Colombo Telegraph

When A Prophet Speaks: Stephane Hessel On Sri Lanka

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

A prophet spoke at the UNESCO in Paris this week, though he joked that having lived for 90 years, he had written thirty pages and found he had been turned into ‘a rock star’.

Stephane Hessel, born in Germany in the year of the Russian revolution, is 95 years old. Anti-Nazi Resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor, diplomat and writer, he was 93 when he wrote a political essay of 13 pages, which grew into a booklet of only thirty pages, called Indignez–vous! In English this means ‘Be Indignant’ while the English language translation has been published under the title ‘Time for Outrage’. Between October and December 2010 it sold more than 600,000 copies. It has since sold a million copies in France alone and has been translated into 30 languages, selling 3.5 million copies worldwide.

The left leaning newspaper Liberation, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, says the booklet “crystallizes the spirit of the time”. The conservative National Post of Canada says it created “the sort of stir…Emile Zola did when he published J’accuse!” The liberal US periodical The Nation says the text “anticipated the spirit of subsequent student demonstrations in France and Britain as it did a wave of revolt that is challenging dictatorship in the Middle East”. Calling it ‘the Handbook of the Revolution’, opined that “Hessel himself is playing the role of instigator and analyst of the rolling wave of protest movements cropping up around the globe”.

In 2011, he was named one of the world’s top thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine.

After Hessel’s booklet, the term ‘indignant’ has become a catchphrase of the nonviolent global movements of resistance against the burdens of the economic crisis which have eroded the welfare and living standards of the people and are widely perceived as un-shared or unfairly shared, and unjust. The Spanish movement which occupied Madrid last year called itself ‘los Indignados’ and the Cuban Minister of Higher Education, the youngest member of ruling Communist party’s Political bureau, opened his address to the high level segment of the UNESCO General Conference of 2011, with the sentence “all over the world the people are indignant about the crisis caused and the burdens imposed by the oligarchic financial system of global capitalism.”

Stephane Hessel was invited to speak at UNESCO by the Working Group on the ‘Culture of Peace’ (a thematic slogan of a former Director General of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor). The meeting chaired by Mohamed El Zahaby, the Permanent Delegate of Egypt who is also the chair of the Non-Aligned (NAM) group at UNESCO, was on the topic ‘Indignez-Vous, An Essential Step towards a World of Peace’.

When asked by a participant at the seminar for his prognostication concerning the current period of global crisis and instability, he said: “the repression will fuel further cycles of protest. People will increasingly refuse to accept the unacceptable”.

Stephane Hessel’s father, a German-Jewish writer (who worked with the iconic Marxist intellectual Walter Benjamin on the first German translation of Marcel Proust), and his mother (a Prussian beauty), were the models for the characters in the novel, and later, the famous movie directed by the legendary Francois Truffaut, Jules et Jim.

Stephane Hessel graduated from the University of Paris’ elite Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS), joined the French army, was a prisoner of war of the Nazis, escaped from prison and joined the French Resistance led by General Charles de Gaulle, indignant at the collaboration with the Nazis that France’s Marshal Petain engaged in having declared the so-called New Order which replaced the great universalist slogans of the French revolution – Liberty, Equality and Fraternity–with ‘work, family and nation’. Hessel was 23 years old.

As a Resistance fighter he was parachuted into France, captured and tortured by the Germans and incarcerated in the notorious concentration camp Buchenwald. He escaped while being transferred to Bergen-Belsen camp.

He became a diplomat after WW II and at age 31, helped to draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, working with Eleanor Roosevelt. At the meeting in Paris on Feb 21st, Stephane Hessel noted that the Declaration was the first official international document to use the term ‘universal’ in its title.

He has been awarded the Council of Europe’s North-South prize in 2004, the Legion of Honour –the highest honour of France–in 2006, and the UNESCO/Bilbao prize for ‘the promotion of a culture of Human Rights’ in 2008.

A strong supporter of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, Hessel, of Jewish origin, is renowned for his defence of Palestinians under the Occupation, his opposition to the Gaza war of 2008 and his solidarity with the Israeli movement for peace through dialogue. His wife is the author of a pamphlet entitled ‘Gaza, I Write Your Name’ (in a deliberate echo of the poet Paul Eluard’s famous ‘Liberty, I Write Your Name’). In his remarks at UNESCO on Feb 21st he stridently exclaimed ‘Bravo!’ and clapped in salute to UNESCO’s admission last year of Palestine as a full member, despite the strong objections of the USA.

Speaking at the UNESCO, Hessel  identified as the three main problems facing the world today, the growing gap between the very rich on the one hand and poor and less rich on the other; the dangerous destruction of the ecology of the planet; and the threat of terrorism. He urged rapid reform as the best solution to all these threats.

Responding to my intervention as Ambassador of Sri Lanka during the discussion, Stephane Hessel set out three interlocking theses as observations:

“We are pleased to hear from that beautiful island, Sri Lanka, which has until recently, and for so long, experienced such great violence; violence originating from the various components of the country.

What is vital is that there must be no return to violence. This can be achieved only through the convergence and dialogue of non-violent youth movements of all the component communities.

Of course, the real guarantee of peace lies in the sphere of education, and as long as education does not promote the values of peace rooted in mutual comprehension, it will accentuate the adversarial element between the components and create the climate in which violence may return.”   

Hessel said that he had followed up his path-breaking booklet ‘Indignez-vous!’ with a sequel, bearing the injunction Engage-vous! (‘Be Engaged’ or simply, ‘Engage!’), co-authored with Edgar Morin, a well-known French philosopher associated with UNESCO. He defined a true intellectual as “one who engages himself with an objective greater than himself; a human objective for progress”. In his slim booklet Hessel reiterates his guiding goal as the establishment of “a true social and economic democracy”. He spoke with enthusiasm about a global colloquium which he hoped to organise, bringing together all of the non-violent resistance movements of ‘the indignant ones’.

When asked by a participant at the seminar for his prognostication concerning the current period of global crisis and instability, he said: “the repression will fuel further cycles of protest. People will increasingly refuse to accept the unacceptable”.  And then, the 95 year old Stephane Hessel skipped nimbly out of the UNESCO hall with the agility and zest of a frolicsome teenager, announcing that he had to give an interview to a radio station.

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