Reminiscing Bishop Desmond Tutu – A Postscript on the Apostle of Peace

Image credit/BBC

Golden names like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu invariably surface on the mental canopy of world public when topics as human rights, liberation struggle, human freedom and the like, especially when those of the oppressed, suppressed, persecuted and downtrodden among coloured and black peoples go afloat. The last of the above noble souls left the human fold a few days ago ( Bishop Tutu’s name will long be associated in history as an indefatigable co-liberator/co-founder / co-architect of Peace in modern day “Republic of South Africa” free from white-colonialist ‘Apartheid’ subjugation.

I met Reverend Desmond Tutu the first and last time in 1998 on the 50th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the Vienna International Centre – (VIC-housing over half-a-dozen important U.N. organisations). I was then an active member of the U.N. press corps. It was a very memorable day. Celebrities of no mean quality flocked together, like the U.N. Secretary-General (UNSG) Kofi Annan, ex-U.S. president, Honourable Jimmy Carter (both of whom got Nobel Peace Prize years later), Nobel Laureates Wole Soyinka of Nigeria (Nobel in Literature) Rev. Dr. Desmond Tutu (Nobel Peace Prize and holder of 3 honorary doctorates including one from Harvard University), the Anglican Bishop of South Africa and many more including ex- U.N.S.G Dr. Kurt Waldheim and the entire diplomatic corps and many ministers.

Should a Cruelty Victim “forgive”?

Celebrating the anniversary was a plenary meeting where the aforementioned pedigree devotees of Peace held brilliant speeches, a few quite touchy. Jimmy Carter’s moving keynote speech of unmatched thought quality springing from deep springs of inner personal experiences of racial discrimination in American South, was inimitably impressive. It was after hearing that I understood the American boycott of Russian Olympics during Cold War. When his turn came the charismatic Reverend Desmond oozed out an aura in words as though Jesus Christ was voicing through his serene palates. The message of it all could be summarised in that one word,  “F O R G I V E”, reminding you of the first saying of Christ on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He was asking the blacks of the world to forgive the whites for all the unspeakable cruelties, sufferings and persecution brought to bear on them during the apartheid colonial rule, a grievous bane on social peace continuing unsolved in many pockets of “civilised” habitats even today, especially in the U.S. and elsewhere too. Later, at a public meeting in Austria Centre (VIC’s neighbour), Wole Soyinka directly chided the bishop in going soft on perpetrators of injustice and cruelty that these ought to be brought to books and punished. I doubt very much whether the Bishop would ever agree with that. Obviously, Wole was speaking from the pain he suffered personally under Nigerian dictatorial rulers who imprisoned him with cruelty, as Wole informed me.

After that meeting the U.N. press corps had a chance to hear the Bishop at the PC (press conference). When the floor was opened to questions, after Bishop’s statement, I began as first on an almost confrontational note. My question was in fact a formalistic correction request asking him to rename the title of the conference which officially read, “Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”. The modification I asked for was to place once more the word “universal” before Human Rights to make it read Universal Human Rights. The argument I tabled was: A declaration can be universal if four trumpeters at four corners of the Earth, North– South – East-West and one in the middle trumpeting simultaneously the same tune to make it look universal because it is then heard all over; but to say the instrument trumpet is universal, then it should available in every country, in all the 193(4) member nations of the U.N. To make the title look more elegant my suggestion was, ‘The U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights’ to avoid the repetition of the word universal.

Universality of Human Rights

The main point of contention was that unless Human Rights (HRs) are universal in principle, a mere universal declaration of them does not mean, or help much in anchoring them in human practice all over the Globe. Human Rights need to be qualified as having universal value applicable to all human beings and only thereafter can all people everywhere follow it. The primacy of importance should lie on the Universality of Human Rights to be followed by the secondary step of its Universal Declaration. I wonder a bit, why this fine difference was missed by the experts at that declaration meet in 1948. Or cynically viewed, was this a deliberate omission then to escape HRs’ stringency in application?

Many might dismiss this is as superfluous. There I need to hold high a real-time hard-core fact on U.N. conventions and treaties. Anybody who has considerably dealt with international and U.N. agreements (conventions, treaties) will know that a cardinal impediment why the U.N. cannot be that effective today is that slippery magic word “Implementation”. Member states approve of a convention to be passed with the required minimum number of votes set for each convention or treaty on a consensus basis, although they may not or cannot agree with the full text of the treaty. They state this in their closed or open U.N committee meetings before a convention is passed, but they ask beforehand the Chairman to instruct the Protokolleur to record their official dissent, but adding, “But we go with the treaty for the sake of consensus”. Even on human and fundamental rights or on drug trafficking certain countries complain, “We cannot follow or implement all of this text in our country” because of one or the other problem. The U.N. cannot force any member state to follow any treaty hundred percent, as it enjoys no such mandate.

Bishop Tutu was a man of principles with far-sight, not merely because of his position as Bishop, but more from the inner depth of his person if one examines the very many events he was involved in actively around our Globe. On hearing my objection the Bishop saw the problem and blushed a bit, especially as he holds an honorary Doctor of Law from Harvard University; and no one ever seems to have detected this default slip in precision. He said after a short pause. “So you want to change the declaration’s wording. O.K. Agreed.” After the press briefing I had a hearty personal chat with him. Then I accompanied him in the lift to reach ground floor and before parting, he said that golden “God Bless you”. That was the only time anyone ever blessed me in my 15 years as a U.N. correspondent at the Vienna International Centre. Warmly given by an Anglican Bishop of the High Church I cherish it even today after his departure from us. This noble man of compassion and Godly Love still lives in our hearts.

George Chakko, former U.N. correspondent, now retiree in Vienna, Austria.

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