forbidden her from opening it. But Pandora did not abide by this, and so all the vices and bad habits were allowed to escape from the box, spreading the evil therein contained around the world. If you follow the news at the moment, you might be forgiven for feeling that the box is still open and covering the world with ever more plagues: financial crises and hybrid warfare, Ebola viruses and videos of decapitation.

The award of the Otto Hahn Peace Medal
The award of the Otto Hahn Peace Medal© Otto Hahn/Michael Fahrig

Fortunately, there are lots of courageous and committed people out there who work tirelessly to catch these evils and put them back in Pandora’s Box, or at least attempt to minimise them and mitigate the devastation that they cause. One such indispensable person is Prof. Manfred Nowak, whom we are here to honour today.

Professor Nowak,

The evil that you have focused on for decades is torture. You are one of the leading experts worldwide in the fight against torture and have done important pioneering work in this field. During your time as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, you have devoted yourself fearlessly and persistently to the victims of torture and worked continuously to convince governments and the public that torture is inhumane and senseless. You have crossed swords with the most powerful people of this world, not least with the US Government. The relaxation of the ban on torture under the Bush administration, secret prisons, rendition flights and Guantanamo – you have often raised all of these topics and not been afraid to criticise the US Government. You went on an inspection tour of China and gathered a great deal of evidence of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment in local prisons with your persistent and meticulous method. But you have also documented cases of torture in many other countries on visits and by other means, thereby laying bare to the world the fact that torture is still a widespread phenomenon today that remains a matter of routine in many countries, one that is sometimes even applied systematically. You have also often been vocal in your criticism of injustices in your native Austria, despite running the risk of making yourself unpopular with your fellow countrymen.

Time and again, you have spoken out on inconvenient truths and touched on sore points. One might say that you are a genuine troublemaker. It is therefore all the more remarkable that you are being honoured with a peace medal today. I am convinced that there are people out there who wonder why and are asking themselves what human rights have to do with peace when it comes down to it. Is it not the case that raking through human rights violations in painstaking detail often endangers peace and provokes new violence? Isn’t peace more important that human rights?

The unequivocal answer to these questions is this: there can be no stable peace without human rights. Incidentally, this is precisely what the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson – a former laureate of the Otto Hahn Peace Medal – said. When peace breaks down and there are violent conflicts, human rights violations are frequently not only a symptom, but rather the fact that human rights are violated is often the actual cause for war, violence and destruction. With this in mind, I welcome the fact that you, Prof. Nowak, are another advocate of human rights to be awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal today. To some extent, this is an expression of the fact that peace and human rights are two sides of the same coin.

By the way, you are receiving this award today not only for your commitment to the cause of peace, but also for your exceptional efforts to promote international understanding. A popular anecdote about you is the occasion when you caused quite a bit of commotion at a restaurant on your visit to China in your capacity as UN Special Rapporteur. The background to this was the fact that when in a restaurant for confidential talks you were being shadowed by several secret‑service employees and you were even being bugged with directional microphones. You blithely took pictures of one of these officials in action, which led to a fierce dispute, in the course of which you had to leave the restaurant – but not without continuing to be pursued by the secret‑service employees at every step. I’m not sure whether the jurors had anecdotes such as these in mind when they honoured your exceptional efforts to promote international understanding. At any rate, it may be said that you made your point most clearly to the Chinese secret‑service employees involved back then, and the agents will have surely come to realise that such a small country as Austria is perfectly capable of producing such recalcitrant people as yourself.

But there is another aspect that is far more important: you were shadowed because you met a well‑known Chinese human rights lawyer. Thanks to numerous meetings like these with activists from civil society, with victims of torture and committed citizens, you have been able to build bridges to many countries. This often happened much to the annoyance of the respective governments. But where repressive regimes prevail, crushing human rights underfoot, genuine international understanding can, unfortunately, often only be achieved against the will of these governments, which are all too often not legitimate representatives of the people that they rule.

Professor Nowak,

When honouring your achievements, we have to mention your academic contribution. A commentary on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has become a standard work, is especially noteworthy in this regard. You also have authored numerous other publications and lectured at universities in Stanford, Columbia, Geneva, Lund and Vienna, to name but a few. This remarkable academic career is all the more impressive if we consider the fact that you found your law studies to be very boring at first and that you would actually have preferred to make films. But perhaps this explains why you never shut yourself away in the ivory tower of academia, but worked to promote and protect human rights on the front lines as an activist, be it in your aforementioned role as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, as a judge at the chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia responsible for Bosnia and Herzegovina or as a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, to name but a handful of examples.

While we will probably never know what the world of cinema missed out on when you decided to remain true to the study of law after all and didn’t become a film maker, you experienced numerous scenes with considerable cinematic potential, especially during your time as as UN Special Rapporteur. From being shadowed by Chinese security officers, who even followed you to the toilet, to being forced to spend the night at Harare Airport because the Zimbabwean Government refused your entry without prior notification, to intimidation by North Korean diplomats and threats from the military in Equatorial Guinea. To this list we must add visits to the most terrible prisons, torture chambers and interrogation rooms. In the course of your work, you have time and again encountered precarious situations that were not entirely free of danger. And that’s not even to mention the risks that you subjected your clothing to on numerous occasions, for instance when visiting a prison whose walls still bore fresh paint because those responsible had rushed to give them what was probably their first new coat for years shortly before your arrival. A number of your experiences would surely be first‑class material for a thriller or spy movie. Who knows, maybe a director will want to film all of your adventures someday.

Professor Nowak,

You have seen some of the worst places on this planet: harrowing jails and dungeons as well as mass graves. You have spoken to many victims of torture and to the relatives of missing people who have described their suffering to you. In so doing, you did not encounter these people with cool professionalism or even cynicism, but with great empathy. You yourself once said that you had to interrupt your first interview with a victim of torture – a Chilean refugee – in mid‑conversation because you were feeling sick. Back then, you considered yourself to be completely unsuited to this sort of job. When you were asked whether you could imagine becoming the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, you hesitated for a long time because you didn’t know “whether you should do this to yourself”.

This statement shows that you were not looking for prestige when you assumed this role, but that you approached these tasks with an exceptionally high sense of responsibility. The international community owes you a debt of gratitude for “doing this to yourself”. And I hope that the award that you are receiving today is also a small token of compensation for all of the sleepless nights, intimidation, confrontations and other difficulties that you had to endure in the course of your work to help the victims of torture and disappearance.

But you don’t just have the individual victims in mind, but rather the whole picture. You have advised governments and made suggestions as to how they can better fight and prevent torture. It would be good if more governments were to take advantage of your services – which you continue to offer as part of your work for the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights – than has so far been the case. What is more, you have also dared to elucidate visions. This is what you had to say quite recently, for example: “I am convinced that the time for a World Court of Human Rights has come.” Seen from today’s perspective, this might appear to be an ambitious vision, but when you take a look at the past and bear in mind all the things that have been achieved in the area of protecting human rights since the end of the Second World War – often only in small steps – then it is clear that this vision could perhaps one day become a reality.

Legend has it that in addition to all sorts of evil, Pandora’s Box, which I mentioned at the start of my address, contains another thing: hope. It is thanks to the tireless and wise efforts of people such as yourself, Professor Nowak, that we may still have hope today. Hope for a world without torture and other human rights violations. I would like to thank you for this and express my admiration for your work, for which you are deservedly being presented with the Otto Hahn Peace Medal today.

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