Ján Figeľ lives between two epochs: the first, in which communist forces in what was then Czechoslovakia killed the uncle for whom he is named, and the second, in which Mr. Figel’ carried on the struggle for religious freedom as a European Union envoy.
That uncle “disappeared in the time of Stalin,” the Slovakian human rights campaigner said in an interview with The Washington Times. “It was the elimination of opponents. Stalin used to say, ‘If there is a man, there is a problem. If there is no man, there is no problem.’”
He added, “My uncle, a university student, was eliminated because he had different opinions than the ideological totalitarian regime.”
To this day, the family does not know where that Ján Figel’ is buried, his namesake said.
A former Christian Democratic Movement member of Slovakia’s parliament and a state secretary in the country’s ministry of foreign affairs, Mr. Figel’ led the country’s accession negotiations with the European Union until 2003. He later served as Slovakia’s deputy prime minister and minister for transport, construction and regional development.
His subsequent work as a European Union representative for religious freedom brought him to Washington last week as a speaker at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit.
At the summit, Mr. Figel’ said human dignity is foundational to human rights.
“Aggressors, namely even [Russian Federation President Vladimir] Putin, do not speak about dignity, which is a pity, because this deeper reflection would prevent [them] from some barbaric decisions,” he said.
Mr. Figel’ lamented a world in which the lessons of the Second World War and the promise of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights — which turns 75 in December — are largely forgotten.
“We hoped to have a century without wars, but evidently, repetition is part of our journey,” he said.
He said the “moral awakening” that followed the horrors of the Second World War, including the systematic murder of six million Jews and countless others by the Nazis, sparked the UDHR and anti-genocide conventions. Yet genocide continues, in part because “there is not much attention to deeper roots of our values, to reflecting ethical or moral rules, which are important for business, for coexistence, for living together in diversity.”
Mr. Figel’ said “peace in society, basically, is the fruit of justice. And when justice is neglected, and missing or oppressed, then we all have a problem.”
He said change is possible: “Actions of like-minded politicians who care about freedom of religion or belief, and dignity for all, can turn the tide. The 21st century I believe can be more humane if we care more about dignity for all.”
Mr. Figel’ said his belief in human dignity as a cornerstone of freedom led him to help create the 2018 Punta Del Este Declaration supporting “human dignity for everyone, everywhere,” and marking the UDHR’s 70th anniversary.
He also spoke at the IRF Summit about a “Declaration in Support of Fundamental Human Rights and Human Dignity” that was signed by event co-chairs Ambassador Sam Brownback, former envoy for the State Department’s office of international religious freedom, and Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett as well as many of the guests at the event.
“The more we have like-minded people, personalities, authorities, organizations, the more chance there is for the culture. of human dignity to prevail,” Mr. Figel’ said.
He said he is neither optimistic nor pessimistic in his work.
“I stay determined,” Mr. Figel’ said. “I think that for free people, for mature citizens, a strong will means the best answer. So [it is] not so much about feelings of optimism or pessimism, but commitment.”