read by A.H.G. Rinnooy Kan

Dear Mrs Robinson,

Usually the laudatio is enunciated by the Patron of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. This time the Patron feels that physical inconveniences might make it hard for him to complete this speech himself, a speech for which he considers it necessary to have a strong and powerful voice. For this reason the Patron proposed that, exceptionally, the chairman of the Foundation should read the laudatio on his behalf. I cannot hope to make the same impact with my presentation as the Prince of the Netherlands, but I shall attempt to convey the message, which is his personal message to you.

This year the area, in which the winner of the Erasmus Prize was sought was defined in broad terms, so broad in fact that it was hard to demarcate and formulate concisely. I am referring to the concept of ‘collective responsibility’ or, more specifically, the awareness that as a member of a group one has responsibilities towards others. This is an ethical concept, rather than a legal one. It covers many fields on many levels, from the family and the local community to the nation state. Few people will disagree with the contention that, to make democracy work, this kind of responsibility is a crucial piece of the baggage of individual citizens in civil society. It is, however, not easy to articulate in terms of an individual’s duty.

In academic terms, we are speaking of virtue ethics. Ethics of virtue are based upon ideals that one may endeavour to attain. Collective responsibilities can be articulated more easily as ideals and values rather than as sharply formulated rules of conduct. Awareness of collective responsibilities does not come naturally to all individual citizens alike. This consciousness has to be cherished and stimulated by governments, institutions, churches and individuals. In actual fact, non-governmental organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, have enabled individual citizens to translate their feeling of responsibility into practical conduct and to do something to help, however small. By focussing attention on a limited number of specific fields – political prisoners, economic exploitation, etc. – these organisations have at the same time strengthened the awareness of collective responsibilities.

But the cause of collective responsibility also needs charismatic individuals. Persons who by their influence, their power of persuasion, and their knowledge of legal and political possibilities, are able to show the way; who keep reminding the rulers of their responsibilities; who continue to test their conduct against the declarations and conventions to which they have committed themselves on paper.

You, Mrs Robinson, are such a person. We admire you for what you have achieved, and for the great effort you have made, and continue to make, in fighting inequality, making structural  improvements in power structures, and reminding the world of its moral duties. I refer, of course, to your work as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. But not exclusively. In your previous assignments you have equally pushed hard to introduce the kind of societal reforms that are needed to make this a more righteous world. You have forced the Irish legal system to adopt European laws, you have given Irish women a voice, and during your seven years’ presidency of Ireland, you stretched the limits of the role of the president and gave it more than symbolical content.

Several publications have marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most of these papers recognise the pre-eminent ideological status of human rights, but many are also pessimistic about the viability of the ideals, given the disjunction between the theory and practice of human rights. Exactly ten years ago, the Erasmus Prize was awarded to the International Commission of Jurists. In the speech on that occasion, the hope was expressed that ‘perhaps out of necessity, a new feeling for humanity and human rights was on the horizon, a feeling that included the whole of mankind and would contribute to enriching the sense of world consciousness’. This was at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall. With hindsight, we must concede that many of us had not foreseen that within ten years from then Europe would see its most bloody conflict since the Second World War. I am referring, of course, to events in the Balkans. Meanwhile, we cannot close our eyes to the wars and violation of rights in other parts of the world. To mention one example: While our eyes were focussed on events in the Balkans this year, you, Mrs Robinson, went to Sierra Leone and drew the world’s attention to the atrocities committed in the civil war which has ravaged that country. This is but one case of the human rights dilemma that arises if perpetrators of crimes are admitted to government as part of a local solution. Once in government, it is even more difficult to hold them responsible for their deeds. There are many examples of a mismatch between the high ideals embodied in the human rights conventions and the actual outcomes. These give rise to cynicism, and are also a source for anxiety. Some authors have raised the question of whether the human rights apparatus has perhaps itself become an instrument in the legitimisation of certain forms of hegemonic power. We must hope it has not. On the other hand, it would be naive to believe that the status of human rights could be understood unless politics and power are added to the debate. In your present office, you play this immensely difficult role: you influence political power – individual politicians and states – by wielding moral power, and you maintain human rights as the focus of collective responsibility. In your view, the human rights issue cannot be separated from the political system and must be defined as including economic and social as well as cultural and political rights. Clearly, many regimes in the world still find their own reasons for resisting this view.

I wish to conclude my speech on a personal note. The first chapter in your biography, the chapter about your youth, ends with the following statement – words I have no qualms about quoting, as it is an authorised biography – “This is how she would be all her life – independent-minded and uncompromising, not one of life’s natural mediators”. I have pondered over this verdict ‘not one of life’s natural mediators’. Certainly, much of your work as High Commissioner for Human Rights will require bringing parties into contact, but mediation also smacks of giving a little here and taking a little there. If there is something non-negotiable, it must be the case of human rights. I think we are fortunate in having not one of life’s natural mediators, but one of life’s natural activists in that place. It is in recognition of your untiring commitment to the cause of the equality of human beings, to the cause of righteousness and collective responsibility, that I have the honour and the pleasure of presenting you with the 1999 Erasmus Prize.