Martin Ennals (1927-1991) was instrumental to the modern human rights movement. A fiercely devoted activist, he creatively pursued ideas ahead of his time as the first Secretary-General of Amnesty International and as the driving force behind other organisations each having their own mandate.
Martin Ennals devoted his whole life to human rights. His dedication may have been channelled through a variety of human rights organisations, but there was always the single goal of protecting human rights. As a colleague noted : "He moved mountains, doing impossible things. Martin was always ten years ahead of his time." When Martin became Secretary General of Amnesty International in 1968, the organisation had 7 staff and an annual budget of £17'000. Twelve years later, the staff had grown to 150 with an annual budget of £2 million. Martin represented an era where Amnesty became a human rights organisation of global concern. When Amnesty was awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1976, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, and the UN Human Rights Award in 1978, Martin, known for his modesty, had others accept the prizes on behalf of Amnesty.
Upon leaving AI in 1980, he stated: "I thought that no organisation should become identified with one person and that no individual gives his best after a certain period of time..." He was active in the creation of HURIDOCS, SOS Torture (World Organisation Against Torture), Defence for Children International, Article 19, and – finally – International Alert (IA). He remarked that it was fitting to go full circle from AI to IA – from an organisation focusing on the individual, to one that emphasises events.
Martin Ennals not only had devotion to human rights work, but he also had a strong love of life. Martin was always able to tell the woods from the trees, always willing to see the individual distinct from the movement or the cause. He had the ability to put everything human rights defenders are doing in a meaningful global context. This made Martin the quintessential NGO networker.
It is with this in mind that the Martin Ennals Foundation is the joint project of a broad range of international human rights NGOs. Eleven such organisations have joined hands to make the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA) into an effective tool for the PROTECTION of human rights defenders. Martin Ennals’ deep desire was to see more cooperation and solidarity among human rights activists. He would certainly be proud of this joint action.
"Martin’s life and work were inspired by his commitment to human rights, making him a pioneer of the human rights movement … Martin stood at the cradle of many national and international organisations working for human dignity, political freedom, social justice, and peace. He defended human rights at times and in places where human rights were not popular, nor high on anyone’s agenda."
Theo van Boven
"With the death of Martin Ennals, the human rights world has lost a towering champion …. There will be many people who will remember Martin, for it is in his relation to people that his true greatness lies: his ability to talk to the victim and to the prince, and to be persistent in the quest for a more humane world with better standards."
A more detailed description of Martin Ennals' life and work can be found in David P. Forsythe (ed), the Encyclopedia of Human Rights, OUP, 2009, Vol 2, pp 135-138