Beautifully Brave Bianca
A lifelong advocate for peace, in every sense of the word, Bianca Jagger remains a global style icon, and most importantly, a tireless voice for social justice.
As a young girl growing up in Nicaragua, taking inspiration from her mother, she promised to never accept being treated as a second-class citizen. This confidence and appreciation of self built the foundation of strength on which she stands, shouting to the world, “Awake and rise up.”
Jagger left home early on to study political science in Paris, a city that forever left an impression in its style and politics. She became a darling in the eyes of the fashion and art worlds, and influenced an entire generation with her smart allure. But she had bigger plans in mind.
To this day, she holds a great passion for the arts, butÂ her most lasting impact will most certainly be her decades of humanitarian work with organizations including Amnesty International and her own Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. She has a keen eye for technology’s ability to move our society forward, utilizing social media on a regular basis to spread her message across the world and break traditional lines of division. Her bold outreach on behalf of subjects of disenfranchisement—prisoners on death row, women, indigenous peoples, the atmosphere and environment—is truly admirable.
What did you dream life would be as a child? Growing up, what people did you most admire, and how did they help shape your worldview?
I was born in Nicaragua. My parents divorced when I was 10 years-old. My mother found herself single, without a profession, and with three small children to care for. I watched her being discriminated against because of her gender and status. During those difficult years she exhibited great courage and strength—she never gave up. My mother was a pioneer. She believed in women’s emancipation at a time when most women in Nicaragua of the sixties solely devoted themselves to homemaking and were regarded as second-class citizens. My mother was my role model. I admired her independence and determination to achieve her goals. Through her I learned about the legendary General Augustus Cesar Sandino, a national hero who led the resistance against the U.S. Marine invasions of Nicaragua in the early 20th century. Later on I discovered Eleanor Roosevelt, and her role in helping to draft the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. She became one of my role models. Since early on in my life I have wanted to make a difference.
What brought you to study in France, and why did you choose political science?
My mother impressed upon me the importance of a good education, and she supported my decision to apply for a scholarship to study political science in France. I went to Paris with a French government scholarship to study political science because I wanted to have a career in politics, and I thought that would be the best way to achieve it. I was determined not to endure my mother’s fate. I promised myself that I was never going to be treated like a second-class citizen and be discriminated against because of my gender and status. Little did I know what the future had in store.
Paris had a profound effect on me. It shaped my way of thinking. I learned about concepts and principles I could only have dreamed about in Nicaragua: freedom, democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties, habeas corpus, freedom of speech. Many French philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and writers such as Albert Camus and Antonin Artaud influenced my thinking. I don’t think I would be the person I am today, had I not gone to study in Paris.
How does being a Latin American woman color your perspective of the world?
My education in France shaped my beliefs and views. But my perspective of the world is unquestionably rooted in my Latin American origins. My mother inspired me to be interested in politics, human rights, social justice and protection of the environment. Through her, I learned the meaning of injustice and oppression very early on in life. As a teenager I participated in student demonstrations against the Somoza regime. We were protesting against student massacres perpetrated by Somoza’s national guards. I remember an occasion when we were tear-gassed and I took refuge in a church, my father had to rescue me.
Looking back on living in New York City throughout the 70s—with all of its mythos surrounding now legendary scenes—what makes you smile looking back?
Thinking of Andy Warhol makes me smile. To me, he wasn’t just a creative genius but a very dear friend. Being with Andy was a constant adventure. He had a childlike nature, a great capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity. He was never blasé or bored with life, which may have been one of the reasons he was such an original artist. He was very mischievous, sometimes a troublemaker. Andy had such a youthful nature that it was only when he died, that I realised that he was just three years younger than my mother, I always thought of him as my contemporary. He also had a thoughtful side. He was a Catholic, and his faith was very important in his life. We both vehemently opposed the death penalty. Andy began to use the image of the electric chair in 1963, the same year as the two final executions in New York State. Andy wanted to make people aware of injustice. Over the next decade, he repeatedly returned to the subject, reflecting the political controversy surrounding the death penalty in America.
Can you speak about your encounter in 1981 with a Salvadoran death squad as they held a group of refugees at gunpoint? How did that change you as a person?
In 1981 I travelled to Honduras on a U.S. Congressional fact-finding mission, visiting a U.N. refugee camp, 20 km from the border of El Salvador. During my visit to the camp an armed death squad crossed the border from El Salvador. With the Honduran army’s blessing, they entered the camp and rounded up about forty refugees to take them back to El Salvador. We (the delegation, the relief workers and myself) feared that the death squads were going to kill the hostages once they arrived in Salvadoran territory. Armed only with cameras, we followed the death squad and hostages for about half an hour. Finally, we came within earshot of them. The death squad turned, brandishing their M-16’s. Fearing for our lives, we began to shout, “You will have to kill us all,” and, “We will denounce your crime to the world.” There was a long pause. The death squad talked among themselves and, without explanation, left, leaving their hostages free—unharmed. This experience was a turning point for me. It marked the beginning of my human rights campaigning. It made me realize the importance of bearing witness when innocent people’s lives are at stake, how a small act of courage can make a difference, and sometimes save lives. Upon my return to the U.S., I testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs, to bring attention to the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran government and its paramilitary forces, with the complicity of the Honduran government and the regionalisation of the conflict in Central America.
What in your opinion is the most pressing global issue that needs to be addressed?
Climate change is the most urgent issue we face today. Climate change is accelerating. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has risen by 31 percent since 1750 and is now at the highest concentration seen in the last 420,000 years. According to the U.S. National Climate Data Center, 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental U.S. The science cannot and should not be ignored.
We are approaching the tipping point, or point of no return. We have less than 50 months to make drastic changes to lower emissions and stop a global temperature increase that would devastate the planet and jeopardise the future of life on earth. I am not being alarmist. The situation is alarming. If you had told me twenty years ago that by 2012 global carbon emissions would have increased by around 50 percent, that 1 billion people in the world would be hungry, that fossil fuel subsidies would amount to $1 trillion a year, I would have been horrified. During U.S. presidential elections, climate change should have been at the top of the political agenda. But it was not.
Do you think that our international political institutions are capable of meaningful change?
I am afraid I have great misgivings.
Indigenous rights are often overlooked. Why do you find it important to address those issues, and what can we learn from indigenous peoples?
The values of indigenous and tribal peoples have shaped my relationship to our planet, and our responsibilities towards her. During my 30 years of campaigning for human rights, social and economic justice and environmental protection, I have campaigned on behalf of many indigenous tribes in Latin America: the Miskitos in Nicaragua, the Yanomami, the Guarani, and the Surui Paiter in Brazil, the CofÃ¡n, Siona, Secoya, Kichwa, and Huaorani tribes in Ecuador. I learned from their wisdom, and also from their courage. Indigenous and tribal peoples traditionally do not seek to exploit their environment, but live in harmony with the ecosystem. They are the natural custodians of the land where they live, eat and work. As my friend Dr. Mark Plotkin, ethnobotanist, conservation expert and president of the Amazon Conservation Team has said, “Indigenous peoples have repeatedly been shown to be the most effective guardians of the rainforests they inhabit.”
What is your proudest accomplishment?
In February 1993, I travelled through the former Yugoslavia with United Nations High Commission for Refugees personnel, and witnessed unspeakable horrors inflicted on innocent civilians because of their ethnic origins and their religion. As a woman and a mother, my first instinct was to protect the children. I went back in March 1993 to the town of Tuzla, and for nearly 6 weeks, I endured shelling by the Serbian army, the indifference of the United Nations, and the confusion of an escalating war to save two children who were severely ill. I was asked by a doctor at the children’s ward of the Tuzla hospital to evacuate Sabina, a little girl of 12, suffering from a form of leukaemia, which, if treated on time, has an 80 percent survival rate, and Mohammed, an 8 year-old boy suffering from a congenital heart problem, Blue Baby Syndrome. He was in urgent need of an operation, which is normally performed before the age of two. The Tuzla hospital could not provide adequate medical treatment for these two children. They were condemned to die if they stayed in Bosnia. Consistent with the Serbian policy of shelling hospitals and schools, the Tuzla hospital had been a target. To protect the children, the paediatric ward was transferred to the windowless basement of the building. The ward was filled with amputee children. Prostheses were not available. One image is seared into my memory: a mother from Zepa pushing her two daughters in a wheelchair. Each little girl had had a leg amputated. The operations had been performed by a medical assistant with a hacksaw, and without anesthesia.
I requested that Sabina and Mohammed be transported to Croatia in a United Nations Protection Force helicopter, and despite my limited access to the outside world, I managed to get formidable humanitarian efforts behind Sabina and Mohamed’s evacuation. The Albert Schweitzer Institute arranged for their hospital and medical treatment in the U.S. A Congressman and his staff worked tirelessly to help me obtain visas, and made countless telephone calls to plead with UNPROFOR. Although I met all the requirements set by UNPROFOR, they refused to provide a helicopter. They demanded an evacuation endorsement from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee for the Red Cross. Both were granted, but this was not enough. Up to the last minute, they claimed the fax from UNHCR had not arrived. Four weeks into my stay, the doctor told me that Sabina only had ten days to live if she was not treated. All the while, Sabina was losing hope, and her will to live. She was weakening. She was in constant pain. Her big blue eyes became filled with doubt. She was unable to eat or get out of bed. She would force herself to smile when I mentioned America and the helicopters. I realized there were only two options left: to let her die in Tuzla or to evacuate her by land. I went to see Major Phillip Jennings, the Commander of the British battalion, and persuaded him to escort us on a harrowing, two-day journey through Bosnia’s mountainous terrain and war zones. We set off in a four-wheel drive vehicle, since we could not secure an ambulance. By the time we arrived in Vitez, Sabina was bleeding from her nose and vomiting blood. Three days after we arrived in Split, she suffered from brain hemorrhaging, fell into a coma, and died. A 40-minute helicopter ride six weeks earlier could have saved her life.
Mohammed came back with me to the United States, and after undergoing heart surgery at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, he lived with me for almost a year. I cared for him in my home, and took him with me almost everywhere until we were finally able to bring his family to the United States. Mohammed and his family lived in New Jersey for a couple of years. At the end of the war his parents asked me to help them go back to Tuzla. Unfortunately, the story of Mohammed and Sabina is a story not just about what one person can do through care and perseverance, but also about institutional failure and indifference, bureaucracy and how it can fail the most vulnerable members of society. This was a very sad moment, but also a hopeful one, because Mohamed survived. It shows why I campaign for children’s rights, for peace, and why I founded the BJHRF: to speak out on behalf of those who are most vulnerable. A young girl like Sabina had no voice before a powerful international organisation like the U.N. I must speak for her and for others like her — to make sure they are not forgotten or ignored. Today there are thousands of Mohammeds and Sabinas all over the world. Innocent children who have no access to medical care, either because their parents cannot afford it or because they are trapped in the middle of a war.
The Bianca Jagger Human Rights foundation is dedicated to sustainable development, corporate accountability, and climate change action. What sparked you to start this organization, and how has it evolved?
I founded the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation to be a voice for the most vulnerable members of society. For those, who, like Mohamed and Sabina, cannot speak for themselves. The BJHRF is dedicated to defending human rights, achieving social justice, eradicating poverty, protecting the rights of indigenous peoples, speaking up for future generations and addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change. These issues may seem unrelated, but their causes, and their solutions, are interconnected. I have always addressed them with a holistic approach.
The BJHRF works closely with artists. In 2011 we held the first Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation fundraiser at Philips de Pury, London. The event brought together my two great passions: human rights and the arts. The aim was to highlight the invaluable role that artists play in standing up for democratic principles, in defence of human rights, civil liberties and freedom of expression. We were very fortunate that many wonderful artists donated works.
The event also gave us the opportunity to present the first BJHRF awards to two inspirational figures: the artist Ai Weiwei, who was unjustly incarcerated by the Chinese authorities, and who continues to be subject to arbitrary bail conditions, received the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Courage in recognition of his heroic dedication to free speech and democratic principles; and Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, Chief of the Gamebey Clan of the SuruÃ People of RondÃ´nia in Brazil, was presented with the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation Award for Leadership in recognition of his visionary leadership of the Surui people, and his courageous struggle in defense of their ancestral land in the Amazon.
The BJHRF is dedicated to research, education and advocacy, to close liaison with local communities, grassroots organizations, and government officials. As the foundation grows, I hope to be able to undertake more research and fact-finding missions. My report on the mega-dams in the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, contained first-hand accounts and testimony from a variety of people: The Bishop of Xingu, Dr Erwin Krautler, Jose Carlos Arara, leader of the Arara people, government officials in Rondonia, NGO’s like Xingu Vivo and International Rivers, who are based in the area. I was able to obtain these accounts because I travelled around the area myself, speaking to those who are affected by the dams: local communities, the indigenous and tribal people. This local research and connection helps a great deal, when raising awareness of the causes I support.
What goals have you yet to fulfill that you are determined to see through?
I strongly believe that we must embark upon a global renewable energy revolution. It is the only option for a sustainable future. We cannot continue to be locked into our inefficient, oil driven economy. The conversion to renewable energy will lower carbon emissions, mitigate climate change, alleviate the imminent energy crisis, and contribute to social and economic development. It will have measurable and immediate effects on energy and food security. Global trends for investment and growth in renewables are promising, but renewable energy will need continued support and investment from governments and businesses in order to achieve its potential and mitigate climate change. We must broaden our thinking to provide financial incentives that empower households and businesses to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. All governments should give this precedence.
I will continue to campaign for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. For the last three decades I have been campaigning and speaking out against capital punishment. In 2003 I was appointed Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador for the Worldwide Abolition of the Death Penalty. The death penalty is unfair, arbitrary and capricious, often based on jurisprudence fraught with racial discrimination and judicial bias. Those who are executed are rarely those who have committed the worst crimes; the death penalty is a Russian roulette. It is a violation of our most inalienable right: the right to life — a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment done in the name of justice.
I have campaigned on behalf of many prisoners on death row. Tragically, some of them have already been executed. On June 22, 2000, at his request, I witnessed the execution of Gary Graham, an innocent man who was a juvenile when he was sentenced to death in Texas, on the basis of one eyewitness account. It was an experience that changed my life. I cannot express what it felt like to watch a state sanctioned murder. It was inhuman, barbaric.
With everything going on outside, are you still able to follow and enjoy today’s fashion world?
I am interested in style, more than in fashion. I love beautiful, well cut clothes. Throughout my life I have been friends with great designers. Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Ossie Clark. More recently, Yohji Yamamoto, Francisco Costa, Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I’m an optimistic person, and to be a human rights campaigner you have to have a positive outlook. You have to believe change is possible, that each individual has the power to change history. For example, as individuals, we must realise the impact of our daily activities on the environment and make choices that contribute to the global effort to fight climate change, whether it is to choose “greener” transport and renewable energy, cut down on air travel, eat foods that are produced locally, or reduce our carbon footprint. These are not easy choices. It’s very difficult to practice what I preach. The challenges we face are considerable. But we mustn’t give up. Not all the news is bad.
What is your WILD Wish?
It would be tackling climate change and eradicating poverty. The two are interconnected. If I was going to choose something for myself, I’d love to spend a year in a sail boat, going round the world, and ending in Nicaragua.