French writer and diplomat Stéphane Hessel wrote a book, Time for Outrage, which has sold millions of copies and inspired youth protests across the world
At 94, Stéphane Hessel is agile, witty and energetic and wears a perfectly ironed shirt and an obligatory tie. It is hard to believe that his lifetime experiences included underground activity in the French Resistance Movement during the Second World War, imprisonment and a death sentence in Buchenwald, which he managed to miraculously escape, participation in creating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and half a century of diplomatic work.
His short brochure Time for Outrage (original French title: Indignez-vous!) was published 18 months ago and became a bestseller to the surprise of the author himself. It has been published in over 40 languages and sold a total of four million copies. There is also a Ukrainian translation which is waiting for a publisher.
Crowds of critics are looking for yet failing to find explanations for the sudden success of this short 30-page text. The right accuse Hessel of left-wing populism, while the left criticize him for excessive rapprochement with the centrists. Several pro-Israel organizations in France have sued him over devastating criticism of Israel's policy in Palestinian territory.
Last summer, his book inspired Spanish Los Indignados to stage stunning protests. Later, similar movements emerged in Belgium, Italy, New Zealand, Taiwan, Latin America and Australia. “It’s just a coincidence in time. The success of my modest achievement is that I have simply captured the sentiments of our time.”
CONFISCATING THE FUTURE
U.W.: Mr. Hessel, you write in your book that “resorting to violence is an indicator of present weakness and a guarantee of failure in the future.” But just look — two young men were sentenced to death in Belarus on dubious charges of terrorism. In Ukraine and Russia, the opposition is being eliminated from political life under any pretext as its leaders are being thrown behind bars. Such examples abound across the world.
I am not too familiar with your situation because I have never been to Ukraine. But I have heard that you are facing a number of problems that outrage young people and spur them to protest. Perhaps it is not confiscation of the state’s material resources but of the future of the next generations committed by oligarchs. We live in a world in which most people do not have democratic governments. The world oligarchy is manipulating the financial markets, which, in turn, dictate their policies to governments. Even if the states want to get rid of this kind of economic control and pressure, they do not always succeed. But we need to change the situation. Otherwise we will not be able to build a harmonized society. Of course, there is progress. Dictatorships are slowly giving place to more democratic governments in Argentina, Brazil and Chile. Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps Morocco seem to be next.
U.W.: You say that international politics makes insufficient demands of those who try to solve national problems via violence. Where can more effective leverage be found to put authoritarian regimes under pressure? What resources make it possible to counteract them efficiently today?
I am convinced that nonviolent methods may bring the best results. Ukraine has shown the world an example of this. It had a nonviolent revolution. Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia also divided the state into two new states without using force. Gorbachev made it possible for the USSR to fall apart in a nonviolent way. What we are seeing today in Tunisia and Egypt (events in Lybia are somewhat more complicated) proves that young people have opportunities to mobilize themselves and win democratic changes for themselves today. This is my hope. My little book has been written to remind young people: do not think you can't do anything! Do not think that the economy can develop and the states operate only in this way. No. New means of communication available to our generation permit us to immediately establish contact with any place in the world. Perhaps we need to think not so much about some kind of world government or common planetary state that would replace the 192 UN members as about a civic movement that would address the issues of water, renewable energy, housing, poverty, etc. About 15 years ago, the ATTAC movement emerged and tried to put pressure on various governments on the world level. Such projects, when they focus on clear specific goals, can achieve results.
U.W.: The Los Indignados movement which started in Spain draws its ideology from your book…
It was a coincidence in time. My book was published in October, and protest movements emerged in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain and other countries several months later. Perhaps they used some of my reasoning. But it is clear that they, not I, are demanding and making changes.
U.W.: So were you simply fortunate to sense and describe the sentiments of our time that are shared by a huge number of people across the world?
I was lucky to say some simple but important things in the 30 pages of my text. It is a great thing that they have turned out to be useful. Sometimes events go far beyond what the author would want to see. For example, these cruel, brutal fights in Spain during the protests staged by Los Indignados. These things are inevitable, because violence is always tempting. But I believe that nonviolent action is more efficient. In general, I am very pleased that many people in different parts of the world have taken interest in my modest work and are looking for ways to resist events that outrage them.
U.W.: France’s Committee of Jewish Organizations has taken you to court over the scathing appraisal your book makes of Israel's actions against Palestine. Do you think that peace is possible between them?
I have been to Palestine, the Gaza Strip and Tel Aviv a number of times. I am very sad that this conflict is not being settled. I know Palestinians well enough to be sure that they do not have intentions to wage a war against Israel. They simply want to have their own territory which has been allotted to them by the UN. Today Israel has, so to speak, a non-democratic government. But the country may get rid of it and elect someone like Yitzhak Rabin. Then a solution will be found. I am convinced that peace is possible, but it will take international powers like the USA and the EU to put pressure on the Israeli government and demand changes.
U.W.: Why do you think the idea of creating an independent Palestinian state failed to receive the support of the UN General Assembly in September 2011?
Most UN members support the idea of a Palestinian state. But because decisions are taken by the Security Council, which includes at least one government closely linked to Israel – I'm speaking about the United States – Palestine has, unfortunately, not managed to overcome this obstacle on the way to international recognition. But it was recently recognized by UNESCO, which is already progress.
U.W.: In what countries was your book published?
There are more than 40 of them: Japan, Argentina, South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany and others. It is all very good, but I emphasize that it is the outraged in different parts of the world rather than I who bear responsibility for both their struggle and its consequences. If my Ukrainian friends want to achieve a better political and economic system in their country, they have to pin their hopes on themselves rather than on me or my book. They must act at their own discretion and not be afraid others' indignation or of their oligarchs. The world is not static. Organized resistance can indeed win.
DEMOCRACY IS NATURAL
U.W.: As a professional diplomat, what is your opinion about the way the Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are operating now? How efficient are they? To what extent do they respond to the challenges of our times?
The OSCE and the Council of Europe are very much needed institutions, but they are not powerful enough today. We need to have progress in the economy but also in politics. Democracy is a European value. It is a natural element of our common space to which Ukraine, no doubt, also belongs. Our common values are law, justice and freedom. The more we facilitate comfortable conditions for democracy in states like Ukraine and Turkey, the more chances Europe will have to respond to contemporary challenges with dignity. Europe is already playing an important part, but it must step up its activities to reduce economic and environmental injustice in the world and strengthen European values.
U.W.: Do you think that Germany, where you were born, should be added to the permanent members of the UN Security Council?
I am convinced that we need to reform the Security Council. It will not be simple, because the foundational UN charter gives excessive rights to the five victors of the Second World War. But the world is changing. We need a Security Council with more permanent members. Perhaps we need to include not only Germany. Another thing that is necessary to do today is to cancel the right of veto. That is to say, we need to move from absolute consensus to a vote by two-thirds. This reform of the UN was already elaborated by a special working group when I worked in this institution seven years ago, in 1995, but it never materialized.
There was no pressure from civil societies in the stakeholder states. Your generation must complete this work so that important changes in the governance of our planet can finally become a reality.
U.W.: Do you agree that after the end of the Second World War its five victors, which are now the permanent members of Security Council, essentially occupied the positions of the world aristocracy in international politics and in a sense appropriated the authority to run the planet?
After the war it was necessary to find a model of operation that would make the United States and the USSR work together. It was not easy. Each of these two states had to be given ways of protecting itself against a majority that could turn out to be hostile. We were able to make the USSR a member of the UN Security Council only when it became clear that there was no clear majority opposed to Moscow. A situational majority of this type appeared during the Korean War. And then we were able to circumvent the Security Council and pass a decision in the General Assembly. But it was an exception to the rule. Therefore, the way in which the UN is operating today is historically understandable. But 55 years have passed, and there is an urgent need for reform.
U.W.: What do you think about the prospects of expanding the European Union and its future? An increasing number of skeptics say that the European project is doomed and even the EU may soon cease to exist.
A lot depends on how responsible the young generation of Europeans turns out to be. Many changes are now happening in Latin America. But Europe, which could have been developing dynamically, seems to have been treading water in the past 20 years. No-one wants to yield even a small part of his sovereignty. But without this sacrifice it is impossible to build a federated Europe in which Ukraine, I believe, must find its place in the future.