Stephane Hessel, a prominent Holocaust survivor and a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, died on Tuesday in Paris, aged 95.
His long and storied life, which included an upbringing surrounded by famous French intellectuals, fighting in the resistance against Nazism, imprisonment in a concentration camp and a late-life run as the author of a widely distributed populist pamphlet, briefly connected with Cambodia on September 15, 2009, when he testified via videolink as an expert at the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s landmark case against Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.
The defence initially requested Hessel appear because, as a concentration camp survivor, and with his post-war work towards Franco-German reconciliation, he might offer a personal perspective on the “issue of forgiveness,” according to the trial transcript.
But his testimony was much broader than that, with references to poetry and history, philosophy and his own experiences spanning almost all of the 20th century. Speaking at the age of 91 from his home in Paris, Hessel talked about victims’ rights and the question of whether the guilt of a criminal is assuaged by confession. He compared the tribunal to the Nuremberg trials against Nazi leaders, stressing their importance in the path to reconciliation in post-war Europe.
“In my view, the concept of forgiveness should be handled as carefully as possible. It can apply, and . . . I refer to the work of a major French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, as being useful to all parties concerned “Impunity is unacceptable and the process of reconciliation should not be hasty and . . . it should involve shedding light on all the harm that was done to these people.”