This year, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a woman from Iran, a Muslim country in the Middle East. My selection will make women in Iran, and much farther afield, believe in themselves. Women constitute half of the population of every country. To disregard women and bar them from active participation in political, social, economic and cultural life is tantamount to depriving the entire population of every society of half its capability. The patriarchal culture and the discrimination against women, particularly in the Islamic countries, cannot continue.
Today coincides with the 55th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration that begins with the recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. Yet disasters distance humankind from the idealistic world of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2002, almost 1.2 billion human beings lived in glaring poverty, earning less than one dollar a day. More than 50 countries were caught up in war or natural disasters. AIDS has claimed 22 million lives, and orphaned 13 million children.
And some states have violated the universal principles and laws of human rights by using the events of Sept. 11 and the war on terrorism as a pretext. Several United Nations resolutions have underlined that all states must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with their obligations under international law, in particular international human- rights and humanitarian law. However, regulations restricting human rights and basic freedoms have been justified under the cloak of the war on terrorism.
Worse, these principles are also violated in Western democracies, in other words countries that were themselves among the initial codifiers of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hundreds of individuals who were arrested in the course of military conflicts have been imprisoned in Guantanamo, without the benefit of the rights stipulated under the international Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Why is it that some decisions and resolutions of the UN Security Council are binding, while other council resolutions have no binding force? Why is it that in the past 35 years, dozens of UN resolutions concerning the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state of Israel have not been implemented — yet, in the past 12 years, the state and people of Iraq were twice subjected to attack, military assault, economic sanctions, and, ultimately, military occupation?
I am an Iranian, a descendent of Cyrus the Great. This emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that “he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it.” He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should be studied in the history of human rights.
I am a Muslim. In the Koran, the Prophet of Islam has said: “Thou shalt believe in thy faith and I in my religion.” That same divine book sees the mission of all prophets as that of inviting all human beings to uphold justice. Since the advent of Islam, Iran’s civilization and culture have become imbued and infused with humanitarianism, respect for the life, belief and faith of others, propagation of tolerance and avoidance of violence, bloodshed and war.
The luminaries of Iranian literature, such as Mowlavi [known in the West as Rumi], are emissaries of this humanitarian culture. Their message manifests itself in this poem by Saadi: “The sons of Adam are limbs of one another/Having been created of one essence.”
The people of Iran have seen consecutive conflicts between tradition and modernity for more than 100 years. By resorting to ancient traditions, some are trying to see the world through the eyes of their predecessors and to deal with the problems and difficulties of the existing world by virtue of the values of the ancients. But many others, while respecting their cultural past and their religion, seek not to lag behind the caravan of civilization, development and progress. The people of Iran deem participation in public affairs to be their right; they want to be masters of their own destiny.
This conflict can be seen in many Muslim states. Some Muslims, under the pretext that democracy and human rights are not compatible with the traditional structure of Islamic societies, have justified despotic governments, and continue to do so. Islam is a religion whose first sermon begins with the word “Recite!” Such a sermon and message cannot be in conflict with knowledge, wisdom, freedom of opinion and expression, and cultural pluralism.
The discriminatory plight of women in Islamic states, whether in the sphere of civil law or in the realm of social, political and cultural justice, has its roots in the male-dominated culture prevailing in these societies, not in Islam. This patriarchal culture does not tolerate freedom and democracy or equal rights of men and women, because it would threaten the traditional position of the rulers of that culture.
Some have mooted the idea of a clash of civilizations, or prescribed war and military intervention for this region. One must say to them, if you consider international human-rights laws, including a nation’s right to determine its own destiny, to be universal rights — and if you believe in the superiority of parliamentary democracy over other political systems — then you cannot selfishly think only of your own security and comfort.
The decision by the Nobel peace committee to award the 2003 prize to me, as the first Iranian and the first woman from a Muslim country, inspires me and millions of Iranians and nationals of Islamic states with the hope that our efforts toward the realization of human rights and the establishment of democracy in our respective countries will enjoy the support of international civil society. This prize belongs to the people of Iran, Islamic states, and the people of the South.
I have spoken of human rights as a guarantor of freedom, justice and peace. When human rights are not manifested in codified laws or put into effect by states, then human beings will be left with no choice but to rebel against oppression. If the 21st century wishes to free itself from the cycle of violence, and avoid repetition of the disasters of the 20th century, there is no other way except by understanding and putting into practice every human right, for all mankind — irrespective of race, gender, faith, nationality or social status. I anticipate that day.
This article was orginally published in the Globe and Mail and has been adapted from the speech Shirin Ebadi in Oslo on formally accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.