From our own work we recognise the importance of human rights and also that, when it comes to the actual implementation at the grassroots level, it is still the dedication of individuals that counts most. Fortunately, 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.
Without the individual human rights defender, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights law risks to remain a dead letter. Almost all human rights organisations have some 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, 10 international human rights organisations, including the most influential , have joined hands in support of a common award: the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. It is named after Martin Ennals (1927-91) who was behind the creation or growth of many of NGOs.
The most important goal of the MEA is to provide protection . The latter is not really possible without a fair degree of publicity and the most crucial publicity is at the local level, in the country of the human rights activist in question. Hence the importance of the use of the mass media, in particular radio and television. The cases of 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 life. She went to Paris for medical treatment for which the prize money helped to pay. After the MEA ceremony in April 2002, she was invited as a guest in 3 different TV programmes that were broadcast worldwide on TV5 and reached Chad . In August, Jacqueline could finally go home, accompanied by representatives from human rights organisations. The reception was overwhelming, with her supporters lining the streets.
- In 2003, the 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, 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 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 MEA is not only an honour, it is also a guaranty of security for my activities and my life”. Again the ceremony was re-broadcast on TV5 to all francophone countries and, in December, Spanish TVE International broadcast a 20-minute summary of her ceremony.
- 2005 MEA winner, Aktham Naisse from Syria , was persecuted for 30 years. Furthermore, faced with a trial before the Supreme State Security Court , several human rights organisations conducted a campaign and Al-Jazeera television featured a portrait of him during the month of April 2005. All charges against him were dropped on 26 June. When he received his prize in October in Geneva , he also went ‘from the front line to the front page', in particular by the interest his case had raised in the Arabic-speaking media .
- In 2006, Akbar Ganji (from Iran ) and Arnold Tsunga (from Zimbabwe ) shared the award. The picture of them receiving the award from the hands of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found its way quickly to their respective countries and a large number of websites, legitimizing their work and raising their status.
- In 2007, a special effort was made to produce DVDs in local languages (Kirundi, Singhalese and Tamil) in order to reach the largest possible number of people at local level, including those with limited access to mass media; to increase the protective publicity impact for the MEA laureates, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa , Rajan Hole and Kopalasingham Sritharan, hundreds of these DVDs were successfully distributed in Burundi and Sri Lanka by local human rights organisations.
- The Laureate of 2008, Mutabar Tadjibaeva from Uzbekistan , was released from prison two weeks after the announcement.
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 these tense situations. The biggest problem with seeking ‘protective publicity' is perhaps that the mass media are not automatically interested in human rights. We should all work together to try and change that. The human rights defenders certainly deserve every effort we make to increase their protection.
Joint letter from the following Patrons of the MEA:
Please forward this letter by email or mail to your contacts in order to increase their awareness.