My post number 1000: Human Rights Awards finally made accessible for and by True Heroes

November 27, 2013

To mark my post number 1000, I have chosen the subject of human rights awards, timely as today, 27 November, is also the LAUNCH OF THE TRUE HEROES AWARDS DIGEST on www.trueheroesfilms.org.  The number of human rights awards has exploded with over 50 new awards created in just the last decade, bringing the total number to well over 100. Most of the research was done when I was writing an article on Human Rights Awards for the Special Issue of the OUP Journal of Human Rights Practice on ‘The Protection of Human Rights Defenders” which comes out on 29 November (for more info go to: http://jhrp.oxfordjournals.org/). Doing the research I found that the information on awards is scattered all over the internet and that human rights defenders would greatly benefit if the dat were put all together in a searchable way in a single Digest.

In order to assist the human rights world in finding and accessing all these awards the True Heroes Foundation in Geneva has put together – with the help of volunteers like Nati and Sinja – a unique Digest which covers for the moment only international and regional awards, meaning awards aim to award people from every country in the world or in that region. Purely national awards are (not yet) covered.

Many awards in the Digest do not use the word ‘human rights’ in their name. Instead, their name reflects other elements, such as the name of an inspirational figure who is celebrated through the award (e.g. Mandela, Alison des Forges, Havel, Edelstam, Mignone, Sakharov  or Martin Ennals), the name of the founder/funder of the award (e.g. Nobel, Sagan, Dodd, Hilton, Magsaysay) or the name of the issuing organization (e.g. Council of Europe, United Nations, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Front Line). The term ‘human rights defender’ (HRD) starts to be used in the mid-1980s and many recent awards carry this term. The creation of a new award tends to be announced with pomp, but when it ceases to exist there is rarely a public statement. The Digest still includes those but mentions that they have ceased.

Many awards are embedded in the daily outreach work of activist human rights organizations, but surprisingly most award-giving entities turn out to be special foundations, universities, ministries of foreign affairs, intergovernmental bodies or cities. Generally there is little information published on the decision-making process (that is, who makes or vets nominations, who makes the final decision, and the composition of the jury, if any). However, there are some exceptions.

Most awards state publicly one or more of the following purposes: 1) protection (protective publicity for the winners); 2) recognition (moral, psychological) of the winners; 3) providing material support (such as cash, lobbying, introduction to decision makers, paid travel, access to project funding, training); 4) honouring the memory of the founder or an inspiring human rights hero; and 5) promotion of a specific cause or group. In practice, quite a few also pursue unstated purposes, such as publicity or fundraising.

Aside from claiming protective publicity through the media, there are other ways in which awards contribute to protection of HRDs. Travel to the ceremony can be combined with visits to decision makers and solidarity groups. A few awards offer security training, language courses, or respite in a safe environment. However, only half the awards state or imply that there is any monetary component and only about a third give an exact amount. Some awarding organizations see their award ceremonies as a fund-raising opportunity, with no indication that the money collected is for the award winner.

The totality of awards – which among themselves must have over a thousand winners – has the advantage of creating a group of prominent HRDs, who could be role models for the media and the public at large who often use stories of individual human rights defenders as their entry point into human rights. However, the argument cannot be reversed to imply that only those who get awards are worthy of support. There are simply not enough awards in the world to cover all deserving cases.  Some heroes from the past did not get any human rights award such as Werner Lottje or Martin Ennals. Moreover, quite a few persons have collected more than one award.

The Digest remains a work in progress and many small lacunae will have to be filled. Still, already now the Digest shows that there is scope for increasing clarity concerning the goal of the awards, the independence of selection processes, the concrete benefits for winners (such as the amount of money provided), and who can nominate.

For more information on the content of the Digest (what is covered and how) please read carefully the section “About the Digest” on www.trueheroesfilms.org. Important explanations about the current state of the Digest are provided there, including that part on the Winners is still under construction – for finding the previous laureates one still has to go to the website of the award giver. A new feature is the (still provisional) allocation of keywords which allows to narrow the search to those that have a specific target group. Also the Digest hopes in the future to provide a search possibility by deadline for nomination. Only with the cooperation from all the awards will True Heroes be able to give a complete and up-to-date service to the human rights movement.

2 Responses to “My post number 1000: Human Rights Awards finally made accessible for and by True Heroes”


  1. […] My post number 1000: Human Rights Awards finally made accessible for and by True Heroes […]


  2. […] For more on awards, see: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/my-post-number-1000-human-rights-awards-finally-made-access… […]


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