Volume 11 Number 5
Mightier Than the Sword?
01 October 1998

Choice Okoro attends a symposium in Ottawa on the responsibilities of artists and writers as champions of human rights

A quotation from Montreal writer Louis Dudek, displayed in one of Toronto's subway trains, reads, 'My two dogs tied to a tree by a ten foot leash kept howling and whining for an hour till I let them off. Now they are lying quietly on the grass a few feet further from the tree and haven't moved since I let them off. Freedom may be only an idea but it's a matter of principle even to a dog.' Poems and statements like this are liberally posted in public spots in most of the cities and suburbs of Canada, testifying to the country's commitment to human rights.

Of course, Canada is still in the process of making amends for its treatment of the aboriginal population, and for racist laws in the first part of this century which barred most black people from immigrating to Canada. Since the lifting of the ban in 1976, the country has witnessed an increase in its non-white population which has led to mounting racist feelings in some quarters. The poems in the subway trains are part of Canada's attempt to address this.

In spite of its history, Canada has demonstrated a strong commitment to equality and human rights both nationally and internationally. So its capital, Ottawa, was the ideal place for a symposium on 'the artist and human rights' held last July to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was organized by the National Arts Centre (NAC), the Human Rights Research and Development Centre of the University of Ottawa, the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

From Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas they came. Ugandan artist George Bwanika Seremba, who has been exiled in Canada since the early Eighties, told FAC about his experience as a student activist under the dictatorial government of Idi Amin.

Arrested, tortured and then sentenced to death, he was 'left for dead in the bush' before being rescued and nursed back to health by some villagers. This experience inspired his most renowned one-man play, Come good rain, in which he plays himself and 32 other characters. He bemoans the fact that progress in Africa has not come as fast as he had hoped. 'The next generation of Africans are still battling what we did.'

Also present was John Polanyi, Canadian co-recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, who spoke of the connection between human rights and science. Rather than being something alien that must be grafted onto science, 'the respect for human rights is essential if we are to use technology wisely,' he said. He cited the Nazis' theories of racial 'hygiene' and the communists' scientific view of history as examples of theories which 'invoke the authority of science and at the same time obstruct science'.

Polanyi spoke up for the need for openness to new people and ideas 'irrespective of religion, ethnicity and nationality'. 'If science and the arts are to function, minority views must be protected from the majority. This applies down to the smallest and most precious minority, the individual.' Without respect for the creative freedom of the individual, both science and the arts would die -- 'and with them, civilization'.

The conference was not just a celebration or a pat on the back for artists and writers. It also strongly challenged the responsibility of the writer. When journalists, writers and artists claim to speak the truth to power, the crucial question is 'whose truth?' said Francine Pelletier of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). She was concerned with those 'times when the journalist who purports to be publicizing issues of human rights or working for the common good becomes self-serving'. 'The quest to appear tough and famous has driven most journalists more than the need to report news with a hope for change,' she observed.

In an interview with FAC, the Indian writer and political figure Rajmohan Gandhi spoke of reconciliation as 'our century's unfinished agenda'. While the triumph of imperialism had marked the second half of the last century, 'the second half of this century has seen the victories of independence in Asia, Africa and the Pacific and then more recently in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union'. But these developments had not brought equality and freedom to many from Africa and Asia -- as recent wars and violence testified.

For Gandhi, a new global agenda must be set for world peace. He expressed the hope that, as we move into the next century, 'reconciliation will become a major agenda for those covering issues of human conflicts'.

South African judge Richard Goldstone is convinced that reconciliation and healing come through public acknowledgement of victimization, and he should know. He was appointed a year ago to the international panel monitoring Nazi activities in Argentina. Before that, he served in the Constitutional Court of South Africa and as Chief Prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal trying war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Justice Richard Goldstone: 'public acknowledgement of truth contains the healing balm'

'My experience in the Hague and in South Africa has taught me that reconciliation comes through listening to people's pain and a credible judicial process,' he said. Human tragedies too easily became hidden behind numbing statistics. 'There is little appreciation for the fact that it is public acknowledgement of the truth that contains the healing balm,' he said. He is convinced, for example, that 'the relatively peaceful and negotiated death of apartheid would not have been achieved' without 'the commission of inquiry into political violence and intimidation which was established by all the parties'.

In 1992 and 1993, Goldstone took part in international seminars that were held in South Africa as part of the investigation into whether a truth commission should be set up. Four victims of apartheid were invited to describe their experiences. One of them, Albie Sachs of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, described how he had had his right arm blown away by a bomb placed under his car in Maputo, Mozambique, by South African agents.

The second victim, Mrs Geina, was the widow of a small town lawyer who represented community leaders brought to court under apartheid security laws. 'She described how the security police had terrorized her and their young children with midnight raids and repeated detentions of her husband,' Goldstone said. 'On the day after her husband had again been taken away by the police, she heard on the radio that his bullet-ridden body had been found in a field some distance from their home.' When she described how her 12-year-old son came and asked her when his father would be home, her composure dissolved and she began to weep. 'No one who was present will forget the scene of Albie Sachs attempting to console Mrs Geina with the stump of his right arm.'

Goldstone said that his reason for telling this story was a conversation that he had had with Mrs Geina at breakfast the next morning. 'I complimented her on her courage in coming to speak of her experiences. She responded by saying how grateful she was for having been able to do so. She said, "You know, Judge, last night was the first night since I lost my husband that I have slept through and not been awakened by nightmares." ' According to Goldstone, Mrs Geina put her healing down to the fact that 'there were so many important people who were interested in hearing what had happened to me'.

For many of the conference attendees who had faced human rights violations, this was perhaps the success of the NAC artist and human rights symposium -- a recognition of individual suffering that is not subsumed by faceless statistics and media sensationalism.
Choice Okoro

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0