Parliament to host play celebrating work of human rights defenders

Cecilia Wikström and Kerry Kennedy say the stories of human rights defenders can be used to inspire and train a generation of young people and promote the concept of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Every person can make a difference. That is the message in a unique cooperation between the European parliament, the Robert F. Kennedy centre for justice and human rights and Postkodslotteriet in Sweden, when the play ‘Speak Truth to Power’ is brought to Brussels.

On Wednesday, MEPs (including myself) from several member states will take to the stage, as well as president of the European parliament Martin Schulz, and the actors Lena Olin, Dylan Bruno, and Dennis Haysbert.

The stories of more than 50 human rights activists from around the world underpin the show Speak Truth to Power – Voices from Beyond the Dark. Told via first-person monologues, the play gives voice to some of the most courageous people on earth – the Martin Luther Kings and Mahatma Ghandis of our time – people who, with few resources beyond their imaginations, expose injustice and create change.

Among these is Aminatou Haidar, Saharawi human rights activist and RFK human rights award honouree who survived years of imprisonment and torture for advocating on behalf of her people. Although she lives under constant threat and brutality, she continues to fight against abusive surveillance, arbitrary arrest, rape, and forced disappearances in a region that has lived under Moroccan occupation since 1976.

Another human rights activist portrayed in the play is Kailash Satyarthi, who has liberated over 78,000 child labourers in India. Tirelessly he continues the fight to save the five million child workers currently working in slave-like conditions in the country. The number of child labourers in India is rising just as steadily as India’s export figures.

Demonstrated in these monologues is Haidar and Satyarthi’s commitment to creating the more just, peaceful, and compassionate world that Robert Kennedy spoke of when he said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

At a time when personal courage seems to be in short supply, it is more important than ever to stand up for what you believe in and to be reminded that we can all do something for our fellow men.

The performance is dedicated to prisoners of conscience around the world, including the Swede-Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak, 50, who has been held in an Eritrean prison since 23 September, 2001, without any trial. Dawit showed courage by raising his voice and the Eritrean regime has done everything they can to silence him. They have failed.

The play Speak Truth to Power is one pillar in a global movement that inspires us to believe in the capacity of one person to make a difference. The Speak Truth to Power human rights curriculum, now taught to more than one million students around the world from Cambodia to Calabria, uses the stories of these human rights defenders to train young people to be forces for justice in their schools, communities, and countries.

The audience is a tool to continue spreading the stories of these human rights activists. By portraying Haidar, Satyarthi and other warrior’s stories, their voices can be strengthened. It is our collective duty to pass on their messages and give our voices to those who have none.

Protecting people’s fundamental rights and freedoms, to stand up and defend democracy and freedom of the individual is and remains one of the EU’s most important missions, both at home and in the world. Together we can, as Robert Kennedy said, break down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Cecilia Wikström is a member of parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs committee

Kerry Kennedy is president of the Robert F. Kennedy centre for justice and human rights