Standing in a Silent Crowd, Speaking for Those Who Can't
By Brigitta Ohlsson, Swedish Minister for European Affairs
A great politician once said the wave of the future is the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.
These words by John F. Kennedy have inspired me and so many others during my political career. And I think that this conference is about courage – it’s about standing out in a silent crowd, it’s about speaking for those who can’t.
I am so glad and so inspired to be here joining you tonight. Some of you I have met before, and some of you are new friends. Some are role models for me, especially Mr. Harry Wu sitting here. I met Harry a couple of years ago and I’ve been so inspired by his struggle in empowering the Chinese people struggling for democracy. He is a true role model and hero for me.
And I would also like to thank Fojo in collaboration with the World Press Freedom Committee, UNESCO, the Open Society Institute, the World Association of Newspapers, International Media Support and Civil Rights Defenders for arranging this conference. It is great that you are giving us the opportunity to meet the people who truly inspire, and who show how one individual can spark the spirit that change a whole society. They also show who how to be practical, how to act, how to combine professionalism with activism; how to survive economically, and find solutions on security; how to make real change.
I am so proud of being the Swedish Minister of European Union Affairs in addressing this eminent conference and as a longtime, now former, member of the board of SIDA, the Swedish International Development Agency, I am pleased that it is the main sponsor because democracy and freedom of the press, freedom of speech are top priorities in the agency.
The fact that Sweden, with the world’s oldest press law, actively supports free speech by offering sanctuary is one of the most efficient ways to promote freedom in our democracy efforts in other countries, and the Swedish government is also pushing for more Swedish cities to become safe havens for persecuted writers.
In just a few weeks, Europe will again celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It marked the end of a totalitarian empire and the end of an era. Out of the rubble grew the hope of a better world and a world in which freedom of speech is universally respected.
As you meet here today, more than 20 years later, it is the same hope that guides us. We have undoubtedly witnessed progress. The legacy of 1989 has not gone to waste, but the global picture with respect to freedom of speech is becoming increasingly gloomy, and we need to act together.
In recent years, the share of democratic countries in the world has decreased from 64 to 60 per cent. The number of democracies has gone down from 123 to 116 countries, according to the latest figures from Freedom House. 116, the number for 2010, is the lowest in 15 years. The situation regarding freedom of the press and freedom of information is even more worrying. Over the past seven years, there has been a steady decline in freedom of expression around the world, again according to Freedom House.
Therefore, I was overwhelmed to learn that the Norwegian Nobel Committee had awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. And today, Guillermo Fariñas was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament. Such respect to true human rights defenders sends a loud and clear message to freedom activists around the world.
We see your courage, we applaud your work, and we will never abandon you.
The question now is what each of us will do to reinforce that message. I want you all to think about that during this conference. And here is what I will do:
I will do everything in my power to push the European Union into taking the lead in promoting democracy and human rights worldwide. Freedom activists and journalists who are persecuted deserve our support. And the European Union has the power to provide that support.
A review that was made recently within the Swedish government offices shows that only a small proportion of European Union development aid goes directly to promoting democracy and human rights, and even less assistance goes to the promotion of democratization. When we launched "Freedom from Oppression," the Swedish government’s new policy for democracy support, we increased that share in Sweden’s foreign aid budget substantially. And I will work to promote similar reforms at the European Union level.
The first priority in Sweden’s new policy is to strengthen freedom of expression and the development of free, independent media. To achieve this, the Swedish government works toward: 1) giving foreign aid to initiatives aimed at promoting free media; 2) promoting freedom of expression in the European Union, the United Nations and the Council of Europe; 3) helping to provide legal protection for media workers across the world; 4) providing support for journalists training programs and independent journalists associations; and 5) supporting projects aimed at improving laws that protect freedom of the press and freedom of expression, as well as compliance with existing legislation.
Moreover, out of 17 of the world’s worst dictatorships, according to the Freedom House annual ranking, the European Union has relations with 12 of them. I will work actively to reduce that number because it is unacceptable that European foreign aid is still allocated on the basis of old colonial ties, rather than the promotion of basic human rights.
Europe is far from perfect in the struggle for human rights. We still have a lot of work to do on our own continent. I am thinking about harassment and violence toward Roma people, and immigrants, a problem we have in many European countries. That’s shameful.
We must do our utmost to honor the fundamental values that the European Union was founded upon, and which are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Lisbon Treaty, and fight for these rights globally.
Today, I also think of Dawit Isaac, a Swedish citizen and journalist imprisoned in Eritrea without trial since 2001. Yesterday, I met his brother, Isaias, a longtime friend of mine, in Strasbourg. He is trying to launch a campaign for the release of his brother.
I would like to end by quoting Lech Walesa. He led the fight for freedom in eastern parts of Europe. He said, “We hold our heads high despite the price we have paid, because freedom is priceless.”
We all know from being amidst people struggling for freedom that it is definitely worth fighting for. I know a lot of you have a hard struggle. You have suffered a lot on a personal, political level and professional level. I know that fighting so hard is very tough. But in the long run we can do no less.