Nobel Prize is for Peace not necessarily Human Rights

October 12, 2012

As this is post number 300 in my blog, I decided to write a more substantive piece and the news of the EU getting the Nobel Peace Prize is an excellent trigger:

The awarding of the 2012 Noble Peace Prize to the European Union has at least made clear that it is really a peace award and not a human rights award as is often assumed. With hindsight, it would have been more appropriate if Alfred Nobel had died on 21 September instead of 10 December 1896. Much later, 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 Nobel Peace Prize – intended for contributions to ‘peace’, not necessarily ‘human rights’ – is given every year in Oslo on 10 December, International Human Rights Day. On quite a few occasions the Peace Prize has been awarded to individuals who can safely be said to belong to the category of human rights defenders (HRDs), but in other cases it was awarded ‘merely’ because they stopped violating human rights (think of Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, Begin and Arafat or de Klerk) or to encourage leaders to continue their conflict resolution work (Obama and now the EU).

Awards for Human Rights Defenders are a different matter!

At the international diplomatic level human rights may nowadays receive a lot of attention in a myriad of procedures and mechanisms, but when it comes to the actual implementation at the grassroots level it is still the dedication of individual human beings that counts most. Fortunately, there are many such persons: some lobbying discreetly for improvements, others demonstrating loudly. However, some have to take tremendous personal risks when publicly challenging the powers that be. 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. It is for this reason that almost all human rights organisations have some degree of mandate to come to the succour of threatened colleague human rights defenders. Many organisations at both the local and international level have some kind of human rights award. However, ten international human rights organisations, including the most influential, have set their differences aside to join in a common award for such courageous individuals: the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA), which next year exists 20 years.

A pertinent question is whether awards are really effective. To answer that, one has to know in which way human rights awards intend to help human rights defenders. 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 ambitious but also the most elusive goal is to provide protection. The latter is not really possible without a fair degree of publicity. The problem is that much of the publicity generated by human rights awards tends to be in the country where the award is given, while from the protection point of view the most crucial publicity is 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 radio and television and the internet. The freshly-crowned Nobel laureate, the EU, makes a major contribution to the protection of Human Rights Defenders, including a promise to give every year a reception in honor of the MEA laureate in the country of the winner.

The notoriety of the Nobel Peace Prize gives it great impact and we all would like to emulate it but it does not make it a human rights award. The number of human rights prizes can be  confusing, but individually and collectively they do have the potential to bring human rights defenders ‘from the front line to the front page’. contains many stories of HRDs and the links to the websites of the 10 NGOs on the Jury give a lot more information.

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