Interview with Francisco Javier Estévez Valencia, co-winner of the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence

Francisco Javier Estévez Valencia from Chile and Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat from Mali are the co-winners of the 2014 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. The Award Ceremony will be held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 14 November 2014. At this occasion, Francisco Javier Estévez Valencia tells us more about his work ...

"It is urgent for us to educate ourselves on how to manage the current problems of intolerance, violence and discrimination."
Francisco Javier Estévez Valencia

How do you feel about having been designated as one of the laureates of the UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence?

The UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize is a great honour that I am pleased to share with Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat. I admire his work and take great interest in inviting him to Chile to share with us his experience of defending the rights of the Tuareg people. I have proposed that the Metropolitan University of Educational Sciences in Chile create a Chair named after Madanjeet Singh, to encourage trainee teachers to incorporate the values promoted by the Prize into their curricula.

This award encourages me to continue with even greater conviction, together with the many people of the region who share this struggle for tolerance and non-violence. I understand this award as a message and a mandate, as if the international community were telling us: “Attention! Intolerance and violence are not issues that are alien to you. Do not have the vanity to believe that these serious problems do not directly affect you”. Out of solidarity, it is your duty to play a part in the responses to crises happening in other continents. But equally, in your home, in your country and region, there are grave situations of injustice and oppression, of racism and xenophobia, of violence against women, children and immigrants. Certainly, social tensions can be resolved through peace, dialogue and development, but these solutions are often held back by violence, repression and rebellion.

The award recognizes your non-violent struggle for human rights and democracy during the military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. Today, Chile is a democratic country. Do you feel that you have fully realised the aspirations of that young activist, or do you feel like you still have to fight against the past, with much still to be done?

Every generation has its moment which gives it its historical identity. In our case, we were very young when our country was in a particular situation, and we had an urgent task to accomplish: to free the country from a regime that had made terror, intolerance and discrimination its means of governance. The Coup was a disaster. A republic broken in two and starting to sink like a tragic Atlantis in a sea of despair. But against all odds, against all reality, against all evidence, we had the conviction that despite this deadly weight, the dictatorship was not invincible; only by putting everything we had into a non-violent movement could we save the country from the catastrophe of anarchy and human rights violation. These years of ethical resistance, social mobilization and political struggle enabled us to understand that only democracy and the respect of human rights could guarantee the development of our country with justice, and ensure a state at peace with its people.

As we know, the dictatorial regime in Chile was defeated in 1988 by social movements and political plebiscites. The fall of the dictatorship was celebrated as the fulfilment of a dream. We regained our freedoms, and people could embrace without fear of repression. Then, we got what we aspired for throughout our youth and the resistance: that sooner or later, the great avenues would open for a free man, as predicted by President Allende in his last speech at la Moneda.

In all certainty, democracy is an open process where people have the individual and collective possibility to be free. Since liberation in Chile, new challenges have shown their historical significance. 1995 was a critical moment for many of us. We had a new horizon, which renewed our sense of our commitment to human rights and democracy. The United Nations declared 1995 the International Year of Tolerance. That same year, the first Forum of Citizens for Tolerance and Non-Discrimination was organized. We called it "Contigo Igual". It was a large-scale and extraordinary event, which for many represented an important step.

Since then, an important part of our work has been to educate the public on the principles and practice of tolerance, non-violence and respect for diversity. It is urgent for us to educate ourselves on how to manage the current problems of intolerance, violence and discrimination.

Memory helps us to look to the future, knowing the past. In this sense, memory can help us prevent the recurrence of human rights violations. Do you agree with this declaration?

Yes, indeed. But which memory are we referring to? And on what ethical basis? Well, that of a historical paradigm that gives meaning to the people's struggle for a better world. I am referring to respect for human rights. There have been other views held in the past that we cannot accept: racism, nationalism, religious fundamentalism, that of imperialism, patriarchy to mention only a few that are strongly marked by violence and intolerance. Thus, only a culture founded on the ethical perspective of the memorialization of human rights can help to prevent the recurrence of such violations.

But the past is not only used to identify and warn against threats. There are also stories that help us learn to evolve as societies. Every society has its own but it is better to highlight those whose examples transcend the borders of their country of origin: Gandhi, King, Mandela, Romero of El Salvador or Sola Sierra of the Association of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Chile, or Ashanikas murdered for defending the Amazon heritage of western Peru.

Memory and the historical consciousness of human rights enable people to think about their future in the light of the past, but also allow us to revisit the past in order to critically examine our commitment to the rights of women, to sexual diversity, to the rights of descendants of African and Latin American indigenous people, of Roma and of people with disabilities.

In your opinion, how can we educate young people and leaders of Chile (and other countries) about the dangers of dictatorship?

Dictatorships often arrive very quickly, but are preceded by a very deep crisis of social intelligence, i.e. the ability to understand one another as human beings, in all our diversity, and to live in the same country or region. The materials needed to form a dictatorship are violence, intolerance and cultural discrimination. A society exposes itself to the risk of dictatorship when differences lead to a series of aggressions.

What are the first signs of the dangers of dictatorship? Aggressive acts embodied in verbal or physical attacks, which can lead to a state of severe violence. It happens with the complicit participation of those who prefer not to know, who prefer not to hear of cases of beatings, humiliations, vandalism and murder of harassed individuals and groups. When this problem occurs at the level of the State, it can lead to police repression and arbitrary arrests of civil society leaders, dissidents and opponents. Then, the unexpected begins to happen: torture, disappearances, detention camps or executions. Terror and genocide; this is not a parasite that attacks by surprise, since even if we do not take the consequences of the very first attacks into account, it is the result of the slow building of hatred towards others, and of the subsequent and repeated acts of aggression.

A responsible society, enshrined in republican institutions, and which guarantees the respect of human rights and diversity, must always remain vigilant. We can deal with attacks and aggression, reduce their frequency or prevent them from taking place when conflicts resulting from differences between people, as antagonistic as they may seem, are treated democratically, and the ‘friend-enemy’ dichotomy is replaced with a logic of peace and non-violence and an understanding of our collective identities.

An organized civil society plays a crucial role, since through extensive public awareness campaigns and educational activities, it must promote the values of tolerance and non-violence, as humanistic and inspiring principles and practical actions in favour of peace and the building of fairer societies.