By Maeva Chargros

What would it look like, if the Charter 77 was still active, with members from all across the world and from all generations? One of the answers to this rather odd question took place for the 30th consecutive year in the city of Caen, in Normandy (France), on January 25-27, 2019. In French, it is called “Concours de Plaidoiries”; a competition of defence speeches and pleas for fundamental freedoms. Four of these fundamental freedoms were named by President Roosevelt on January 6, 1941: “the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear”[1]. And for this 2019 edition, the competition covered all four of them, defended by high school students aged from 15 to 18 years old, law students, and lawyers. Why, then, would this competition be in the continuity of the famous Charter 77?

It is essential not to forget, when it comes to history, for otherwise, we might not repeat history, but we might fail at taking a step further and risk taking a step back. The initial point is an improved version of our world two hours ago, but also ten centuries ago. Improved? For the sceptics among the readers of this article, please allow me to mention that ten centuries ago, the United Nations did not exist, nor did the Geneva Convention, the Istanbul Convention, and most of the texts quoted during the event I am writing about today were not even drafts, not even thoughts. Improvement does not mean perfection. And this is precisely what the Charter 77 was about: reminding a sovereign state of its own duties, namely, respecting human rights, international law, and the Helsinki Declaration.
This is precisely what these 37 people did during three days in the “Cité de l’Histoire de la Paix”, in this Memorial dedicated to peace and human rights: reminding sovereign states of their duties. They were coming from all corners of France and beyond.

Among the ten lawyers present, only four were from France. Two were from Belgium, one from Québec (Canada), one from Switzerland, one from Mali, and one from Benin. It is this one, from Benin, whose defence speech is the source of the title I chose for this article. These were among the last words Maître Koukpolou said in his plea. “Hold on, help is coming!” (“Espera, la ayuda viene!”, in Spanish.) Even if he did not win any award, his speech was among the most touching for me. His word symbolised the message of this year’s edition: there is still hope, as long as there are still humans who care about and defend others. He was the only one, of all three competitions, to focus on the political and humanitarian crisis currently killing so many people, including children, in Venezuela. The title of his plea: “Give me food and I’ll do whatever you want”. This sentence was said by a 13 years old girl in Venezuela, willing to literally sell herself not to starve to death. The man who heard this young girl chose to give her food – for free. The man who read his testimony decided to give the girl her voice back – for her state is denying her the right to live, to eat, and to dignity. Her state is refusing foreign humanitarian assistance for the sake of sovereignty. Indeed, nobody, not even NGOs, can intervene inside a sovereign state without the permission of this state. Therefore, Venezuelans are starving to death, and children are choosing prostitution to survive.
Welcome to Caen, the city of human rights, for a weekend full of terrible reminders.

The stories rarely had happy endings – they were not only stories, but lives.
One of them stood out, though. It was told by a high school student who won two awards, the Highschool Prize and the First Prize. Valérie Tete, from Rennes (FR) and Togo, told the stories of Sylvain, a 7 year old Togolese boy who was tortured by a medium during three years that he spent captive in a cage; of Pascal, 9 years old, who was tortured as well, by his own family, left bleeding in the sun for hours; of Daniel, same age, thrown out of his house by his own family, abandoned to the violent world of the street. Their crime? Being different. Sylvain was a gifted kid, Pascal was just one too many in a poor family, and Daniel had difficulties to communicate. Their “real” crime? Witchcraft, according to the Togolese society that rejected and persecuted them. However, this plea had a happy end, for once. It has a name: Creuset Togo[2]. This NGO is sheltering kids such as Sylvain, Pascal and Daniel. This organisation gives them a bed, food, but also access to the education their families denied them. Creuset Togo ensures that these children get their fundamental freedoms and rights respected. But Valérie Tete warns us: they need help. The organisation is facing difficulties to raise funds, since it is helping “witches and wizards”. Unfortunately, the Togolese government does nothing to help these children – not even support financially Creuset Togo, for instance – despite its own national laws protecting children’s rights, laws that are supposedly binding.

The fourth prize of the students’ competition was offered by Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) to Elena Hourdin Solovieff. She spent her eight minutes giving back their identities to those she called “invisible women”. Being homeless as a woman is much worse than it is for a man – think hygiene, security, healthcare. This plea brings attention to what the local authorities do to make it harder for homeless people to find shelter on benches, on buildings’ porches. In France, the fiscal deductions, a form of financial compensations, for hosting homeless people or people in need (refugees, for instance) were abrogated. If you were looking for a reason to protest, other than your own capacity to always buy more for less, perhaps this could be inspiring.

The third Prize, sponsored by Amnesty International, was awarded to Amélie Cassagne, for her plea “The art of being censored”. It was honestly one of my favourites among all pleas during this weekend, since she started with a 3-4 minutes speech against the freedom of expression through art. The aim of this first part of her speech was to show how ridiculous it is to censor and ban art. “Censoring an artist, it means destroying him.” Him? Kirill Serebrennikov. I was expecting no less from someone who lives in Avignon – where the heart of all arts beat a little bit more dynamically and freely than anywhere else in France.

The 2nd Prize went to Abdallah Charki, a young man who deserves another round of applause for he wonderfully blended plea and poetry. His topic was unfortunately inspired by his own life: being bullied. He managed to survive and get stronger despite the bullies who tried to destroy him – strong enough to face thousands of people this weekend. Jonathan, the teenager who recently made the headlines in France after burning himself at 72% and spending three months in coma, managed to survive and write a book about his story. Unfortunately, many, far too many children do not have the chance to testify, since suicide is their only way out of their suffering in this selfish world. It was especially significant to give such a powerful speech in front of high school students, prone to being both bullies and victims.

Last but certainly not least, the President of the Jury, Philippe Geluck (“Le Chat”, it should ring a bell, right?), awarded an unofficial and highly deserved 6th prize to Selma Vincent, from Luxembourg. Her topic was close to her heart, since her mother experienced it directly. Young girls (between 5 and 18 years old) being sold as slaves – sorry, ‘helpers’ – in Morocco, in clear breach of all treaties and conventions related to children’s rights ratified by this country. Beaten, raped, murdered – and forgotten by the state that is supposed to protect them, sold by the families supposed to protect them, ignored by the society that is supposed to protect them.

I know it is a long article, but I need a few more words.

Just a very few words to mention that no, rape cannot and should never be part of a judicial system – no matter how retarded, backward, uneducated or ‘traditional’ the society living in this system is. For honestly, I do not understand how else I could qualify such a practice of avenging rape with another rape, based on the belief that a woman is an object at the mercy of men’s honour. 5,000 women are victims of such “tradition” every year in Pakistan. Let me advise you to read Salman Rushdie, he will teach you a lot about respecting “traditions”. “Rape as justice” was the topic chosen by Thibault Campagne, from Lille. I must say that seeing a man defending with such passion and professionalism the cause of women made me wish more men would be inspired by his plea. He won the third prize of the law students competition, called “Prix des Droits de l’Homme” – ironically.

The “Freedom and Peace Prize” was awarded to Tristan Deslogis, for his plea called “No rainbow over Tunis”. The case he defended needs only one quote to make sense: “Homosexuality is a condition, homophobia is an ideology.” And while we can easily change ideas, we cannot change our condition of human beings. Did you know Tunisia still uses the infamous and humiliating “anal test” to determine whether someone is homosexual? Did you know Tunisia ratified multiple treaties and conventions that are binding, and that include the responsibility of the sovereign state to respect the dignity of all human beings on its territory? Well, now, you cannot say you did not know anymore. That is exactly the point of such a competition.

The First Prize was awarded to one of the many women competing, Sarah Nabet, for her defence of detainees who serve long – life-long – sentences in France. One of them spent more than 40 years behind bars, completely forgotten by the judicial system. Her defence speech turned into a plea against perpetuity sentences: does it really make sense to let someone die in jail, when a state opposes death sentence? Is it respecting the right of prisoners to be re-introduced into society after a punishment that should aim at re-educating them? We can’t make the dead speak, still I am quite sure what Cesare Beccaria would have thought of this practice – and he would certainly have welcomed the choice of the jury to reward this plea.

But the one I would have chosen was a different one. There is a place, on this planet, where women can be sentenced to up to 50 years in jail for a miscarriage. For giving birth to a dead baby. For interrupting a dangerous pregnancy for their lives. For not giving birth to a foetus that has no chance to survive anyway due to malformations. There is a place on this planet where women are guilty of being unable to deliver a healthy baby at full term of their pregnancy. This place is the state of Salvador. There is a state that put a 25 years old mother – who willingly got pregnant and who was attacked in the street during the 9th month of her pregnancy, who was denied access to obstetric care by her employer for days, and who therefore gave birth to a dead baby she wanted healthy – to jail, for thirty years. “Guilty of being a woman, and of being in the need of urgent obstetric intervention.” I won’t add any comment to the wonderful and terrible speech given by Laura Giovannoni.

Let me finish this article with the awards for the lawyers’ competition.

Only two candidates were rewarded, since one of them won three prizes. Such a choice is sometimes disappointing, it can be perceived as unfair. Nevertheless, this time, being myself an admirer of the late “Devil’s Lawyer”, Jacques Vergès, I can only agree with the jury. Maître Mangeot, from the Bar of Metz, in France, delivered a defence speech focusing on the humanity of being human, and what it entails in terms of international law and human rights. Indeed, he decided to speak for Adrien Guihal, a French jihadist who co-organised and revendicated online on behalf of the terrorist group ISIS the attack in Nice. This French citizen is denied an independent and fair trial. A basic human right that the French state should grant him. Instead, the French government decided to leave his case up to unrecognised and unofficial local authorities, who are actually composed of military and rebel groups in Syria. Justice. Done by people who are taking part in the same conflict, who are not bound by any national law nor have any proper judicial system. This is not China, Russia or North Korea. We are talking about France, denying fundamental rights to one of its citizens based on political calculations and public opinion.[3]

The other laureate of this 30th edition was Maître Staritzky. If you turned away from the case coming from Salvador, you might want to close your browser right away. She defended the Rohingya women victims of organised and systematic collective rapes by the army and militias in Myanmar. Raping women has always been a powerful weapon in times of war and genocides. It is a crime against humanity, one that is never punished due to the lack of… evidence. If you wonder why, ask a woman. She will explain to you how difficult it is to speak about what happened to an international court, when you do not even dare seeking help from your family or going to the police, and even less to seek treatment for the wounds you got. When your community rejects you because you are guilty of being a victim. The lawyer reminded us of a few numbers that I wish to share with you, as a conclusion: 50,000 women were raped during the few months that the forced displacement of Rohingyas took; 50,000 women were raped during the war in Yugoslavia; 250,000 women were raped during the genocide in Rwanda; 500,000 women (and little girls as young as just a few weeks “old”, Denis Mukwege would probably add) were raped so far in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the ongoing political and military conflict. None of these crimes were duly punished by national or international justice.

Many other speeches were worth sharing, but I am already writing a far too long novel-article. You can find all the pleas, in PDF version as well as in video, on the following links (in French only): LawyersLaw StudentsHigh school Students. You will also find on the same links the drawings done by Chaunu, the immensely talented French cartoonist who has been working with the Memorial for over twenty years.

All sovereign states have the duty to respect human rights. All of them are failing at this.
All humans have the duty to hold their governments responsible for their lack of actions in favour of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Journalists, lawyers, artists and NGOs go as far as risking their own lives for this cause. Thank you.

In memory of Jamal Kashoggi, Jan Kuciak, the late Charlie Hebdo team members, Daphne Caruana Galizia, and all who died because they were only doing their job.
In a gesture of support towards Nasrin Sotoudeh, Raif Badawi, Salman Rushdie, Asia Bibi, Kirill Serebrennikov, and all whose free minds are surviving despite being tortured, persecuted, living in exile and constantly threatened.

[3] Note: The French government changed its decision shortly after the competition took place, coincidentally announcing that all French jihadists would be brought back to France to face an independent trial and to serve their sentence in France. Read more (Le Monde, 29/01/2019):

Featured picture: Philippe Berdalle, Flickr.

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