Nuremberg's support of human rights creates new image

At last weekend's annual peace festival, an African lawyer took center

The city of Nuremberg is inextricably linked with Germany's Nazi past. During the Third Reich, it served as the party's model city and was the site of torchlight parades to celebrate racist values.

After World War II, it was the scene of trials for Nazi leaders accused of crimes against humanity.

So some may be surprised to learn that Nuremberg now gives out an annual international peace and human-rights prize. For this city, in the western region of Bavaria, also has a much older tradition of peace, which was celebrated over the weekend.

The Nuremberg Peace Banquet is a festival dating back to 1649 and the Peace of Westphalia, ending the 30-Years' War. Despite steady rain, thousands of Nurembergers turned out with their umbrellas for a common "peace meal" on outdoor picnic tables stretching through the historic inner city. The 4.6 miles of benches formed "the world's longest peace banquet."

Considering the downpour, observers here offered an apt spin, stressing that defense of human rights needs year-round vigilance "and not just in fair weather."

This year's prize was awarded to Mauritanian lawyer Fatimata M'Baye, for her work as an advocate for African women and children.

Located in western Africa, Mauritania is a mostly desert nation (the Western Sahara) a little larger than Texas and New Mexico combined. It is an Islamic republic of 2.4 million, and much of the legal system is based on Sharia, or Islamic law. President Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya, in power since 1984, was reelected in 1997 in elections widely regarded as fraudulent.

In its 1998 country report on human rights practices, the US State Department said the "government's human rights record remained poor ... although there was some improvement in a few areas.... Democratic institutions remain rudimentary ... and in practice the right to a fair trial was restricted."

Mauritania's Arab Moorish government has twice sentenced Ms. M'Baye to prison for speaking out against vestiges of slavery, a practice officially outlawed in her country in 1980. It took a strong world protest in 1998 to gain her release from serving the second jail sentence.

Still today, M'Baye insists, Mauritania's ruling Moors are "stifling the liberties and rights of individuals" on ethnic, tribal, regional, or social grounds.

Nuremberg's current lord mayor, Ludwig Scholz, pointed to the irony as he lauded the jury's choice, recalling 1935 when the Nazis "proclaimed their degrading and inhumane racial laws" as well as the city's postwar redemption policy.

In explaining their choice, the prize award panel, including Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, described M'Baye as a symbolic figure fighting for respect of human rights in Africa.

The prizewinner herself seemed ill at ease in the spotlight, quoting a proverb of her ethnic group, the Haal Pulaar: "Those who blow their own trumpet tend to heap gold and silver on their heads."

She credited her "fighting spirit" and her insistence on human dignity for all to her mother's influence in raising a large Muslim family.

"It was she," M'Baye said in her acceptance speech, "who brought up her children, girls and boys alike, in a spirit of love and respect for each other.

This outlook made M'Baye a determined fighter for equal rights as a teenager and during her university years in the capital, Noukchott. Every day, she told her Nuremberg audience, she saw men, women, and children "becoming victims of all kinds of oppression, contempt, and humiliation, and living in conditions of abject poverty."

M'Baye told the audience she had only known their city from high-school history books focusing on the horrors of World War II. Yet she now sees it as "a symbol of great hope in the world."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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