As a young foreign correspondent during the late 1970s and a Fellow of the Paris-based Journalists in Europe programme inviting 25 journalists every year to report key issues – I travelled to London to interview Martin Ennals, then head of Amnesty International (AI). My purpose was to research an article exploring the work of this renowned human rights organization, but also whether its efforts were making a justifiable difference. These focused primarily on drawing attention to prisoners of conscience, wherever they might be incarcerated, by reaching out to the press but also having AI members across the globe write thousands of support letters to highlight their predicaments, including torture and execution.
According to Ennals, who later went on to co-found other key human rights organizations such as Article 19, International Alert and HURIDOCS, the mere fact that people, young and old, and from all walks of life, were writing letters was enough to justify the initiative. “To know that you are not forgotten, even if you never see these letters, gives a lot of prisoners of conscience suffering torture and other miscarriages of justice hope,” he told me. “You can be languishing for years in some filthy jail but it helps to know that people on the outside are fighting for you.”
Ironically, certain famous former prisoners of conscience previously supported by AI went on to themselves illegally imprison, torture, and kill political opponents. One of these was Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who had been jailed for sedition by the country’s white-ruled government from 1964 to 1974, but later went on to become its new leader and eventually dictator. When he, too, began repressing political opponents, AI stood up for them. When I interviewed Mugabe in the late 1980s, he bitterly criticized AI for supporting his ‘enemies’, an excuse often used by government abusers to justify their repressive actions.
Highlighting those willing to fight for justice despite the dangers
Ennals, who died in 1991 at 64, left an extraordinary human rights legacy which resulted in the creation of the annual Martin Ennals Award (MEA) in 1993. Last week, after 30 years of existence, the MEA held its 2023 edition in Geneva, Switzerland, to recognize the extraordinary achievements of three laureates: Khurram Parvez of Kashmir; Delphine Djiraibé of Chad and Feliciano Reyna of Venezuela. All three have been working in human rights for over three decades seeking to bring justice for victims, accountability from leaders, or medicines to the marginalized. According to the MEA, “they have made human rights real for thousands of people in their communities, despite the ongoing, sometimes life-threatening, challenges they endure.” (See introductory video on the laureates)
As often happens, however, MEA’s selected laureates are unable to attend in person because they are being imprisoned or otherwise detained by their governments. Kashmir’s Parvez, for example, is being currently incarcerated by the Indian authorities at the Rohini Prison Complex in Delhi for ‘terror funding’ and ‘conspiracy.’ Ever since at the age of 13 he witnessed the shooting and death of his grandfather by Indian troops during a public protest, Parvez has been relentlessly investigating and reporting government violations in Kashmir. This includes the indefinite detention and extrajudicial execution of activists, torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and widespread impunity.
Given that the Mohendra Modi regime severely restricts access to journalists seeking to report its activities in Kashmir, Parvez’s human rights activities have proven crucial for creating public awareness of what is happening in this Himalayan mountain state. Following Partition in 1947, when Kashmir was split between India and Pakistan, neither country granted Kashmiris the right to a third option as previously decreed, notably separate independence. Numerous Kashmiris have been fighting ever since for this right.
Naming and shaming abusers: a crucial function of the MEA awards
One of the most critical aspects of the Martin Ennals Awards is that it draws public attention, if not embarrassment, to the repressive activities of governments. It names and shames those which deliberately ignore international law and the norms of basic human decency. A quick glance at the profiles of past and present laureates and finalists suggests a very long list of regimes engaged in such practices, whether Iran, Russia, India, UAE, Thailand, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Russia, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, China, Turkey, El Salvador plus numerous others.
Philippe Currat, the Swiss Chair of MEA, warned of the need to take basic human rights more seriously. Diplomatic embassies today, he said, seem to be more like “intelligence bridgeheads than for spaces for dialogue and negotiation…There is an urgent need to return to more peaceful harmonies”. Currat, an international lawyer, went on to stress that democracy and the rule of law are in retreat all over the world bringing us back to “a time where brown shirts and black uniforms were leading our societies back into hatred and violence.” He also stressed the manner with which cyber abuse has been overtly undermining elections and societies in recent years. Outlining the achievements of this year’s laureates, he appealed that we listen to what they have to say. (See article by Philippe Currat on 2021 MEA awards)
The strength of the Martin Ennals Awards is that they stand as a constant reminder of the past and present. While Parvez was unable to accept his award in person at this year’s event, the MEA finally managed to honour another finalist previously denied the right to attend in 2012, notably the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). At the time, the Bahrain government, embarrassed by the negative publicity the award produced, prevented its founders from coming. BCHR representative Nabeel Rajab was finally able to be publicly acknowledged on stage at the 2023 awards. According to human rights advocates, Bahrain’s minority Sunni regime operates an ‘apartheid’ policy of discrimination against its majority Shia population, while systematically jailing journalists, protestors and other dissidents.
Initially, the MEA chose a single human rights defender as laureate, while still recognizing two other finalists. Recently, the Geneva-based foundation, which is supported by the City of Geneva and other donors, decided to officially name three outstanding laureates with full awards. “It’s virtually impossible to decide who deserves the award given that there are so many extraordinary individuals are doing such extraordinary work,” noted one MEA Jury member. The jury consists of 10 of the world’s leading human rights organizations, two of which Ennals himself ran or helped establish: AI and HURIDOCS.
Similar to Parvez, this year’s two other laureates have achieved profound impacts through the work that they have been undertaking. Delphine Djiraibé, internationally recognized as one of Chad’s most prominent human rights lawyers, has been a veritable pioneer relentlessly challenging the authorities to provide basic rights for all Chadians, including the right to life, justice, freedom of opinion, food, education and health. Djiraibé, her country’s first leading female human rights lawyer, is particularly renowned for initiating the prosecution of Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, who was convicted for war crimes after 14 long years, in 2016. She has also created a network of civil society organizations to advocate for the peace and reconciliation process.
This year’s third laureate, Venezuela’s Feliciano Reyna, suffered a lifechanging blow when his partner, Rafael, succumbed to AIDS. This prompted him to launch in 1995 Acción Solidaria, an organization promoting the rights to healthcare, equality, and non-discrimination of Venezuelans living with HIV & AIDS. Originally an architect in the United States and Venezuela, Reyna focused on providing medication and treatment for HIV/AIDS, but then expanded to awareness building in a country where corruption and poverty were rising dramatically and the healthcare system was in severe decline.
Despite being repeatedly harassed, Reyna eventually developed a nation-wide network of AIDS Service Organizations. In 2000, Acción Solidaria became a member of Sinergia, the Venezuelan Association of Civil Society Organizations, and in 2003, together with other human rights advocates, he founded CODEVIDA, the Coalition of Venezuelan organizations for the rights to health and to life of those affected by chronic health conditions. Despite ongoing government intimidation, Reyna has chosen to remain in his home country where corruption, social violence, and lack of freedom of expression have become the norm, firmly believing that grassroots organizations can play a crucial role in alleviating suffering.
Notwithstanding this city’s often questionable Calvinist past with its repression of freedom of expression, “International Geneva” ranks as the world’s leading human rights centre plus hosts hundreds of international organizations, NGOs and diplomatic missions. It also commands formidable clout as a world banking, commodity and mediation centre. Hence it makes sense for the MEA awards-ceremony to be held in Geneva. Not unlike AI’s work in support of prisoners of conscience, the event effectively draws attention to the extraordinary work and dedication of its laureates, while at the same time accentuating the abuses of different governments in the public eye. (See Hans Thoolen article on Geneva as the right place for human rights)
“Holding such an event in international Geneva puts the issue way out on the frontline and forces governments to recognize what is happening,” said another MEA jurist. It also reiterates the importance of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), which is based in Geneva, to be associated with the event. Despite pressure from the Indian government not to attend, Volker Türk, the current High Commissioner already known for his outspokenness, not only appeared on stage, but made a keynote speech recognizing the foundation’s importance as an independent global convener for human rights.
We are here, Türk said, for all human rights defenders around the world. “The strength of the human rights movement lies with the ones who fight for the rights…(it) would not exist without people like yourselves,” he told the laureates.
Unfortunately, support for human rights is often regarded as a dubious form of initiative to back as it affects all governments and abusers, including the private sector. Given the critical frontline importance of the Martin Ennals Awards, however, for engaging the role of numerous human rights organizations ranging from Brot für die Welt, OMCT and Human Rights First to Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, FIDH and ISHR, it is crucial that more donors and foundations, but also corporates step up with support. (See Girardet article on three exceptional women in Global Insights on 2020 MEA Awards)
As with climate change, cyber abuse and current wars such as Ukraine, human rights need to become far more mainstream. For journalists, the MEA laureates represent crucial sources of information for what abusive governments are doing. But supporters of human rights also need to engage far more the younger generation (See an intern’s experience working with MEA) as it is their future across the globe that we are talking about. The Martin Ennals Awards stands out as a highly useful – and necessary – public platform for getting such concerns across. (See article in Global Insights on defending human rights)
Global Insights editor Edward Girardet* is a member of the Martin Ennals Awards Board of Directors. He is a journalist and author focusing on conflict, humanitarian crises and development. Girardet is currently working on a new book, The American Club: The Hippy Trail, Peshawar Tales and the Road to Kabul.