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Human rights activists all over Europe are still learning from the example of Andrei Sakharov

Strasbourg 14/12/2009
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Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was a unique person of whom both Russia and Europe should be proud. He became a voice of moral conscience which could not be silenced even by the repressive machine of a super power. His principled messages inspired others and contributed to the non-violent, revolutionary changes of 1989 and thereafter. He died in the midst of those upheavals but had set an example which continues to influence the work for justice and human rights in Russia, other states of the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe.

Sakharov was not meant to become a one-man-opposition against Soviet misrule. He was at an early age a brilliant physicist, richly rewarded by the government for his work on the hydrogen bomb.

The turning point came with his concern about the risks of nuclear weapons and his appeals for a ban on all nuclear tests. He demanded an honest debate about the danger of thermonuclear war, but no one in power listened. Gradually he became more and more critical: his three decade long campaign for reason had started.

He certainly wanted to influence political decisions but had no political ambitions for himself. However, after his release from seven years of enforced exile in Gorky in December 1986 he did become active as a reformer in the political arena – striving to contribute meaningful content to “Perestroika”.

At that stage he was seen by many as an unofficial leader of the democratic movement and was elected to the First Congress of the People’s Deputies. There he argued for democratic reform and criticised strongly article 6 of the Soviet constitution which guaranteed the supremacy of the Communist party.

He was appointed to a commission tasked with drafting a new constitution. Typically, he produced his own draft - which contained strong provisions for the protection of human rights – which he presented to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

Though still seen as a trouble maker in government and party circles, Sakharov’s ideas could not be ignored. A number of them were included by Gorbachev when he presented his own goals: honest and transparent government; popular participation; truth telling about the past; the rule of law; freedom of association; and freedom of media.

Sakharov was constructive as a matter of principle. Even during his years in exile and through earlier periods of severe KGB harassment, he made constantly clear that he was seeking a rational dialogue. He wrote numerous letters to the Soviet leaders seeking to convince them about the demands of reason, often referring to provisions in the law.

There were no replies but the letters became known through informal channels and also reached abroad – and built a case. This is how Sakharov himself evaluated these efforts in his Memoirs:

“[They] have produced little in the way of immediate results. But I believe that statements on public issues are a useful means of promoting discussion, proposing alternatives to official policy, and focusing attention on problems. Appeals on behalf of specific individuals also attract attention to their cases, occasionally benefit a particular person, and inhibit future human rights violations through the threat of public disclosure.”

Sakharov was a tireless activist. When his appeals went unheard he became involved in nonviolent, direct action, sometimes putting his own health at risk. He travelled long distances to monitor trials and, when turned away from the court room, he demonstrated outside. He went on hunger strike several times, the first time in 1974 for the release of political prisoners.

He and his wife, Elena Bonner, received a growing number of appeals from people who had been victimised by repression. Sakharov became an unofficial ombudsman for minorities such as the Crimean Tartars, for Baptists and others who suffered religious discrimination and for Jews who wanted to leave the country.

He was alarmed by the inhuman conditions in Soviet prisons. Another deep concern was the misuse of psychiatry, the involuntary detention in mental institutions of those who disagreed or disobeyed. This method bypassed all pretence of legality and frequently resulted in enforced medication for “health reasons” and other forms of abuse. The reports on these violations created an unusually strong reaction abroad and the number of cases went down.

Sakharov presented a universal vision for a peaceful and progressive society based on human rights standards. In his writings, not least in his Nobel lecture 1975, he articulated the deeper significance of human rights and their relationship to peace and the development of a better world.

He argued that human rights ensure democratic supervision of a country’s foreign and security policy which would prevent militarisation and limit the risk of war. Also, human rights promote exchange of information and ideas between people which in turn lowers the level of distrust and thereby the risk of conflict.

“I am convinced that international confidence, mutual understanding, disarmament and international security are inconceivable without an open society with freedom of information, freedom of conscience, the right to publish, and the right to travel and choose the country in which one wishes to live. I am likewise convinced that freedom of conscience, together with the other civil rights, provides the basis for scientific progress and constitutes a guarantee that scientific advances will not be used to despoil mankind, providing the basis for economic and social progress, which in turn is a political guarantee for the possibility of an effective defence of social rights. At the same time I should like to defend the thesis of the original and decisive significance of civil and political rights in moulding the destiny of mankind.”

Sakharov identified hatred as a major danger for society. He argued persistently for measures against national and racial prejudices and religious intolerance. Particularly unforgivable was state incitement of hatred of “others”.

He took a clear position against capital punishment and regretted that he was prevented from coming to the international conference against the death penalty in Stockholm 1977. The message he sent argued for a total abolition:

“I regard the death penalty as a savage, immoral institution which undermines the ethical and legal foundations of society. The state, in the person of its functionaries (who, like all people, are prone to superficial judgments and may be swayed by prejudice or selfish motives), assumes the right to the most terrible and irreversible act – the taking of human life. Such a state cannot expect an improvement in its moral atmosphere. I reject the notion that the death penalty has any real deterrent effect whatsoever on potential criminals. I am convinced that the contrary is true – the savagery begets only savagery.”

Though firmly rooted in Russia, he was a true internationalist. He believed that the fates of all human beings are indivisible. “Mankind can develop painlessly only if it looks upon itself in a demographic sense as a unit, a single family without divisions into nations other than in matters of history and traditions”, he wrote in his Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom (published in The New York Times 1968).

This understanding of global interdependence made him express concern about poverty in the developing countries, the war in Afghanistan and the fate of refugees. He appealed for a general amnesty for those imprisoned for their views everywhere and inspired Amnesty International to launch a global campaign for the release of all Prisoners of Conscience.

As a gifted scientist he realised early the global dangers if we ignore the need for ecological balance (he used the term “geohygiene”). He became involved in protests to save Lake Baikal from being poisoned by toxic waste from surrounding industries and concluded later that “[t]he salvation of our environment requires that we overcome our divisions and the pressure of temporary, local interests.”

The example and thoughts of Andrei Sakharov remain acutely relevant.

Thomas Hammarberg