The following is a speech to be delivered on Tuesday, April 27 by Sarah, Duchess of York, at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway.
I would like to talk to you about what I believe to be the greatest moral test of any society: the treatment of children. The rights of children are obvious. They should be clothed, fed, provided with a proper education. They should be free from abuse and exploitation. Their civil rights are no different than the basic rights of any individual citizen, if a bit more circumscribed, for obvious reasons. Children, for instance, do not have a right to vote (something that is only relevant in those countries where anyone has the right to vote, of course). They do not have a right to stay out at all hours of the night against the wishes of their parents. My daughters may disagree, but they are not the ones drafting human rights law. Yet.
In my work as a global human rights campaigner, I have seen horrible things done to children. Things that are too awful for me to describe to you.
I am calling for us to marshal a culture and systems of belief to make the exploitation and abuse of children so categorically unacceptable that it will not be tolerated—regardless of whether or not governments put in place the necessary safeguards. If you truly care about human liberty and the future survival of freedom, it is only natural that you would incorporate the rights of children to be free from exploitation and abuse into your understanding of what constitutes human rights. We can, and must continue talking about the traditional freedoms and civil liberties that constitute the mainstream of human rights discourse. But we must also pay attention to this as well.
I speak to you today not only as an advocate who has traveled the world to spotlight the horrible conditions in which too many children find themselves, or as a campaigner. But I also speak to you as a mother. As any mother in this audience knows, so much of a child’s development and future depends upon the devotion of their parents. And to extrapolate this obvious and rather palpable observation, the development and future of societies depends upon the devotion of its present generation to its successor generation. In my work as a global human rights campaigner, I have seen horrible things done to children. Things that are too awful for me to describe to you, images that I have tried to banish from my own mind but the apparition of which haunts me to this day. If we do not treat the youngest of individuals as worthy of dignity and afford them that dignity, then we will never have free and prosperous societies. On the contrary, we will condemn ourselves to a bleak future. I urge you to join me in fighting to exceed this moral test.
The Oslo Freedom Forum was an untested idea one year ago. Today, at this second annual gathering, it is now coming into its own as the global gathering for human rights. On the one hand it will make Oslo the human rights capital of the world, on the other, it will provide individuals from six continents a platform to fight against oppression. The Freedom Forum is becoming a gathering impossible to ignore. One writer at The Wall Street Journal described last year’s conference as “unlike any other human rights conference” with an accurate observation contrasting us with the Durban 2 gathering in Geneva: “The Oslo conference has succeeded where the U.N. failed.”
It is here at the Oslo Freedom Forum where a heroic Rebiya Kadeer, an entrepreneur from China, can bring to light the agony of her people, the Uyghurs, as they struggle for their rights. It is here that we can hear about the damage inflicted by the governments on their own people in North Korea, Eritrea, China, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Uzbekistan and so many other places. This is where futurist Peter Thiel will underline how technology can change things, this is where Hernando de Soto will make a plea for how to liberate the world’s poorest people and secure their human rights. What we have ahead of us is exciting and if we continue to commit to the Oslo Freedom Forum we can make of this gathering something that both open societies and closed societies—like Iran—will be unable to ignore. I invite you, in that spirit, to be present at every event, get to know each other, and put into action strategies and tactics that will mainstream and humanize human rights.
Sarah, Duchess of York is Patron of the Oslo Freedom Forum.