Saturday, August 9, 2003

The UNESCO Human Rights Educational Chair in Santiago, Chile.

A UNESCO sponsored chair in education of Human Rights, was inaugurated the 29th of July at the Universidad de Academia de Humanismo Christiano, in Santiago ,Chile. The chair was named after the late Swedish ambassador in Chile 1972 –73, Harald Edelstam. The inauguration took place in the Biblioteca Nacional in the presence of the dean of the university, the Swedish ambassador, the UNESCO director, the founders of the chair, Abraham Magendzo and Patricio Donoso, and a numerous audience.
The youngest son of Harald Edelstam, Erik, held a speech why his father should be granted this honour. Read the complete speech.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Compañeros...

It is a wonderful moment for me to be here, in front of you all, and a great honour for our family and for my late father Harald.
It feels like the ”Black Pimpernel” is back in town. He already made a discreet little visit three years ago, when the Foreign Ministry dedicated a room at the Diplomatic Academy in his name. But now he is back in the name of humanity and in the name of the principles of how humans should behave towards each other in a decent manner.

This Cathedra of Human Rights is dedicated to my father, the late ambassador Harald Edelstam. I will try to give an explanation why he should be awarded this honour. I hope that you are comfortably seated. - Sorry Abraham...

All of his life he followed and fought for the principles of Human Rights, from the schoolyard of his childhood, where he helped weaker comrades, who were beaten by stronger boys, to fund raising tours for Chilean fugitives just before he died in 1989.

The principles of human rights are very simple and yet seem to be so hard to grasp for so many people. The basic idea is the right to be treated with respect, whatever race, social status, religion and opinions.
During my childhood he constantly told my brothers and me the importance to help the weaker and to stand up to injustice.

In one sense Harald Edelstam was quite unique, since he always put his own security at stake when he acted for values he thought were right. Long before the concept of Human Rights was formulated.
When he was a young diplomatic attaché in Berlin 1942 he rushed out in his pyjama in the middle of the night when the Gestapo raided his Jewish neighbourhood and managed to harbour people during the night, so they could get a chance to flee next morning.

Later during the war he was posted in the occupied Norway as a vice consul, where he immediately took a stance against the German oppressors. He joined the resistance in a very active manner and used all his talents and wits to help the Norwegian people during their ordeal. He organized the very important illegal newspapers, in order to counterbalance the German propaganda and to get out the truth about the events in the country and the world. He took part in the vital organization of smuggling persecuted people, including hundreds of Jews out of the country, over the border to Sweden. He personally drove many of them to the border in his car and he hid people in the cellar of his house, many times when he entertained SS-officers at the floor above at the same time just to fool them a little more. At those occasions he must have felt a strange satisfaction.
He personally knew the German commandant, General von Falkenhorst, the bosses of the Sicherheits Dienst and the Gestapo henchmen and did what he could to pull strings and extract advantages from the Germans in order to help Norwegians and get them out of the concentration camps. He succeeded in many cases. In 1944 he had to flee the country after the Gestapo had managed to plant a spy in his house in the form of a nanny. The problem was that he did not have a diplomatic immunity; only the Swedish diplomats in Berlin could rely on that protection. The Gestapo tried to assassinate him on several occasions, but failed, mostly thanks to his vigilance and his cold nerves. I have met many Norwegians who owe their lives to him.

During his long diplomatic career, among places like communist Poland in the fifties, Turkey, Indonesia and Guatemala, he helped people in distress on numerous occasions, often by twisting the rules and bypassing legislation.

In Chile he was confronted with a tough challenge that put his wits, cold nerves and courage at their ultimate test.
In 1971 the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, whom he knew since his youth, asked him to become the Swedish Ambassador in Chile. The socialist Salvador Allende was elected president the year before and the Swedish social democratic government and the labour unions had great expectations and hopes to participate in the remaking of the unequal Chilean society. Salvador Allende had started the daunting task of social change and was met by stiff resistance and social strife. The Swedes allotted huge sums of money and experts to the aid of Chile, which, of course, put an immense burden on the embassy. Due to strikes and unrest, the conditions of life in Chile was difficult, but my father got things running and had his receptions and dinners for the endless streams of visitors, fixing food and drinks from nothing, like if nothing was wrong. All the time he had a very close relationship to the president and they became good friends.

So the coup d’état arrived the 11th of September, (my mothers’ birthday). He heard shots in the morning and got the reports of the events. Later in the day he heard intense shooting further down the street of his chancellery, at the Estanques, where the Cuban embassy was located.
He went there at once in order to stop the shooting at his colleges. Chilean troops were firing into the Cuban compound, where they responded the fire with machine guns. The situation was impossible.
He managed to get permission from the commander of the attacking force to enter the Cuban compound, in order to get them to surrender. He went in and refused to come out until the attacking force was withdrawn. Meanwhile he helped the Cuban ambassador to arrange the evacuation of the staff.
The critical moment came when the last busload of Cubans left and the attackers prepared themselves to take over the now empty compound. My father had arranged to get a Swedish flag and hoisted the blue and yellow colours, like a pirate captain, before the soldiers had any chance to get in. The Cuban ambassador had asked him to protect the embassy.

The problem was that he had no authorisation whatsoever from the Swedish Government to do so. He didn’t even have the time to consult the Swedish Foreign Office. In the name of humanity he put his career at stake in a very tense situation and the government had to comply afterwards. Later the Swedish foreign minister lied in the parliament and said that my father had a go for all of his actions. It must, however, be added, that he called to the home of Olof Palme and conferred of what to do. Palma’s wife, Lisbeth, told me how Olof took the phone in his kitchen and had long discussions with my father about the situation in Chile.
Then came the fugitives. The first one was Max Marambio, a member of the bodyguard of the President. He was followed by hundreds of others. Many prominent members of the Unidad Popular.
Another problem arose. According to international law, only Latin American countries had the right to receive fugitives. My father first received the fugitives, who climbed over his fence, without question, still without authorisation from the Swedish foreign office. Afterwards he had to consult the law book and check if he could twist the rules, which he apparently did.

Harald Edelstam became the Raoul Wallenberg of Chile. Not only did he take care of hundreds of fugitives in the Swedish embassy and in the Cuban compound, but also he distributed hundreds of others to diverse embassies and virtually forced some reluctant and scary colleges to receive persecuted people in distress. He was the motor among the foreign diplomats and took initiative in the massive effort to save people who were hunted like animals, because of their beliefs.
Many times he gave fugitives Swedish passports, fake names and dressed them up in order to smuggle them out of the country, among them the Peruvian union leader Hugo Blanco and the four-year-old daughter of the communist leader Volodia Teitelboim. Still without authorisation.

He was very active and went out with his car in the nights in order to pick up people who were on the run. - How many times haven’t I met Chileans who told me that they were transported in the trunk of his car?
Once in Paris, a woman, who was a cashier at a petrol station, cried and kissed me, when she saw my name on the credit card. She had also travelled in his trunk. My wife sitting in the car outside saw the scene and was furious, honking the horn intensely.

The new government assembled their prisoners at the National Football Stadium, which became a place of horror and torture. My father’s first task was to get out the Swedes among the prisoners. It was hard, but he managed in the end. He went there every day to see if there was an opportunity to get people out, like he did at the German concentration camps in Norway during the war.
The prisoners, who even didn’t see him, soon knew his visits. The distinguished filmer Patricio Guzmann, told me that he was locked up, somewhere in the cellars, but when he heard of the visits by the Swedish ambassador, he got hope and encouragement, that he and his comrades were not completely forgotten by the outside world.
The most dramatic event took place one morning, when my father came on his regular visits and heard that 84 Uruguayan Tupamaros and Brazilians were going to be executed. That day the commander, the terrible colonel Espinoza, was absent and his deputy Lavanderos was in charge. My father pleaded to the man and asked for mercy. After lengthy discussions together with other ambassadors, including the Uruguayan ambassador, Lavanderos gave away and gave the permission to release the prisoners. A number of buses were organized in a hurry and they got away.
Next day a furious Espinoza, who explained that Lavanderos was executed the same morning, met my father! – The reasons are very complex, but the decision to let the prisoners go, may be part of it.

The situation got more and more tense for my father. A woman fugitive had an appendix inflammation and had to be whisked to the hospital. The military wanted to arrest her at the spot. At her bedside he started a fistfight and called desperately for his colleges to come and help. The French ambassador later recalled how he was chocked to see his noble and distinguished Swedish college, lying on the floor, holding on the hospital bed, while the soldiers beat him with the butts of the rifles. But he had to give in and let the military take the woman. But she was released afterwards and sent to Sweden.

All these events were widely described in the Swedish press and I remember how astonished I was to see my fathers face in the newspaper every day during that period. I was an innocent student at the moment.

The incident at the hospital was the final nail in the coffin of my father. Accompanied by a dirty campaign of the Chilean press, he was declared ”persona non grata” by the Pinochet junta. He was, shamelessly, kicked out of the country. - But now, as we have seen, the ”Black Pimpernel” is back again in full force.
He got this nickname by the Norwegian resistance. The movie ”The Scarlet Pimpernel” with Leslie Howard was released just before the war.

In the years that followed he worked ceaselessly for the Chilean fugitives and the restoration of democracy. Unfortunately he died 1989, just before the liberation of Chile. He never had the chance to get back to the new, free society that we see here today.

I think that the best way to honour his services to the Chilean people is not to build a monstrous monument somewhere, but to build a monument of ideas and thoughts, that reflects his devotion to decency and respect for mankind.
The horrors of the dictatorship must never be repeated. Every man must be treated as an equal and everyone has the right of fair justice. The stronger and richer must not take advantage of the weaker and poorer. A wane hope, but not hopeless...
The Cathedra of Human Rights in this University is the first cornerstone of this monument. Let’s hope that this will be just the start of many such Institutes all over the world and lets all together make that happen.
Thank you Abraham and Patricio for your passion and your devotion.

Thank you.

Read more about the inauguration in Spanish at the: