Note from the Chairman of the MEA
The value of human rights awards:
in the end it is all about individual courage and recognition
The Nobel Peace Prize is given every year in Oslo on 10 December, International Human Rights Day, and not on 21 September, which is the International Day of Peace. This is the result of a coincidence: Alfred Nobel died on 10 December 1896 and since then this is ‘Nobel Day' in Sweden and Norway. The Nobel Peace Prize is given for contributions to ‘peace', not necessarily for ‘human rights', and on a few occasions it has been awarded to individuals merely because they stopped violating human rights. Still, the great majority of recent laureates, including the 2003 winner, Ms Shirin Ebadi from Iran, can safely be said to belong to the category of human rights defenders (HRDs).
At the international diplomatic level human rights may nowadays receive a lot of attention, but when it comes to the actual implementation at the grassroots level it is still the dedication of individual human beings that counts most. Fortunately, there are many such heroes: some lobbying discreetly for improvements, others taking tremendous personal risks by publicly challenging the powers that be or bringing cases of victims to court. They often have to sacrifice more than their time and energy, too many having been arrested, tortured and even killed.
Without the individual human rights defender, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights law risks to remain a dead letter. It is for this reason that almost all human rights organisations have some degree of mandate to come to the succour of threatened colleagues. Many organisations at both the local and international level have some kind of human rights award. However, ten international human rights organisations, including the most influential such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights, have set their differences aside to join in a common award for such courageous individuals: the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
Within the human rights movement there is occasionally criticism of awards because they focus on individuals as opposed to movements and collective causes. Ideological preference aside little supports this contention. The laureates themselves tend to stress the overriding importance of their team and their cause in the same way as Oscar winners insist on thanking their family, colleagues and directors. And in the same way that Oscars tend to attract the public's attention to winning films, human rights awards can lift an issue to an unprecedented level of international recognition. Bishop Tutu thought so with regard to apartheid and Ramos Horta acknowledged that his Nobel Prize lifted East-Timor's cause out of the doldrums.
A more pertinent question is whether awards are really effective. To answer that, one has to know in which way human rights awards intend to help human rights defenders. In the first place, almost all awards want to give recognition and encouragement at the moral and psychological level. This goal should not be trivialized, as activists often have to work in environments that are not appreciative of their efforts, and the causes they defend can be unpopular even within their own social circles. Secondly, many awards come with a measure of direct financial support, which can be of great importance as even relatively small amounts go far in cash-strapped organisations, often based in developing countries.
Finally, the most important but also the most elusive goal is to provide protection . The latter is not really possible without a fair degree of publicity. However, with the exception of the Nobel Prize, the best publicity that is obtained by human rights awards tends to be in countries where the awards are given which is not precisely the most effective. In fact, from the protection point of view, the most crucial publicity is at the local level, in the country of the human rights activist in question. The award givers may want to see the name of their organisation or sponsor referred to in the media of their own country (usually in the West) but the recipients of the award are better served by attention and recognition in their own countries, often in the South with a low level of literacy and limited independent press. Hence the importance of the use of the mass media, in particular radio and television. Two case studies from recent MEA winners may illustrate the point.
Jacqueline Moudeina, a lawyer from Chad, had the temerity to pursue the former dictator Hissène Habré and his accomplices. A grenade was launched at her by one of the security officials whom she is suing, and almost cost her her life. She went to Paris for medical treatment for which the prize money helped to pay. She received the Martin Ennals Award on 11 April 2002. As a result Jacqueline Moudeina was invited as a guest in 3 different TV programmes that were all re-broadcast worldwide on TV5, and that included Chad. At the end of August that year, Jacqueline could finally go home, accompanied by two representatives from international human rights organisations. The reception was overwhelming, with her supporters lining the streets.
In 2003, the same award went to Alirio Uribe Muñoz from Colombia. The whole ceremony was this time broadcast live and as a result of the re-transmission on TV5 it was seen by many people in Colombia. The fact that Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, handed over the award added clearly to the impact. Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was a few months later killed in the attack on the UN compound in Baghdad, expressed on the occasion great concern for the life of others. How little did we realize that he would be the one to need protection most! Upon return to Bogotá, Alirio was offered a reception by the Dutch Ambassador and one the guests told the Ambassador that this reception provided the laureate “more protection than an armoured car”.
Finally, it has been suggested that human rights awards could endanger the lives of the laureates. It is true that there is always the risk of backfiring, but the best judge of the balance between increased risk and greater protection remains the human rights defender in question. And generally they seem to regard publicity and exposure foremost as a form of protection, perhaps reflecting also the increased importance of the media even in the tense situations. The bigger problem with seeking increased protection through publicity is perhaps that the media are not automatically interested in all human rights awards.
Upon learning that she was the laureate for 2004, Lida Yusupova from the Chechen Republic in the Russian Federation, said: “To be the laureate of the Martin Ennals Award is not only an honour, it is also a guaranty of security for my activities and my life”. She receives her prize on 7 April in Geneva, also in the hope to go ‘from the front line to the front page'.
Chairman of the Martin Ennals Foundation
© Hans Thoolen, 2004