Abdul Aziz Muhamat on stage in Geneva delivering his acceptance speech. The presentation slide was taken in Manus; on the left of Muhamat (blue T-shirt) is Behrouz Boochani (bare-chested) who was awarded Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature in January 2019)

After arriving at the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea, where the Australian immigration authorities sent him under the Canberra government’s offshore asylum policy, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a Sudanese refugee, became QNK002.

This was the identification number given to him by the authorities in the camp where he has been locked up virtually for the past five years. Muhamat was exceptionally allowed to travel to Geneva in February this year to receive the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders (MEA), in recognition of his work as a refugee activist in drawing attention to the inhumane conditions asylum-seekers and refugees are subjected to on Manus Island and in similar places.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat, aka QNK002, is a Sudanese refugee currently interned by the Australians on Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Standing left, here is at the MEA Award ceremony in Geneva in February, 2019. Arnold Tsunga, right, is a Zimbabwean lawyer and 2006 laureate in 2006 and currently an MEA Board member.

The highly publicized award ceremony on 13 February 2019 in Geneva drew international attention to the plight of the hundreds of people who suffer from Australia’s heartless policies. But also created awareness of the courage and resilience of human rights defenders around the world who work for the recognition of the same rights for all and who challenge those who abuse their fellow humans, politically, economically, socially, or because they are part of minority communities, or because of their gender or sexual orientation, or a multitude of other reasons.

MAE 2019 co-finalist Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer and human rights activist.

The MEA: More than just an award

Muhamat’s co-finalists for the 2019 Award were Eren Keskin, a Turkish lawyer and human rights activist who has been struggling for 30 years to promote freedom and defend fundamental rights in Turkey, especially for Kurds, women and the LGBTI+ community; and Marino Cordoba Berrio, a Colombian community leader who fights for Afro-Colombians and other marginalized groups whose rights are violated by powerful companies who covet their land for logging and mining.

Every year for the past 25 years, the Geneva-based Martin Ennals Foundation, named after the British human rights activist who died in 1991, has rewarded a person, or a group of people, for their committed dedication and outstanding courage in standing up for their fellow human beings and to denounce abuse. The small organization has developed its modest award into the world’s major tribute to human rights defenders, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize for Human Rights, providing them with protection and support. The nominees and laureates are selected by a jury consisting of ten of the world’s leading human rights NGOs.

Martin Ennals in 1978. (Photo: Amnesty International).

It all started in London in 1992 when a group of Martin Ennals’ friends and relatives decided to commemorate the activist’s outstanding contribution to the modern human rights movement in creating this award. A founding member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Secretary-General of the National Council for Civil Liberties, Ennals tirelessly advocated equal rights for all and for the development of global human rights. He created several non-governmental human rights organizations and was the first Secretary-General of Amnesty International (AI). During his tenure, AI was awarded inter alia the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and the UN Human Rights Award in 1978.

Bringing human rights into the limelight

The group of founders of the Martin Ennals Award, including Hans Thoolen, a Dutch human rights activist (and now blogger: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog), the leading figure of the MEA for the past 26 years who stepped down from the Foundation’s Board in 2019, was driven by the ambition of giving visibility and recognition to the unknown work of the hundreds of people across the world who take life-threatening risks to defend human dignity and rights.

The Martin Ennals Foundation itself was formally created in the Netherlands in 1993 in the broad context of the Vienna World Congress on Human Rights (May 1993). As its first laureate in 1994, it selected Harry Wu, the human rights activist who spent 19 years in Chinese labour camps before choosing exile in the USA. He was followed by Asma Jahangir, the human rights lawyer and social activist who co-founded and chaired the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. That 1995 award ceremony in Stockholm further projected human rights into the international limelight.

All this was the beginning of a long series of highlights on human rights defenders in all walks of life (See http://www.martinennalsaward.org/ for full list of finalists and laureates) and from all regions of the world. The list includes Arnold Tsunga, a Zimbabwean lawyer, laureate in 2006, who now sits on the Board of the Martin Ennals Foundation, which is run by a small secretariat and steered by a 10-member board meeting annually in Geneva.

After an initial period where the award ceremony operated more as a “travelling circus” around the world, with ad hoc funding and minimal secretariat support, the ceremony finally settled in Geneva in 1999, where Swiss television (TSR) gave it much appreciated visibility. Gradually, fund raising became more structured and focused, by now regrouping various international donors and NGOs.

Geneva: the world’s human rights capital. (Photo: City of Geneva)

Making Geneva the human rights capital of the world

By 2007, close links had developed with the City of Geneva, leading to an agreement with the local government providing strong multi-year support for the ceremony itself. Its timing was moved in 2019 to February so as to benefit from increased public interest at a time when the Human Rights Council (HRC) prepares for its main session. Created in 2006 by the United Nations General Assembly, the HRC is the UN body responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the world and for addressing situations of human rights violations. It meets in Geneva for three regular sessions every year to discuss thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention.

The Geneva International Film Festival for Human Rights. (Photo: FIFDH)

In parallel, a leading international event dedicated to film and human rights takes place in Geneva, the International Film Festival and Forum for Human Rights (FIFDH). These important events contribute to making Geneva the world’s human rights capital. For Sandrine Salerno, municipal councillor and the leading proponent of the award within the City government, all this only underlines how deeply Geneva is committed to the defence of fundamental rights. “As a host to most major international organisations active in the human rights area, and with a long tradition of welcoming asylum-seekers, migrants, and people needing protection and assistance, the City of Geneva has made the promotion of human rights one its main international policy priorities.”

On the occasion of the MEA’s 25th anniversary in 2018, leaders of its jury organizations gathered with former laureates, providing an opportunity to discuss the state of human rights and human rights action today. In particular, they addressed issues such as how to influence authoritarians, counter populism, and the means for developing human rights action. “It is not easy to attribute impact to an organization working in the field of human rights”, says Dick Oosting, current Chairman of the Foundation Board. “Awards are only a tool.” But, he adds, “with its jury of ten major NGOs and its partnership with Geneva, the Martin Ennals Award has credibility that can provide real protection. We know this because our laureates and finalists tell us so.” Abdul Aziz Muhamat aka QNK002 on Manus Island can vouch for that.

John Horekens is a former senior official of the United Nations and of the international Red Cross. He is the vice-chairman of the Martin Ennals Foundation Board.

The jury of the Martin Ennals Award is composed of the following international human rights organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIDH, Huridocs, Diakonie/Brot für die Welt, Human Rights First, OMCT, ICJ, ISHR, Front Line Defenders. Support for MEA in 2019 is provided by: Ireland, Liechtenstein, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, City & Canton of Geneva,  Brot für die Welt and a private Swiss foundation.