Nobel Laureate Refuses Olympic Torch
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, an Atlanta judge clears his courtroom of all but the black defendants to lecture them about wrong choices, and a bit later, directing talented youth in the right direction. We'll talk about how a D.C. high school took on the Broadway musical "The Wiz." But first, the Olympic torch relay to the Summer Games in Beijing has passed through eight cities so far. Protests have marked nearly each stop as activists try to call attention to China's human rights record. Nobel peace laureate and environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, has taken a different tact. Selected to serve as one of the runners for the torch relay held in Dar El Salaam, Tanzania yesterday, she pulled out of participating late last week. Wangari Maathai joins us now from Nairobi, Kenya to talk about her decision, as well as recent developments in Kenya. Welcome back to the program. It's good to talk to you again.
Dr. WANGARI MAATHAI (Kenyan Political Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner): Thank you very much. It's great to be with you.
MARTIN: Now Dr. Maathai, concerns about China's human rights abuses are well known. Why did you initially agree to be a torch bearer, and then why did you change your mind?
Dr. MAATHAI: Actually, there has been - on many days, you mentioned that there has been going on between us, as women Nobel laureates, and just before the relay started, we had actually written a letter to the president of China about the human rights issues, about the Tibet issue, but also the issue of Aun San Suu Kyi, who is our fellow Nobel laureate who has yet to be able to go out and collect her prize, as many people know. We are - we have also been following the issues in Darfur and in all these issues, we have been feeling that China has a very good leeway to create a positive impact. To encourage these governments, including ourselves in Tibet, to promote human rights issues and to really demonstrate, especially with their voice and strength, that it is possible to do big plans and to engage this government, but at the same time, improve human rights issues.
MARTIN: China's environmental record is as questionable as its human rights record, but you said in your statement that you'd been aware of the environmental challenges China has faced as a fast-growing economy, and that some of the environmental initiatives taken by China to comply with the spirit of a green Olympics, such as planting trees and controlling pollution, have been commendable. Was it your thought that by participating you could applaud China's environmental initiatives and that it was part of your way of bringing attention to the positive things that they were trying to do?
Dr. MAATHAI: Yes, indeed, because I think that any huge economy such as China does face challenges. But at the same time, we also know that that momentous economic development in China is also causing a lot of havoc in many other parts of the world and that if China does not care about the human rights record and sustainable management of resources in the country who actually does business, a lot of damage can be done, even as we recognize the value of hard development.
So it was really to draw attention and to encourage her to use her influence, and especially also within the United Nations. We know that with respect to Darfur and Sudan, she has mostly been willing to use her veto to protect the Sudanese government from any sanctions, and I think this is something that needs to be drawn to her attention so that she uses that veto to put pressure on the government to solve the crisis in Darfur, rather than protect her.
MARTIN: But this behavior was well known before, and I guess the question for some might be, why accept at all? None of this behavior is new.
Dr. MAATHAI: When I first accepted to run, I was of course hoping that the leader would be us also promoting peace, us also promoting a unity among humanity, supporting the athletes and all the wonderful, good things that are associated with the leading. But as it started, we all saw how that became more divisive than unifying. I knew that it would be difficult to send two messages at the same time, and that is why I eventually thought that in solidarity with all those who are raising their voices, I would rather withdraw from carrying the torch.
MARTIN: There is the argument that we need to have some kinds of events that are above politics, and some argue that the Olympics should be one of these kinds of events that is kind of beyond the fray, and that there are other ways to get a point across. That seems to be the U.S. President Bush's point of view. I mean, in his argument about why he is going to continue to participate, at least that's what he's saying now. What do you make of that argument?
Dr. MAATHAI: Well, you know, my experience is that there is hardly anything that have plagued the human rights that is not impacted by politics, and it is always so that when human rights are violated, whether it is in South Africa dealing apartheid, or dealing colonialism, it's always very easy for people to say, well, that's just politics, let us separate politics from business. Let us separate politics from sports. But I think that it is a matter of raising public awareness, and, I mean, events such as the Olympics, which has a global impact, can help many people understand that things are not as good as they may be explained to be. And it's just that the Olympics are such a wonderful opportunity for people not only to think about the celebration, but also about the other issues that are negative and are impacting very negatively on other people in their countries.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News and we're speaking with Nobel laureate and environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, about her decision to bow out of the Olympic torch relay. If we could speak for just a moment about what's going on in Kenya. As I'm sure everybody knows, in December, parliamentary elections were held, the results were disputed, many people suspect the results were compromised. In February, President Kibaki and opposition leader Odinga signed a pact to create a coalition government after months of terrible violence. Now we hear that President Kibaki has appointed Mr. Odinga as prime minister. How is that going to work, and is this a hopeful sign to you?
Dr. MAATHAI: It is a hopeful sign because it has taken a long time to bring the two men together to agree. And finally, yesterday, they gave us a cabinet, a very huge cabinet, embarrassingly, for a very poor country like Kenya. But at least a little better than nothing, and hoping that having pleased so many of their supporters and colleagues that it may hold and that we may be able to avoid sliding into the violence such as we experienced in January and February.
MARTIN: You said in your statement, though, about your decision about the Olympic relay, that your efforts to bring about more fair and equitable representation in the cabinet just last week were met with tear gas. What happened?
Dr. MAATHAI: Well, I was trying to impress on the fact that it's not just in China or in Burma or in Darfur, where human rights are being violated. It's just that sometimes we take an opportunity to express the concern in certain areas. I was trying to express to our leadership that a poor country like Kenya cannot really afford a cabinet of 40 ministers and 50 deputies, almost a hundred people! Literally half the Parliament is in the government.
It is completely unacceptable in a country which is coming out of a very serious political and humanitarian crisis, where over half a million people are displaced and they needed to be replaced, taken back to their farms and their houses rebuilt. So I would have thought that I had the freedom to express my opinion and the freedom to raise this with the press, but instead of the government listening, they resorted to beating us and throwing tear gas at us, literally hitting us as if we were committing a serious crime.
MARTIN: How are you now? Were you hurt?
Dr. MAATHAI: Well, I - fortunately, I was not hurt. The tear gas canisters fell, literally, between me and the press that I was talking to. It was completely unacceptable. But that is the kind of human rights violations we constantly find with the governments which at the same time want to pretend that they are democratic.
MARTIN: And finally, you were making the point that a 40-member cabinet with, you know, 50 deputies is just absurd and expensive in a country that still has many great needs, recovering from the violence that occurred over many, many weeks. If you could just briefly tell us, what are some of the needs that remain, that you would wish the world community to pay attention to?
Dr. MAATHAI: Well, as you know, this is a country where more than 60 percent of the people live at the poverty line, according to the United Nations. We have one of the largest slums in the world, right here in Nairobi, and as we speak, we have over half a million in refugee camps and other circles.
We are likely to face a huge crisis of famine because we are in the middle of planting season. These farmers are in what is called Kenya's "grain basket." They are not farming. They are still in the camps. So these are the issues that I would have thought that our government would have been focusing on, rather than on a huge cabinet with very many trappings that eventually make the cabinet extremely expensive to the country.
MARTIN: Nobel Laureate and former Kenyan parliamentarian, Wangari Maathai, leads the Green Belt Movement. It's a grassroots environmental organization she founded in 1977. We were talking about her decision not to participate in the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Dar Es Salam over the weekend. Dr. Maathai, will you keep us posted on developments there, please?
Dr. MAATHAI: We definitely will. We are looking to see how the cabinet will operate. We know that Parliament will resume tomorrow, so we are very hopeful. We'll keep up with it.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Dr. MAATHAI: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.