Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Role of Law in the Struggle for Human Rights

The Role of Law in the Struggle for Human Rights


by Baltasar Garzon May 15, 2011



Baltasar Garzon has served on the Spanish national

criminal court for most of the last two decades, in

which role he has investigated and brought charges in

cases involving organized crime, terrorism and state

terrorism, and, notably, an indictment of former

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet under the legal

theory of universal jurisdiction for crimes against

humanity. Garzon is currently suspended from the

Spanish court after charges were brought against him

for exceeding his authority by investigating crimes

committed by the Franco regime. On May 14, he received

the first ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism.

ALBA (Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive) is an

organization that promotes discussion about the Spanish

Civil War. Below is Garzon's acceptance speech.


Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, members of

ALBA, representatives of the Puffin Foundation,

authorities, amigas y amigos:


Seventy five years ago in my country, Spain, one of the

darkest and saddest chapters in the history of humanity

began. It lasted more than forty years and even today,

after 34 years of democracy, it has not been

definitively read or closed, or as such, overcome. An

unjust and illegal war, though perhaps all wars are,

was begun in 1936 by those who scorned the freedom,

legality and democracy of the Republic. It was done by

those for whom the life of their equals held little

value and who, by their decisions, launched a bloodbath

between brothers and sisters, with tens of thousands of

them tortured, disappeared, and executed without trial;

thirty thousand children (known as the Lost Children of

Francoism) were stolen from their families simply

because their parents were supporters of the Republic,

a crime that, according to the new regime, made them

unfit to raise their own children.


But it was not just a civil war. The fascist regimes in

Germany and Italy aided the rebels led by General

Franco, while the western democracies stood by, silent

and motionless. But International Solidarity soon

stepped up. Forty thousand men and women from fifty two

countries, including twenty eight hundred from the

United States, forming the International Brigades to

fight against fascism in Spain, offering their lives

for an ideal.


The American Volunteers were known as the Abraham

Lincoln Brigade. Among them were some seventy five

women, ninety African-Americans, and nearly thirty

percent of them were Jewish. It was the first military

unit in US history in which white soldiers served under

the command of a black commander, Oliver Law. We know

that nearly a third of them (nine hundred) lie forever

buried in the Spanish earth. The rest, on their return

to the US were persecuted by the McCarthy Commission,

which labeled them "Premature Antifascists."


For me, as for so many others throughout the world,

they are an example of courage and solidarity; they are

heroes who chose to fight for the promise of freedom

and democracy; whose convictions led them to offer the

ultimate sacrifice and suffer purges in their own

country; who took part in all the important social

struggles of their day: from the Mississippi Freedom

Summer to opposition to the Vietnam war, from US

intervention in Central America in the eighties to the

invasion of Iraq. They were the kind of people who

fight against the worst cancer of humanity: indifference.


It is our duty to carry this idea of solidarity

forward, as ALBA has done for the last 32 years, in the

areas of culture, politics, and human rights activism,

as the Puffin Foundation continues to do. I want to

take this opportunity to salute Perry Rosenstein,

president of the Puffin Foundation, who by establishing

this Award fosters the creation of an informal network

of allied organizations, all working on issues of human

rights, historical memory, and the legacy of the

International Brigades. The joining of forces of these

two institutions--ALBA and the Puffin Foundation--is

key to reactivating definitively the fight for truth,

justice and reparation for the victims of so many wars

and massacres that, today as in the past, scourge our

world. Initiatives like this restore our belief in the

possibility of regenerating the world.


With humility and gratitude I accept this award given

to me today, for precisely today is the anniversary of

my suspension from my position in the Spanish judicial

system for trying to investigate the crimes of the

Franco regime. That day I was surrounded by friends,

and today I am too. Thank you for being here.


While I am not worthy of this honor, I would be lying

if I did not recognize that it makes me extremely proud

to receive it, for what it means for the commitment to

the future of this passionate fight against impunity. I

am just a judge who has always tried to comply strictly

with the law in every case, with a universalist vision,

integrated with the basic values that give sense and

coherence to the International Community, beginning

with respect for human dignity as the foundation that

underlies the doctrines of Human Rights. I am one of

many who struggle against the theory that the course of

the history of the world can only be changed by the

force of arms, for only by force, they tell us, can

peace, security, and the world order be maintained.


Yet this is not true. To give up guarantees and turn to

the powers that be and to the use of techniques that

contradict the fundamental principles of the rule of

law, is not only unacceptable legally, in the long run

it also does more harm than good. Another way is

possible. And that way must be led by Justice and the

Rule of Law, to protect and defend the victims of war,

terrorism, and mass crimes that have sown the earth

with death and desolation.


All of us, my dear friends, have a moral and even legal

obligation to fight against amnesia and indifference,

just as we must fight against those who instigated or

consented to barbaric acts. To do so means holding high

the banner of dignity and human rights to shore up the

crumbling edifice of the International Community, and

finally turning away from the path of illegality and

spaces where the rule of law does not exist, all in the

name of the so-called war against terror. To do so

means turning toward spaces of equality and the

eradication of impunity. But impunity, which had been

defeated, after decades of struggle, by the right to

truth and the right to justice, which transform memory

into one of the most genuine driving forces of the

historical reconstruction of a people, has once more

gained ground at the expense of justice in many

countries, including Spain, which has gone from being a

pioneer in the application of the principle of

Universal Jurisdiction to cowering in the corner of

cowardice, neither wanting nor able to confront its

past or look at itself.


Some two hundred thousand men and women, murdered,

executed without trial, tortured, disappeared, lie

buried in roadside ditches, in fields, in cemeteries,

unidentified, a source of shame for the Spanish people

that is so proud of its Transition from dictatorship to

democracy, in which, incidentally, any possible

resolution of this became impossible.


What is the moral caliber of those who, admitting the

necessity of investigating mass crimes in other

countries, nonetheless refuse to do so in their own



Judges have the obligation to investigate those facts,

no matter the personal or professional risks, in order

to give a valid response to the human rights of the

victims, which consists of the right to truth, to

justice and to reparation. Justice, to fulfill its

function, must create and consolidate the principle of

universal victim as the nucleus of this new vision of

an active Universal Jurisdiction in the pursuit of the

perpetrators of crimes against humanity, above any

particular political, economic or diplomatic interests

that, for circumstantial reasons, seek to secure their



Kant's concept of Justice based on respect for the

human rights of any individual and of international

justice exercised by independent tribunals such as the

Inter American Court for Human Rights, the European

Tribunal for Human Rights, or the International

Criminal Court, are the best proof that this enterprise

is feasible. Sixty three years ago the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights was signed as a clear

project of international coexistence based on the

respect for the guarantee of all the rights of all

citizens of the world.


Today this declaration is still waiting to be put into

action. But in the face of the debilitation and failure

of ideologies with pretentions of universality, the

only language common to all Humanity is the language of

human rights, as a universal reference to guide us in

an era of globalization, economically on the verge of

collapse and politically opportunistic, in which the

values of ethics and responsibility have been



For these reasons, it is imperative that we take

militant action in defense of those rights, and a

response to the illicit activities of international

corporations in such sensitive areas as poverty, the

distribution of wealth, the development and

administration of natural resources, protection of the

environment and the ecosystem; we must take action

against those who have thrown millions of people into

bankruptcy through massive fraud, and whose disdain of

the lives of others leads them to design policies that

justify the persecution or discrimination against

people for their origin, religion, race or gender.


It is time, once again, for civil society to confront

these new challenges. To do nothing is tantamount to

contributing to the continuation of this situation. The

road without question is difficult, but we must go down

it. The road is perhaps utopian, but one in which

utopia means the hope that must guide men and women to

achieve a world more just in solidarity with those less



More than three centuries ago in Switzerland an epic

confrontation took place between power and reason,

between conscience and violence, between Castellio and

Calvin. Stephan Zweig describes it aptly in his work:

"From the point of view of the spirit, the words

victory and defeat acquire a different meaning. And for

this reason, we must remind the world again and again,

a world that only sees the victors, that those who

would raise their dominion over the tombs and the

destroyed existence of millions of beings, are not the

true heroes, rather it is those others who, without

taking recourse to force, succumbed before power, like

Castellio before Calvin, in his fight for the freedom

of conscience and for the final coming of humanity on



Now it is up to us to continue the fight for human

rights, for human dignity, and against impunity.


Thank you.


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