WHAT IS THE MEA IN A FEW WORDS?
The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA), created in 1993, is granted annually to someone who has demonstrated an exceptional record of combating human rights violations by courageous and innovative means. The award aims at encouraging Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) who are at risk and therefore in need of immediate protection. This protective publicity requires media attention, particularly in the country of origin of the laureate. The prize money of at least 20’000 Swiss Francs is to be used for further work in the field of human rights. The Martin Ennals Foundation is a unique collaboration among ten of the world's leading human rights NGOs, who form the JURY: Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; International Federation of Human Rights; World Organisation Against Torture; Front Line; International Commission of Jurists; Human Rights First; International Service for Human Rights; Diakonie Germany; HURIDOCS.
ARE HUMAN RIGHTS AWARDS REALLY EFFECTIVE?
To answer that, one has to know in which way a human rights award intends to help. 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. Unlike the first two goals, the latter is not really possible without a fair degree of publicity.
THERE ARE MANY HUMAN RIGHTS AWARDS; WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT THE MEA?
Many cities, countries and organisations, national and international, have some kind of human rights award; there exist probably hundreds of them. However, only a few focus specifically on Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), have an 18-year track record and are truly international. The MEA has a Jury composed of ten international human rights organisations, including the most influential. This makes it the award of the whole movement.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE WITH THE NOBEL PRIZE?
The Nobel Peace Prize is intended for contributions to ‘peace’, not necessarily ‘human rights’. One could even say that on a few occasions in the past, it has been awarded to individuals merely because they stopped violating human rights. Still, many laureates can safely be said to belong to the category of HRDs. In terms of impact, the 100-year old Nobel Prize is a case apart, and it would be wrong to compare other awards only with this special case. But the huge impact of the Nobel Peace prize continues to inspire others.
DOES THE MEA SUCCEED IN GETTING PROTECTIVE PUBLICITY?
Yes, and increasingly so, but the modalities keep changing. In the beginning it was mostly through the written press. From 2002-2006 the ceremony was partially or totally broadcast by national and international televisions such as RTS and TV5. International media networks such as Reuters, BBC, Voice of America and Al-Jazeera interviewed the MEA laureates. Most importantly, these interviews are broadcast in the country/region of origin of the laureates. This was the case of an interview of Aktham Naisse, MEA Laureate 2005, which was extensively broadcast in Syria. Furthermore, as from 2008 the images from the annual ceremony are recorded professionally and broadcast via the internet as well as distributed on DVD, subtitled in several languages including those of the laureates.
IS THERE A RISK THAT THE PUBLICITY ENDANGERS THE LAUREATE?
It is sometimes suggested that human rights awards could endanger 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 without exception they seem to regard publicity and exposure foremost as a form of protection, perhaps reflecting also the increased importance of the media even in tense situations. 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”. The broad composition and independent status of the MEA Jury is another factor which makes it difficult for governments to portray the laureates as ‘stooges’ supported by foreign powers, which is easier to do when the award is plainly a governmental award.
WHO ARE EXACTLY ‘HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS’?
There is an ‘official’ but broad definition derived from the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of 9 December (see UN Resolution 53/144 in document A/RES/53/144 of 8 March 1999). The MEA has adopted for its own use the following: “For the purpose of selecting candidates for the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the Jury considers an eligible human rights defender (HRD) to be one who risks or suffers victimisation, harassment or disadvantage for exercising the rights expressed in the International Bill of Rights, and who, in conformity with these instruments, promotes and protects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others, individually or in groups.”
WHY FOCUS ON HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS?
Without the individual human rights defender, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights law risk to remain a dead letter. There are many such persons: some lobbying discreetly for improvements, others demonstrating loudly. However, some feel that they have to take tremendous personal risks by publicly challenging the powers that be or bringing cases of victims to court. These heroes often have to sacrifice more than their time and energy, too many having been arrested, tortured and even killed. Almost all human rights organisations have to some degree a mandate to come to the succour of threatened colleagues.
IS IT RIGHT TO FOCUS SO MUCH ON INDIVIDUALS INSTEAD OF MOVEMENTS AND CAUSES?
When it comes to the actual implementation at the grassroots level it is still the dedication and courage of individual human beings that count most. The laureates themselves tend to stress anyway the overriding importance of their team and their cause. Also, ‘human interest’ stories (with film images) get across much easier on individuals – with whom the audience can identify – than on organisations. Bishop Tutu thought so with regard to apartheid and José Ramos-Horta acknowledged that his Nobel Prize lifted East-Timor’s cause out of the doldrums.
WHY IS THE MEA CEREMONY IN GENEVA?
The City of Geneva, which co-organizes the annual ceremony since 2008, is an international hub for human rights and humanitarian work and it is the “home” of key human rights organizations and meetings such as the UN Human Rights Council. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – who usually hands over the award – is also in Geneva. Four of the 10 NGOs on the Jury have their seat in Geneva, while 3 have a field office there. The Martin Ennals Foundation has its Secretariat in Geneva at the office of one of the members on the Jury: first at HURIDOCS, and for the last years at OMCT.
WHY IS THE MEA NOT GIVEN ON 10 DECEMBER (HUMAN RIGHTS DAY)?
10 December would indeed in many ways be appropriate, but many organisations already organize activities of their own at national and international level. The MEA – as a collaborative project – would not want to be in direct competition with its own members. Moreover, 10 December is also the day of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. (Alfred Nobel died on 10 December 1896 and therefore that day is ‘Nobel Day’ in Sweden and Norway. Much later, after the Second World War, the United Nations declared 10 December to be International Human Rights Day and designated 21 September as the International Day of Peace. The curious result is that the Peace prize is given on International Human Rights Day.)
DO HUMAN RIGHTS AWARDS USUALLY GET PUBLICITY?
Yes, to some extent, but most human rights awards tend to obtain publicity in the countries where the awards are given. However, from the protection point of view, the most crucial publicity would be 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 border-crossing radio, television and internet) and the language of the laureates. A good illustration of effective local publicity is the decision by the European Union to instruct its representative in the country of origin of the MEA laureate to give a public reception in her or his honour.
DOES THE AMOUNT OF PRIZE MONEY MATTER?
The prize money of the MEA, at least 20’000 Swiss Francs, is not the main element in providing protection. Still, this amount is meaningful, especially in developing countries, and useful as it is to be used freely by the laureates for their human rights’ work. Many laureates have used some of the prize money to tour capitals and meet political decision-makers.
HOW IS THE MEA FUNDED?
Being truly international and independent means also that there is not a single entity (country, city or organisation) that provides the core funding. The Martin Ennals Foundation has a group of partners – some of them on a multi-year basis – but the long-term prospects remain fragile. The City of Geneva is a specially important partner as it takes on the main costs (in kind and services) for the organisation of the annual ceremony. It should also be noted that the MEA is a cost-efficient project. The full costs of running the MEA are not reflected in the budget as many crucial inputs are voluntary (such as the key position of the Chairman and the involvement of other Board members). Moreover, the organisations on the Jury undertake most research and publicity work; in addition they contribute an annual fee to cover 10% of the running costs.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE MEA AND THE MEF?
The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders is abbreviated to MEA. The fully autonomous Jury of the MEA – which selects the laureates – is composed of the representatives of 10 key human rights NGOs and a permanent, non-voting Chair. The MEF is the Martin Ennals Foundation, a legal entity under Dutch law, with a Board composed of 8 individuals. The MEF provides the legal and administrative underpinning of the MEA. The Secretariat of the MEF-MEA is in Geneva.