17 Nov Honorary Speaker – Anders Kompass
We hade great pleasure to welcome Anders Kompass to Dag Hammarskjöld Day as our Honorary Speaker. Read his inspiring speech below.
I look at you today and I see you standing at the beginning of a road I started walking some forty years ago and of which I am reaching the last stretches.
Some people call it work, some call it career. My wish for you is that you will be able to call it passion. Because it is only when you are passionate about what you do that hurdles have no meaning, courage is another name for love and everything you are, know or believe is brought together in a harmony of determination pushing you relentlessly towards your goal.
Whatever you choose to do in this world of today, with all its golden opportunities and all its desperate challenges, I hope that you will remember one thing – and that is that what you do and the life satisfaction that you get out of doing it are determined by who you are. Always be at peace with yourself and with the values you hold dear; defend your integrity against the temptation of laziness and convenience; and whenever possible use the strength you have to sustain compassionately others who lack it through no fault of their own but the vagaries of a fate that placed them in a different situation than yours.
As you walk through life, you will perhaps come to the same conclusion I have and that is that the biggest satisfactions come from a job well done; an intimate conviction – in spite of the results – of having done the right thing; and the personal knowledge of having invested all of your strength in what you believe in. Because all of this gives you the greatest return of all: being able to look at yourself in a mirror and, in spite of the wrinkles accumulated, see in your eyes the most elusive of all sensations – peace of mind.
My own life, as I look back today, has been an amazing, challenging, beautiful and heart-breaking adventure. From a very young age I have been faced with the maddening seesawing of it all – the innocent bliss of childhood being intruded upon by the blind happening of death; pain and solitude wreaking havocs on minds that once were bulwarks of strength; the wheel of life spinning relentlessly to unfairly land blessings and curses unequally around me.
My response as a young adult was to use the talents life had given me to counterbalance other people’s sufferings – and by doing this, receive back from them what helped me bear my own pain and face my own shortcomings.
From the early seventies up to late in the first decade of the new millennium, I lived and worked in and on countries in Latin America where people sought to exercise their right to self-determination against authoritarian governments: Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Chile. I witnessed massacres and disappearances, executions and murders, the move from violent struggles to outright war and then eventually back to hard-won peace. Later on, I shared the frustration of those who had fought for change, thought they had achieved it and then saw it turned to the benefit of drug lords and international organized crime, the corrupt and the powerful, while people again went hungry and were displaced, dispossessed, disempowered.
Throughout those many years, I struggled as a civil servant to advocate for those who were not in a condition to defend themselves – whoever they were. I negotiated the release of prisoners or asylum for democratic opponents. I tried to shed light on events that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, communities that would have otherwise gone forgotten because of their race, ethnicity or beliefs – or simply for being in the way of those who wanted to plant a flag on their territories in the sad, possessive logic of war.
As I did so, I used the only meter I knew to be above any interpretations, warring sides or political constructs: human rights. When I lay sleepless in bed, on long nights before a decision was to be reached and a course undertaken for which there would be no return, human rights were my balancing plate, the principles of justice, accountability and non-discrimination the background against which I judged possible actions. In the darkness, I also struggled to convince myself that whatever personal consequences came from what I decided to do, I would face them with equanimity if not with the certainty of having done my best. I learned to live together with fear – fear of committing mistakes that would harm others but also fear for my own life and the lives of those I loved. I had to learn not to let fear paralyse me, force me to accept what I knew to be unacceptable compromises.
Do not believe those who tell you that giving in on matters of importance is fine as long as you benefit from doing it – because actually there are no sufficient compensations to offset what stains your integrity; those stains are the hardest to rub off. And if you are coherent with yourself and your values, then making those hard choices becomes the only logical outcome.
When in July 2014 the report on the alleged sexual abuse of Central African children by French soldiers deployed there landed on my desk, the only logical outcome for me was to do something to stop the abuses. And as I and all of my colleagues working in the field had done hundreds of times to address violations, I reached out to the authorities in charge – in this case the French Government, as represented by the diplomatic mission in Geneva, where I had been working for the previous six years as Director of Field Operations in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As per practice, I gave the French authorities the information they needed to act quickly, protect the victims, identify the perpetrators and ensure non-repetition – all this in a country in the midst of a civil war. The response of the French was very satisfactory: an investigation was opened immediately, investigators sent to Bangui within five days, the suspected soldiers removed from the country and replaced, and military and civil justice seized.
Little did I know that what for me, as a human rights defender with more than thirty years of experience, was nothing but doing my job would for some of the highest among United Nations officials be tantamount to betrayal.
Little did I know that, as proven subsequently by an independent investigation into this matter, the United Nations Mission in Central Africa had knowingly ignored the abuses; that UNICEF – the agency mandated to protect children – had not seen fit to give immediate assistance to the victims; and that my own human rights colleague in the country had recommended not to act upon the reports of abuses in order not to risk the withdrawal of French troops.
Little did I know that in the spirit of political convenience, the risk of upsetting the French had outweighed the suffering of eleven-year old children sexually abused by those sent to protect them and had imposed a conspiracy of silence that my actions had inadvertently shattered.
Nine months after I had given the information to the French authorities, my own chief – the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – requested my suspension from work pending an internal investigation on my actions, in the single-minded determination that they had breached United Nations protocol and therefore deserved to be harshly punished.
In his inspirational book ‘Markings’, Dag Hammarskjöld wrote: “Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible – not to have run away. ”
And this has actually been my only feat in this whole sad affair: I did not run away.
Intimated to resign and then unlawfully suspended from my job; faced with public condemnation by the United Nations – widely brought up and commented in international media in spite of any presumption of innocence; purposely slandered in behind-the-door meetings with diplomats, government representatives and colleagues I also counted as friends, I withstood it all and came out of it after one year of hell, personally wounded but publicly exonerated.
And you know what? I managed this feat only because other people acted according to their conscience rather than out of convenience. Journalists who took the time to investigate on their own rather than accepting what the United Nations was telling them to write; investigators who risked their own jobs to make the internal shenanigans of the United Nations known to the world; accountability and human rights activists who invested their reputations and the resources of their organizations to build my defence and advocate for it; diplomats who refused to accept the portrait of me they were being fed by UN officials and that clashed with their own experience of my behaviour in their own countries; and friends and family – including my amazing, faithful dogs! – who in spite of my sinking every day lower into desperation, in spite of my devastating bad mood and depressive attitudes stood by me, took care of me, cheered me up and overall made my life still worth living.
Many months have passed now. I have moved on, I have left the United Nations and I have been given an opportunity to continue working for my own country – that also stood by me and preserved the principles of justice and fairness I have always known it to uphold.
And if you ask me – would you do it again? I would answer yes, exactly because in spite of all the heart-ache and pain, I can see in my wrinkled eyes that elusive peace of mind. One I would not have if I knew that children kept being abused because of my indifference, my lack of courage.
The world today is waiting there, ahead of you. Choose your path wisely but passionately. Invest yourself completely. But most of all, practice compassion. It will be an accumulated treasure that will be there for you when you need it.
I know it was for me.