Welcome address by Vytautas Leškevičius, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Discussion "The European Parliament Sakharov Prize Laureates and their struggle for freedom of thought"

06 December 2013, Last updated at, 15:25 EEST
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Dear Sakharov Prize winners,

Dear Colleagues,

It is quite symbolic that we begin this discussion to honor the winners of the Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in the square dedicated to the most famous Lithuanian promoter of freedom of speech – Vincas Kudirka.

It is even more symbolic that a couple of kilometers away from here, in front of the Vilnius Press House, there is another square titled in the honor of Andrei Sakharov.

It was 1975 that he came to this city to support a dissident friend in trial. This historic visit inspired local freedom activists to seek an independent and democratic Lithuania.

It was the same 1975 that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize but the Soviet authorities would not allow him to travel to Oslo to receive the award. In January 1980, without any legal procedure, Sakharov was picked up on the streets of Moscow by KGB agents and spirited off to exile in the city of Gorky for challenging the totalitarian Soviet system.

And who could have thought that one of the greatest freedom fighters of the 20th century could evolve from a Soviet nuclear physicist tasked to create the atom bomb?
Even though the European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize back in 1988 when the Cold War was not yet over, the life and the ideas of Andrei Sakharov are still an inspiration to millions of people all over the world. And even after the fall of the Iron Curtain there is a need for such heroes to defend the ideal of freedom of thought.

Dear Guests,

Lithuanians does not take liberty as a given. Our country has enormously suffered in the past. We know what it means to be oppressed. We know what it means to struggle for human dignity. This is why it was our responsibility to be a shining light in the darkness of Soviet system. And today, together with the European Union partners, we are showing the world that there is a better way. But the most basic values we advocate are not European values – they are universal values.

Human rights are universal. We all value human dignity, freedom of thought and expression, as well as a responsible and accountable government. And we are all entitled to it. Andrei Sakharov was truly devoted human rights activist and human rights defender and this is what the prize that bears his name is all about.

The Sakharov prize has enormous value because it reflects the political environment of a quickly changing world. On both sides, to the East and to the South of European Union we have witnessed and are witnessing history in the making. Recent events, like the ones we are observing in Ukraine, once again have confirmed that human rights and democracy promotion have to be the core pillars of our external action. This is the value added of our common foreign policy, making it more than just the sum of our national interests. Today these common values are binding our nations together and shaping the European image around the world.

Andrei Sakharov lived to see the start of the changes in Central and Eastern Europe; he saw the Berlin Wall coming down and the prominent Baltic Way – the beginnings of the freedoms for which he had fought. It is our belief that today's human rights activists struggle in all regions of the world will see genuine and lasting freedom; the type of freedom that we enjoy in the European Union.

Much has changed in those 24 years since the death of Andrei Sakharov, but many problems Sakharov confronted remain: unaccountable regimes and institutions; politicised trials; inhumane prison conditions; the retention of the death penalty; curbs on freedoms of association and assembly; denial of freedom of expression and the free exchange of information and ideas; and the suppression of those who speak out.

Dear Friends,

Andrei Sakharov was a universal man whose example and thoughts remain acutely relevant in today’s world. His insistence that peace is the parent and the child of human rights and democracy has proven true during the last decades.

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