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Speech: Human Rights Day with Article 19

The Danish Ambassador to Bangladesh attended the celebration of Human Rights Day organized by Article 19 in Bangladesh. Below are her remarks as Special Guest.

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen - greetings and good afternoon. My name is Winnie Estrup Petersen, Danish Ambassador to Bangladesh and I thank Article 19 for having me here today.

Denmark and Bangladesh have enjoyed cooperation for more than four decades - in this time we have developed a solid friendship and sense of comradery. Personally, I have been in Bangladesh for over a year now. On top of enjoying our strong bilateral relations, I have gotten to know the sense of resilience, strong convictions, and the passion of the people here. This is why I consider this a special opportunity to talk to you about freedom of expression, freedom from hate speech and freedom of religion.

The cornerstone of international human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes – all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. These rights are ratified by Bangladesh, reflected in the Bangladeshi Constitution and engrained in international frameworks like the Universal Periodic Review.

All human rights are indivisible. However, I believe, freedom of expression is one of our most essential human rights - it is our right to freely hold opinions and express our ideas without interference, through any media and regardless of frontiers. Even in 1948 when the Declaration said ‘any media’, they left room for technological advancement, predicting that the mediums through which we express ourselves would evolve. Surely enough we entered the world of online and social media, which enable an even more interactive and real-time way to express ourselves. These new mediums and the internet have empowered and enabled individuals anywhere in the world to use their voices and be heard far and wide.

The challenge was - is - protecting this quintessential human right to express ourselves while balancing that what, we the people, say and do, does not cause actual harm. In reality, this balancing act is the centre of much debate around the world, also in Denmark. Unfortunately, it has often led to claims of censorship, criminalization, restrictive legislation, harassment of journalists & bloggers as well as suppression of other freedom.

However, freedom of expression is a core pillar of society. The point behind freedom of expression is not just the exchange of ideas to increase our knowledge. The point behind freedom of expression is people. The point of freedom of speech is the political and personal empowerment of people - in the people’s exercise of their right to yes or no and influence others.

For example, it is what enables a society and community to take a stand against injustice and say NO. Just like when the people of Bangladesh stood up against the brutal murder of Nusrat, or the death of Abrar, or protested against road traffic laws. These were a clear demonstration of the passion inherent to the people of Bangladesh; but it was also their collective freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression is also our power to say to YES. Like when we show our support to a football team during the World Cup by raising the flag or when we press Like on Facebook – it is our freedom of personal expression. When we choose to vote for someone or when the people of East Pakistan said YES to a movement for an independent Bangladesh - it is our freedom of political expression. It is our right as citizens to express who we are, what we want, and what we believe in.

The one thing that people need in society to shape our demands, our votes, our opinions is the media. Through their dissemination of information, the media plays an important role in advancing knowledge, ensuring accountability, and have courageous conversations on matters of social and political importance.

A free press is a core pillar of societies. I commend Bangladesh for having an active and lively media. As a civil servant I can acknowledge that free press is not always convenient for governments. The inconvenience of what the media might say is very much present also for shifting governments in Denmark! But we understand the need to have room for criticism and dialogue because it ensures the checks and balances, and ultimately social cohesion in society. Adequate measures are necessary so that journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders and civil society organizations can carry on their work without fear.

Freedom of speech gives space for a clash of ideas and arguments. But gives rise to so many dilemmas. How should we react to the clash of ill-informed opinions that dehumanizes and demeans people? Especially when the speech deliberately targets historically marginalized groups of people - like women, people of colour, religious minorities, ethnic minorities. We must react – because freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility.

Hate speech, as it is called, requires immediate reaction from us. Not with more hate speech or criminalization! Rather we need dialogue and positive messages to counteract the hateful ideas that have the power to divide societies, dehumanize and demean groups, and incite violence. Politicians, media, religious actors, citizens, businesses, as well as you and I need to join in this endeavour for positive messages. Because in our silence, we enable harm toward others. Bangladesh stands out as a lighthouse in the region for keeping communal tensions at a minimum despite comprising of people from so many ethnic communities, religions and beliefs.

Let me end by saying this: Bangladesh is blessed with a vibrant youth population. Ensuring their opinions are freely expressed and heard is crucial for the future of this young democracy. As I said earlier, the Bangladeshi people are truly resilient and passionate; and Denmark stands with the people of Bangladesh. We look forward to continue to work with the Government of Bangladesh, with organizations like the National Human Rights Commission and on platforms like the UN Human Rights Council where currently both our countries are members.

In Bangladesh, in Denmark and across the globe, all citizens - men & women, young & old, whatever their ethnic, sexual or religious affiliation - deserve to enjoy the full protection of their rights and freedoms – and let’s not forget: the freedom of expression can help leverage our other human rights.

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