There is much each one of us can do to make a difference. We are at a dangerous juncture in history... We need to stand up for our principles and values, human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law.
Acceptance speech – Bianca Jagger
Mr Speaker, Your Excellencies, dear colleagues, my dear friends, it is an honour and a privilege to receive this prestigious award. I would like to accept this award on behalf of the men, women and children who have motivated me and inspired me during the last twenty-five years to continue campaigning for human rights, peace and social justice.
During that period I witnessed the scourge of war in Central America, the horrors of mass rape and genocide in Bosnia & Herzegovina, the atrocities committed against indigenous people in Latin America, the ravaging effect of HIV and AIDS in Africa and the growing practice of trafficking of innocent children for sexual exploitation in South East Asia.
I feel honoured and humble to be part of this distinguished group of recipients of the Right Livelihood Award, an award which has consistently been bestowed on individuals that have excel for their courage and excellence.
I would also like to extend my gratitude to all my esteemed friends from human rights organisations across the world, especially Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Mercy Corp, Oxfam and Medicines sans frontier and all the many non-governmental organisations whom I had the privilege to work with during the last twenty-five years.
Perhaps my commitment to Justice and human rights issues was inevitable for I was born in Nicaragua, a country that endured almost 50 years of despotic dictatorship and has seen so much political upheaval.
In the early twentieth century, Nicaragua suffered invasions and protracted occupations by US forces. In 1932, the US Government helped General Anastasio Somoza seize power; his military regime guaranteed an open door policy towards US corporations. The Somoza dynasty ruled Nicaragua until 1979, allowing the pillage of its natural resources. Under the Somoza dynasty, Nicaragua suffered what J F Kennedy defined as the harshest “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war”, the country had one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the Americas. Nicaragua first taught me the meaning of social and economic injustice.
I was born into a well to do family. My parents divorced when I was ten, an event that changed my life. My mother, now single, was often discriminated against because of her gender and her status. And I learnt first hand how difficult life could be for a working and divorced woman who had to support three children in the Nicaragua of the sixties. Witnessing her predicament taught me the meaning of discrimination.
As a teenager in Managua, I witnessed a student massacre carried out by Somoza’s National Guard. I felt powerless; all I could do was participate in students’ demonstrations against my government’s brutality.
I was determined to seek an education that would prevent me from enduring my mother’s fate and I promised myself never to be treated as a second-class citizen because of my gender. I never wanted to feel powerless again in the face of atrocities. I left my country armed with a scholarship from the French government to study political science in Paris.
I arrived in Paris on a 14th of July, Bastille Day. How fitting for a young idealist. – Liberty and Equality were concepts one could only dream about in the Nicaragua of the sixties. In Paris, I finally discovered their value – freedom and democracy, the rule of law, judicial review, and respect for human rights – for me Europe seemed an enlightened paradise.
In 1971, I entered my well-known marriage – a marriage that was to change my life radically. In fact I could have spoken to you at length about my marriage in the context of justice and revenge. I somehow felt that there were more important issues to address.
My marriage brought an enormous amount of public attention. Overnight, I found myself under the glare of the world media. It was a bewildering experience. I was no longer a person in my own right, able to articulate my own thoughts, embrace my own convictions and live my own life.
So, ironically, whilst I had left Nicaragua to escape its narrow perception of women, I was now facing a similar prejudice in the enlightened world.
It was no easy task to reconcile my new status with my political beliefs. Ultimately, this period was a sobering experience, which heightened my political consciousness. I had to fight for my rights and my identity. I had to establish myself in a public context, and later on I had to learn how to transform my public image into a force for justice and change.
In 1972, I returned to Nicaragua to look for my parents after a devastating earthquake. For a while I didn’t find my parents, in the rubble and chaos – I saw how thousands of victims were left without medical assistance, without food, without homes, even though the government had received millions of dollars in disaster relief from the international community.
It was against this backdrop that Nicaraguans launched a revolution against the Somoza regime. My divorce coincided with the fall of the dictator.
It was at this juncture in history that The Sandinistas seized power in 1979. This proved to be a problem for the US Government; a Third World country was daring to break from the subservient development model.
In 1981, I travelled to Honduras with a US Congressional fact-finding mission. I visited a Salvadoran refugee camp in Honduran territory. During my visit, an armed death squad of about thirty-five men marched across the border from El Salvador, entered the refugee camp and rounded up about 40 refugees, tied their thumbs behind their backs, and proceeded to take them back to El Salvador, with the Honduran army’s blessing.
The relief workers and the member’s of our delegation decided to chase after them. We had no weapons — only cameras. This was a time when the Salvadorian army and its death squads were killing approximately 500 people per month. We knew what fate awaited the hostages. We ran behind them for about 20 minutes along a riverbed, accompanied by the captives’ families: mothers, wives, and children. During the chase, we screamed “we will denounce these atrocities to the world”.
As we approached the border, the fear that they were going to execute the refugees and us became more real. Finally, we came within earshot. They turned, pointed their M-16’s, and yelled, in Spanish: “these sons of bitches have caught up with us!” We screamed back “you will have to kill us all!” There was a long silence. For some unbeknownst reason – perhaps, I believed, God protected us – they let the refugees and us go.
However frightening this experience was for me, it was a turning point in my life: to be present when innocent people could have been killed made me to realise how easy it would have been for the death squads to massacre the refugees if foreign observers had not been present. Hundreds — thousands — millions — died in similar circumstances, with no one to shield them, no one to speak for them, no one to remember them.
When I returned to the United States from Honduras, I testified before The Congressional Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, to bring greater attention to the atrocities committed in El Salvador and Honduras, and to caution Congress about the US Government’s role in the regionalisation of the war in Central America.
Thus began my commitment to justice and human rights. It has been a long and challenging learning process: visiting war zones and refugee camps, denouncing massacres and human rights violations, testifying before the US Congress. It was around this time that I began to seek advice from two organisations: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
I had to learn how to focus public attention to human rights issues. Particularly, I had to learn the complex political system of the United States, in order to fight injustice and abuse in Latin America, the US and many other parts of the world.
In 1982, the US began funding the Contra-war against the Sandinista Government. In 1984, they mined Corinto harbour, and the world court declared the US a war criminal. In 1982 I began to speak out against President Reagan’s US-sponsored military intervention in Central America. At first the Nicaraguan revolution presented a viable alternative for the third world, they advocated a popular policy of independence and self-reliance but in the end it failed. We will never know if the revolution would have succeeded if President Reagan had not launched a Contra war against the Sandinistas. Regrettably, some of the leaders of the Revolution betrayed the very principles for which they fought the revolution. It was evident that if the Nicaraguan experiment was to flourish, other countries would follow. And, that would have given a “bad example” to other Latin American countries vital to American interests.
Nicaragua had a toll of more than 40,000 dead civilians. The country has never completely recovered from the war. It is now one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere.
During the eighties I denounced human rights violations at the hands of US-funded brutal and oppressive governments in Latin America.
Ed Hermann, in his book The Real Terror Network, highlights how nation states often engage in “wholesale” terror. The United States engaged in “wholesale” terror in Latin America during the last Century, all in the name of “Democracy” and to fight the “Communist threat”. The real issue was US world Dominance; US corporations plundered the natural resources of impoverished banana republics.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were tortured, murdered and disappeared in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Brazil, Argentina and the list goes on.
In 1944, the people of Guatemala overthrew the Dictator Jose Ubico; subsequently they held their first Democratic election. Dr. Arevalo Bermej was elected President and under his tenure a new constitution was drawn up based on the US constitution; 6000 schools were built, he achieved great progress in education and health. Arevalo was succeeded in another free election by Jacobo Arbenz. When he came to power, 2.2% of the population owned 70% of the country’s territory. He proposed a land reform. That’s when the problems began. The United Fruit Company (UFCO), the largest banana company in the world, was one of the big holders of unused land in Guatemala. The company complained to its many friends within the US Government. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles concluded that Guatemala had turned Communist.
The CIA orchestrated a coup and in 1954 the US overthrew the democratically elected government in Guatemala. They replaced it with a right wing dictatorship that was prepared to bend to the United Fruit Company demands. After four decades, and various US-backed oppressive governments, Guatemala was left with 200,000 people dead and “disappeared”, mostly peasants and Mayan Indians.
On another memorable 11th of September, that of 1973, hunter jets attacked the presidential palace in Santiago Chile with the backing of Nixon’s administration and the help of the CIA, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende. This was only the beginning of a 17-year long regime of terror in Chile. More than 3100 people died, countless thousands were tortured. And 1100 remain “disappeared” to this day.
From 1979 to 1992, the US supported a series of governments in El Salvador, which resulted in the brutal death of over 70,000 people. The Salvadorian army murdered in cold-blood Archbishop Oscar Romero. His assassins were never brought to justice. Three American nuns and a missionary were raped and shot in the head by five Salvadorian soldiers.
During Christmas in 1989, The US invaded Panama to overthrow the discredited former CIA agent, General Manuel Noriega who had now become an enemy. They killed 5,000 civilians in the process, and buried them in mass graves.
US policy in Latin America considered for several decades that Human rights or Democracy were secondary to the fight against the perceived “Communist threat”. Any attempt to achieve political change or social justice was perceived as Soviet and Cuban influenced. Their agents were the Latin American officers trained at the School of the Americas in Panama. Many went on to perfect their dirty warfare skills, and moved on to practice their lessons against the civilian population of their respective countries.
During my work in Latin America I have met countless mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, who were desperately looking for their “disappeared” and were clamouring for the culprits to be brought to justice. Those mothers, fathers, daughters and sons are the forgotten ones, they have no voice. Their cries for justice have gone mostly unheard. Many of the “disappeared” were executed by US sponsored governments or death squads.
Throughout the years I often wondered if we are indifferent to their plight because they are not like us. I mean like you.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
After more than a decade of working on human rights, women children and environmental issues and on behalf of indigenous peoples, I was asked to document mass rapes in Bosnia for the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress. In February 1993, I travelled through the former Yugoslavia with United Nations High Commission for Refugees personnel, and witnessed unspeakable horrors against innocent civilians because of their ethnic origins and their religion. I listen to horrific accounts of mass rape against Bosnian women.
I witnessed and documented random shelling, rapes, and abuse. I learned about people beaten to death with chains and sticks and metal rollers and burnt alive by the Serbs. The number of rapes has been estimated at tens of thousands. During the war one in ten of all Bosnian children had been killed. In addition, the emotional toll on the survivors was beyond comprehension. One American psychiatrist who spent months in Bosnia said that about 92 percent of the children used to think about suicide — as opposed to one percent of American children.
It was the brutality of the Nazi regime, brought into our own time. One could not see what I saw without being completely transformed – and committed to taking action.
As a woman and a mother, my first instinct was to save children. I went back in March 1993 to the town of Tuzla, and for nearly six weeks, I endured shelling by the Serbian army, the indifference of the United Nations, and the confusion of an escalating war to save two children who were severely ill.
I was asked by a Doctor, to evacuate Sabina, a little girl of 12, suffering from a form of leukaemia, which if treated on time has a 90 percent survival rate, and Mohammed, an 8-year-old boy suffering from a congenital heart problem, which could only be corrected by surgery. The Tuzla hospital could not provide adequate medical treatment for these two children. They were condemned to die if they stayed in Bosnia.
Consistent with the Serbian policy of shelling hospitals and schools, the Tuzla hospital had been a target. To protect the children, the paediatric ward was transferred to the windowless basement of the building. The ward was filled with amputee children. Prostheses were not available. One image is seared into my memory — a mother from Zepa pushing a wheelchair with her two little girls. Each had had a leg amputated. The operations had been performed by a medical assistant with a hacksaw — and without anaesthesia.
I requested that Sabina and Mohammed be transported in a United Nations Protection Force helicopter, and despite my limited access to the outside world, I managed to get formidable humanitarian efforts behind Sabina and Mohamed’s evacuation. The Albert Schweitzer Institute arranged for their hospital and medical treatment in the US. A Congressman and his staff worked tirelessly to help me obtain visas, and made countless telephone calls to plead with UNPROFOR.
However, although I met all the requirements set by UNPROFOR, they refused to provide a helicopter. They demanded an evacuation endorsement from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee for the Red Cross.
Both were granted, but this was not enough for them. Up to the last minute, they claimed the fax from UNHCR had not arrived. Four weeks into my stay, the doctor told me that Sabina only had ten days to live if she was not treated. All the while, Sabina was losing hope, and her will to live. She was weakening. She was in constant pain. Her big blue eyes became filled with doubt. She was unable to eat or get out of bed. She would force herself to smile when I mentioned America and the helicopters.
I realised there were only two options left — to let her die in Tuzla or to evacuate her by land. I went to see Major Phillip Jennings, the commander of the British battalion, and persuaded him to escort us on a harrowing, two-day journey through Bosnia’s mountainous terrain and war zones. We set off in a four-wheel drive vehicle, since we could not secure an ambulance. By the time we arrived in Vitez, Sabina was bleeding from her nose and vomiting blood. Three days after we arrived in Split, she suffered from brain haemorrhaging, fell into a coma, and died. A forty-minute helicopter ride three weeks earlier could have saved her life.
Mohammed came back with me to the United States, and after undergoing heart surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, he lived with me for almost a year. I cared for him in my own home, and took him with me almost everywhere until we were finally able to bring his family to the United States. Mohammed and his family lived in New Jersey for a couple of years at the end of the war his parents ask me to help them go back to Tuzla.
Unfortunately, the story of Mohammed is a story not just about what one person can do through caring, commitment, and perseverance — but also about institutional indifference and bureaucracy and how it can destroy lives.
A young girl like Sabina had no voice before a powerful international organisation like the U.N. I must speak for her and for others like her — to make sure they are not forgotten or ignored. Today in different parts of the Globe there are thousands of Mohammeds, and Sabinas – innocent children who have no access to medical care, either because their parents cannot afford it or because they are trapped in the middle of a war situation.
None of my past experiences prepared me for the environmental devastation and suffering I witnessed in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I met many residents afflicted with cancer, including leukaemia, women experiencing unusual spontaneous abortions, and children suffering from skin diseases as a consequence of direct exposure from bathing in toxic waters.
Texaco now known as Chevron-Texaco, is responsible for the worst oil related disaster in the history of Latin America, surpassing in scale the Exxon Valdez spill. While the dramatic Exxon Valdez spill occurred overnight, the environmental disaster in the Ecuadorian Amazon happened slowly, over the course of thirty-four years during which Texaco poisoned the residents of the Ecuadorian Amazon by dumping highly toxic waste and crude oil residue into the natural water system. Although Texaco left Ecuador in 1991, the contamination in the ecosystem at that time still exists and is ongoing.
What Texaco did in Ecuador is not just an environmental catastrophe and a human tragedy, but also a major potential corporate governance issue for the company. Last October, an outside oil remediation expert who has worked for many large oil companies assessed the damage caused by Texaco operations in Ecuador at approximately six billion dollars – and that does not include compensation to individuals, for health impacts and economic damage.
In 1971, Texaco made the fateful decision to discharge highly toxic wastewater, a by-product of oil extraction, directly into rivers, streams, lagoons, and swamps. In addition, the company carved 627 unlined toxic waste pits. Toxics leaching from these pits contaminated the entire groundwater and ecosystem in an area three times the size of Manhattan.
Since there is no running water in the region 30 thousand people, including thousands of children, are forced to drink poisoned water from streams and rivers where Texaco discharged its toxic wastewater.
ChevronTexaco claims that there is no scientific evidence linking the company’s drilling practices with the high incidence of cancer and other health problems found in communities near its oil production zones. Three scientific studies have been published in prestigious international journals, including one that was done under the auspices of the London School of Tropical Medicine that documents a growing health crisis including 8 types of cancer and spontaneous abortions.
Chevron-Texaco needs to recognize the company’s moral and ethical responsibility to remediate the massive contamination Texaco has left behind. We all want to be part of a profitable corporation; however, innocent human life and the environment should not be sacrificed in the name of profit. Unquestionably, the contamination left behind in the Ecuadorian Amazon is and has been contributing to the death of innocent people, including children, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Time is of the essence.
ChevronTexaco claims its strives to adhere to responsible corporate citizenship, known as the “ChevronTexaco Way”: The Company has pledged “to conduct business in a socially responsible and ethical manner … support universal human rights … protect the environment … and respect indigenous cultures.” However, ChevronTexaco’s drilling practices in the Ecuadorian Amazon have fallen far short of these professed pledges.
Some of you may think that there is little connection between these separate stories — of Honduran refugees, seriously ill Bosnian children, and threaten people in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
These are stories of forgotten people, who cannot reach the media, and lobby Government officials, congressmen, members of Parliament and international institutions for rights and justice. They seldom have a voice, they are members of the must vulnerable segments of society, children, women, indigenous people, victims of sexual abuse, discrimination, Mass rape, oppression, injustice, ethnic cleansing. You can see why I am committed to speak out for them — the link that connects all the issues I have been involved in my life is Freedom, Equality and Justice for all.
But for every victim of oppression we can save, there are hundreds whose names we will never know. For every child, for every Mohammed we can rescue, there are millions who die in obscurity, with no one to name, no one to care about their lives.
People often ask me why I have become engaged in so many issues and causes, and why I take so many risks in doing so. With all the problems we face today, for me it is more a question of whether I can afford not to be involved – HOW CAN WE LIVE WITH OURSELEVES WHEN WE ALLOW SO MANY INNOCENT MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN TO DIE AROUND US!
I take as my role model one of the greatest and most courageous American leaders, Eleanor Roosevelt. As first lady, and after her husband’s death, she did not speak for any one cause or commitment – we do not remember and revere her for her work on child literacy, or her work with the hungry. We remember her simply as a crusader for justice — a woman who knew that ignorance, indigence, violence and fear were not different isolated problems. They were all children of the same neglect — they were all products of the same indifference to the world around us.
You see, the problem is really of our making – and it is ours to solve. That is why it has no border, no nationality, no gender, and no distinctions of race or class.
It matters to me — that one billion people on this earth do not have enough food to eat, even though enough food is available, on other parts of the planet.
That the gap between the rich nations and the pour developing nations is widening and that America today has the greatest gap of any advanced nation on earth, between the rich and the poor These are not my issues — they are our issues. They are issues that may not reach the media, but they invade our humanity.
There is so much each one of us can do to make a difference. We are at a dangerous juncture in the history of mankind. Since President George W. Bush declared the war on terror, human rights and civil liberties are threatened, since, he appears to regard human rights and civil liberties in direct conflict with security. The rule of International law has been undermined by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair’s decision to launch an illegal war against Iraq, implementing the concept of pre-emptive strike. During the last two years we have seen the US employ torture against their prisoners in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay in flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention. We need to defend our principles and values, Human Rights, Civil Liberties and the rule of International Law, if we don’t our world will further descend into a state of chaos. If we want to live in a world at peace we must stand firm and not succumb to their pressures. We need to have our voice heard on issues that go beyond our personal lives, and that will affect our countries, and the rest of the world.
If my own stories hold any lessons, it is that we need not be powerless in the face of these problems. With a small measure of courage and commitment, each and every one of us can make a difference, you must remember that an individual can change the course of history.
Thank you for listening — and best of luck for a wonderful future and one in which each and everyone of us can make a change to those many lives all over the word that are helpless and hopeless without our care compassion and commitment to help make our world a much better place for the whole of humanity, not just us the privileged few.
Receiving this award will regenerate my commitment to continue to campaign for their human rights, civil liberties and social justice. I will use the prize money to establish the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation.
Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation
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