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The Vision of Stephane Hessel

obituary      6 Mar 2013
By Stuart Rees

The man who was to be awarded this year’s Sydney Peace Prize died last week. Stephane Hessel inspired the Occupy movement and lived an exceptional life. Stuart Rees on what Hessel might have told Australians

On the day that Shadow Minister Scott Morrison was falsely portraying asylum seekers as criminals and advocating imposed “behaviour protocols”, an inspirational Frenchman lay dying.

In the early hours of Wednesday 27 February, the life of 95-year old Stephane Hessel ended.  Tributes poured in from around the world. Parisians gathered in the Bastille to honour him. Francois Hollande, President of France said, “Hessel was a huge figure. His was an exceptional life devoted to the defence of human dignity”.

France mourns. In Australia we have reason to be both saddened and disappointed.

Stephane was to have been the recipient of this year’s Sydney Peace Prize. On learning of his choice he said, he was “deeply honoured to join the company of previous Peace Prize recipients”, such as Professor Muhammad Yunus, Archbishop Tutu, Mary Robinson, Hanan Ashrawi and Patrick Dodson.

Hessel’s 2009 book Time For Outrage has sold 4.5 million copies in 35 countries. In that work he challenged youth to resist “the international dictatorship of financial markets,” which he saw as a threat to peace and democracy. He motivated and supported the worldwide Occupy movement and attacked government policies which imposed hardship on the vulnerable majority as solutions to the financial excesses of the elite few.

Stephane Hessel was born in 1917, in Berlin, to a Jewish family who moved to France when he was eight. He became a French citizen in the late 1930’s and in the early years of the war he fled to London and joined the free French forces under General De Gaulle. On return to France he was captured by the Nazis, imprisoned in Buchenwald and sentenced to death. He escaped, met up with relief forces of American troops and at the end of the war entered France’s diplomatic service.

At the end of 1947 he became the youngest member of a committee empowered to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document which Hessel said reflected the aspirations of members of the French Resistance.

If Stephane Hessel had come to Australia what would he have told us ?

In the run up to the federal election, he would have insisted that the essence of being human is the capacity to pursue a common good and to be outraged by the gap between rich and poor.

He would have championed that key function of a welfare state to give opportunity to every citizen. He wrote that the Resistance called for “A comprehensive social security plan to guarantee all citizens a means of livelihood in every case where they are unable to get it by working”. He would have been dismayed by cuts of payments to single mothers because of politicians’ preoccupation with balancing budgets.

Hessel was highly critical of France’s treatment of illegal migrants. He deplored the racism, violence and deportations experienced by these vulnerable people. In Australia he would have been deeply offended by the macho swaggering and fear-mongering attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees.

Hessel was also passionate about all citizens’ responsibility to protect a fragile and precious environment. He was incredulous about the destruction caused by economic policies which were preoccupied with productivity whatever the cost.

He knew the importance of having a media which could report uninfluenced by fear or favour.

In the French Resistance, Hessel and his colleagues had demanded “the freedom and honour of the press and its independence from the state and the forces of money and foreign influence”. In Australia he would have been disappointed by the derision which often passes for journalism and he would have been appalled by the bullying techniques of shock jocks.

Hessel reserved his strongest outrage for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

As a Jew, a Holocaust survivor and as an observer of life on the West Bank and in Gaza, he was mindful of the traditions of Judaism regarding tolerance and the joys to be found in celebrating difference.

He and his wife were dismayed by the brutality towards Palestinians but they were also impressed by people’s response to adversity. In writing about the 2009 Operation Cast Lead and the destruction of Gaza’s Red Cross Hospital, he noted the behaviour of the Gazans — “their patriotism, their constant preoccupation with the wellbeing of their countless laughing children — that haunts our memories”.

In all his campaigns for justice, Hessel displayed many of the qualities of Mahatma Gandhi: to be inclusive, to encourage diversity, to advocate tolerance and to make non-violence a key strategy to achieve such goals. He wrote, “I am convinced that the future belongs to non-violence, to the reconciliation of different cultures. It is along this path that humanity will clear its next hurdle”.

Hessel was a significant humanitarian, a cosmopolitan citizen and a great lover — of his family, of philosophy, of human rights, humour, laughter and justice.  He lived for almost a century but he remained deeply concerned about the future, for the vulnerable and powerless, for the planet and for courage and principles in politics.

In my last conversation with him he said, “Before I come to Sydney, you must come to Paris and we’ll drink some fine French wine”. “And sing the Marseillaise?” I asked. “Of course.” He paused, then chuckled, “What song do you sing down there, it’s not still God Save the Queen is it?”

On the day before his death his publisher recalls that Stephane said, “We are all looking forward to coming to Australia, to receive the Peace Prize.”

It could have been the last journey for the last tribute and he would have galvanised the public.

First published on New Matilda 6 March 2013

Stuart Rees is the Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation