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The Martin Ennals Awards for Human Rights Defenders – Why It Matters

Although the Awards may not enjoy a popularity akin to the Nobel prize or the Oscars, [the Martin Ennals Awards] are no less important. On the contrary, the MEA’s importance cannot be appreciated enough, as they honor and highlight the stories of those who risk their lives to fight for basic human rights; to create a better life for themselves, families, communities and beyond.

By Kareem Gerges

On 13 February, the 2019 Martin Ennals Awards ceremony took place at Salle Communale de Plainpalais, in Geneva, attended by the public, as well as, by representatives of the local and federal Swiss authorities, international organizations and foreign dignitaries. The most significant, however, was the presence of the award’s nominees, to whom the attendees gathered to pay their utmost respect and salute their inspiring and extraordinary courage to defend and fight for human rights, in the midst of significant threats and challenges.

Although the Awards may not enjoy a popularity akin to the Nobel prize or the Oscars, they are no less important. On the contrary, the MEA’s importance cannot be appreciated enough, as they honor and highlight the stories of those who risk their lives to fight for basic human rights; to create a better life for themselves, families, communities and beyond. In an ever increasingly globalized and interconnected world, their struggles are not in isolation or separate from ours. Their victories over injustices are our victories. And their defeats and oppression are ours, as well. This is why we should not only care about the Awards, but we must recognize and support in any and every way possible the fights of human rights defenders all over the world and share their burdens in our own struggles for human dignity and freedom. Here are briefs of the inspiring stories of the 2019 MEA extraordinary nominees.

Marino Cordoba – Colombia

Marino Cordoba, a Colombian community leader, has been fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians and other marginalized groups, since early 1990s. He comes from the Riosucio region in north-western Colombia, a resource-rich forest that has been subjected to the control and exploitation of paramilitary groups linked to powerful economic interests. Thanks to the activism of leaders like Marino, the constitution was amended in 1991 to recognize the rights of Afro-Colombians over their natural resources and environment, in addition to allowing them to politically participate in the Colombian congress.  

However, on 20 December 1996, only seven days after the government acknowledged the land rights of Cordoba’s community, the government initiated a joint military and paramilitary attack “Operation Genesis”, to force out the Afro-Colombian community from their lands and take over their possessions.

Consequently, Cordoba hid for weeks in the jungle, then took refuge in Bogota. In 1999, Cordoba founded AFRODES (the National Association for displaced Afro-Colombians), in which he worked on helping the displaced and legally assisting  them to be able to return home. Due to his mounting activism, Cordoba was attacked and shot in the leg in 2002.

Cordoba’s supporters in the US Congress helped him seek asylum in the US, where  he continued activism for his community and managed to get Congress to link military assistance to human rights. However, in 2012, despite the high risks, Cordoba decided to return to Colombia and continue to defend the rights of Afro-Colombians. Thanks to his determined activism, an “Ethnic Chapter” was included in the 2016 peace agreement signed between the government and the Farc, to ensure the protection of the rights of the country’s ethnic groups.

Regrettably, since the signing of the peace agreement more than 400 ethnic and social leaders have been killed in Colombia, including Marino’s own son, Wilma, in 2017. Nonetheless, Marino continues to fight and stand up for the rights of Afro-Colombians.

Eren Keskin – Turkey

As a lawyer for more than thirty years, Eren Keskin has played a significant role in establishing and strengthening civil society in Turkey, through her influential fight for human rights, particularly for the Kurds, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and for recognition of the Armenian genocide. In addition to other associations, Keskin is a founding member of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), widely considered as the most prominent human rights organization in Turkey that works on the rehabilitation and treatment of torture survivors.

In 1995, Keskin was sentenced for 6 months in prison, for using the word “Kurdistan” in an article. During that period, she encountered women who were sexually assaulted and forced to undergo strip searches in prison. Consequently, to fight violence against women in prison, Keskin co-founded the project, in 1997, “Legal Aid For Women Who Were Raped or Otherwise Sexually Abused by National Security Forces”. Till this day, Keskin continues to lead legal work and activism for victims of sexual abuse and rape.

As a principled and vocal human rights activist against sexual violence and injustice, Keskin has faced numerous threats and physical attacks. She was assaulted in 1994 and in 2001. Additionally, she has been a targeted by mainstream press and state authorities. From 2013 to 2016, Keskin held the title of Editor-in-Chief of the Özgür Gündem newspaper, in a sign of solidarity with the editorial staff that was imprisoned, after the coup attempt in 2016. As a result, Keskin was convicted and sentenced to 12.5 years in prison, due to trumped-up charges of publishing articles that ‘degraded’ the Turkish nation and ‘insulted’ the Turkish president. She is currently free, pending an appeal. Till this day and in spite of significant intimidation and harassment, Keskin continues to fight for the rights of minority groups and the most vulnerable communities in Turkey.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat – Sudan

The third nominee and recipient of the 2019 Martin Ennals Award is Abdul Aziz Muhamat. Aziz is an extraordinary brave and resilient advocate for refugee rights. Due to the conflict in Darfur, Aziz was forced to flee and seek asylum. After flying to Indonesia, he attempted to reach Australia by boat, yet he was intercepted midway and forcibly transferred by Australian authorities to Manus island. Although Aziz was granted refugee status in 2015, yet he has been denied entry into Australia.

For several years, Aziz has worked tirelessly and passionately with fellow refugees to ameliorate their abysmal living conditions and to find a welcoming host country. He sent over 4000 voice messages to the award-winning podcast, The Messenger, detailing the inhumane and cruel treatment asylum seekers are subjected to. Aziz helped organize peaceful protests, wrote letters to politicians, co-led a mass hunger strike, and utilized other peaceful methods to protest cruel practices and policies.

On 31 October 2017, Australian authorities left Manus Island, to force the refugees to move to other facilities, without regard to their repeated rejections. Consequently, the refugees held daily peaceful protests, requesting to be allowed to seek asylum in a third country. The protests continued while the authorities cut all services, such as water, electricity, food and medical care. After 24 days of peaceful protests and horrendous living conditions, the refugees were forcibly removed by the authorities, without regard to their legitimate concerns.

During the 24 days of protest, Aziz has been an influential leader; encouraging and supporting his fellow detainees; managing the distribution of smuggled food and medicine; medically treating his mates by facilitating doctors’ consultations by phone, and so on.

In his award acceptance speech, Aziz said that “the cage has made me strong…we are known as a number, they erased our names, if I don’t use this number I don’t get anything…when you’re powerless nobody listens to you”. Ultimately, Aziz urged the ceremony attendees to “speak up for your rights, overcome your fears”, to remember that “freedom is not free, it requires sacrifice”.  

Although New Zealand offered to accept 150 of the island’s asylum seekers, the Australian government rejected such proposal. Nonetheless, Aziz remains determined to help his fellow refugees to leave Manus Island and find a safe and welcoming host country.

These brave human rights fighters have devoted their lives for the betterment of their communities and for the pursuit of a bright future. They have risked their own lives and that of their families and loved ones. In pursuing a better life, these activists have been also fighting for all of us. All over the world, one can find countless examples of people trying to fight for a better future in all sorts of ways. In an era in which human rights have increasingly become a subject of cynicism and ridicule, it is all the more imperative to recognize, promote and join-in the efforts of human rights defenders all over the world.


This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

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