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'I'm angry with the French government'

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2008-12-11

Stéphane Hessel contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Six decades later, he stands up for the rights of Palestinians and immigrants in France.

FRANCE 24: What progress has been made on the issue of human rights over the last 60 years?

Stéphane Hessel: A lot of progress has been made. It’s undeniable. Over the last 60 years, we succeeded in dismantling great western empires – huge steps forward that have granted freedom and independence to many people. It is now up to them to find their own path to democracy. The end of Apartheid, of Stalinism, were also great victories. However, a lot still needs to be done if we want to do more than just hold speeches that serve no other purpose than to give us a bad conscience. We have to act.

There are countries where the situation is terribly blocked. I’m thinking of our Palestinian friends. Nobody says all the things that should be said about their great Israeli neighbour. Everybody keeps quiet because they are afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism. We must overcome this shyness. We have to support intelligent Israelis who want peace and who are a minority. And we have to stand by Palestinians who suffer and want peaceful negotiations with Israel.

In democracies, the respect of civil and political rights is no longer a problem. However, we are still lagging behind on economic, social and cultural rights. The issue of immigration for example, is already a difficult one, and one which will become worse with climate change. More and more immigrants will come knocking on our door. And so far, countries, particularly mine, have not managed to give people who seek to settle in richer countries the welcome they deserve.

FRANCE 24: How good is France’s record in respecting human rights?

Stéphane Hessel: France is still failing to respect certain values and rights that appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, especially articles 13, 14 and 15, which address the treatment of immigrants. I’m very angry with the current French government. The way they treat undocumented workers and the right to asylum is appalling. And I believe more of us should protest these violations of elementary rights.

FRANCE 24: Is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights really as “universal” as it pretends to be? Does it not present a Western vision of the world?

Stéphane Hessel: The declaration is not particularly Western-oriented. It was written by Westerners, but not only. People from the South and from the East, from China and India, also contributed to its creation. Those who say that it is inspired only by Western values have clearly not understood our work from 1945 to 1948, when we strived to produce a text that does not shock any religion or culture and which is, quite to the contrary, very open to different cultures. The adjective “universal,” which is so important, was chosen with good reason. Only governments, not people, deny the declaration’s universal qualities. These governments are afraid their citizens will demand things they don’t want to give them.

Date created : 2008-12-10