This week I had the honor of being invited to an evening championing personal freedom and basic human rights around the world. The headline speaker for the Stockholm 2012 Leadership for Human Rights event was the renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a man who personifies courage in the face of repression and the ideal of not being indifferent to human need.
The event was sponsored by Sweden’s eminent “PostkodLotteriet”—a for-profit organization leading the way in philanthropic and socially responsible efforts— and also included speeches by Ambassador Jan Eliasson, who has been newly appointed as Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations as well as two-time Oscar winning actor Sean Penn, now Ambassador-at-large for Haiti.
Walking up to the great Concert Hall, I could not help imaging the scores of brilliant men and women who have walked those cobbled stones to accept their Nobel Prize. This feeling was amplified by the powerful humming music and stunning arrangement of gigantic poster-sized faces of men and women around the world from Africa to Belarus fighting for human dignity visible as guests walked up to the grand entrance of the building.
The evening was beautifully choreographed to include art, music, poetry and visual mediums interlaced with powerful speeches to underscore the plight of the repressed. Video interviews ranging from the wife of a Belarussian activist who has disappeared, to rural Cambodian women whose land, and therefore livelihood, is being taken away by the government in order to be sold to private developers for big profit.
Sean Penn delivered a moving reading of Kerry Kennedy’s book “Speak Truth to Power” and I must shamefully admit shaking Sean Penn’s hand and speaking to him briefly was a highlight of the evening not only because he is famous and charming but because one could really feel his fierce passion on these issues.
But the man who charged the room with emotion was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His sheer presence and grace brought tears to my eyes. The way he spoke about his experiences standing up to apartheid but also fighting for those with AIDS, tuberculosis and other socially marginalized groups in South Africa injected an energy toward activism in the room that was palpable. One of the most touching moments, captured by the photo in this blog, was seeing the sister of Raoul Wallenberg, Nina Lagergren, relating with the Archbishop in a way that seemed as if they had known each other their entire lives. Wallenberg was also a man who refused to be indifferent to hatred, and is a national Swedish hero who the U.S. Embassy has most recently celebrated by planting a tree in his honor in front of the U.S. Ambassadorial residence. Nina has dedicated much of her life to celebrating his legacy and championing human dignity, and you could see the instant connection she had with the Archbishop around those universal principles.
Ultimately, as Ambassador Jan Eliasson expertly put it in his incredible speech: although we all celebrate our respective national independence days with much fanfare the world is now interdependent. We need an “interdependence day” where we demonstrate “passion and compassion” in order to effect change and enforce human dignity around the world. I could not think of a greater call to action than that!