February 20, 2020

The Ups and Downs of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize

Jewher Ilham receiving the Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament, holding a photograph of her father, Ilham Tohti, the 2019 laureate. The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, is on the right.
Jewher Ilham receiving the Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament, holding a photograph of her father, Ilham Tohti, the 2019 laureate. The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, is on the right.

Standing up for human rights is not as easy as it looks from the outside

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, commonly known as the Sakharov Prize, was established in 1988 by the European Parliament, and is awarded to individuals and groups of people for outstanding work in defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The prize is a substantial monetary award, currently 50,000 euros. The prize is named after a well-known Soviet academic, dissident and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov, and has been awarded to several well-known people, such as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as organisations like Argentina’s Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo.

A nomination needs the support of 40 MEPs or one political group, and a member can only vote for one candidate. The parliament’s groups choose who receives the prize. One of the purposes of the prize is to show that human rights and democratic values matter to the European Parliament.

Sadly, several prizes have been awarded in absentia, as the laureates have been in prison or even missing. In 2018, the prize was awarded to a Ukrainian filmmaker with Crimean roots, Oleg Sentsov, who was in a Russian prison at the time the prize was announced but was later released and was able to accept the award personally in November 2019.

On 18 December 2019, the Sakharov Prize was awarded to Chinese professor of economy and Uyghur activist Ilham Tohti, whose daughter Jewher Ilham accepted the award in his name. The other finalists were human rights and nature activists from Brazil, and a group of five students from Kenya called The Restorers, who developed a mobile phone app that allows girls to find help against forced female genital mutilation.

Individuals or organisations from China, Cuba and Russia/the Soviet Union have won the prize several times. Prizes have also gone to Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Venezuela, Algeria, Ghana, Nigeria, and other countries where the state of human rights is not at its best. A small exception is Spain, whose anti-terrorist organisation ¡Basta Ya! received the prize in 2000. The fact that the 2018 winner, Oleg Sentsov, was a political prisoner in Russia, might lead us to note that in recent years the awards have trodden heavily on the toes of countries that have lately become known for breaches of human rights and international law. As Jewher Ilham stated in interviews (including one with the Estonian daily Postimees), the Chinese authorities tried to influence MEPs not to vote for Ilham Tohti, receiving help from Chinese ambassadors in persuading politicians from several European countries.

The most grotesque thing about the case of the 2019 laureate is that Tohti, a professor of economics at the Minzu University for ethnic minorities, was not an extremist or separatist. Having been born in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in north-west China, he was very familiar with the Chinese central authority’s assimilation policy regarding the Uyghur. Although he was critical of this, the professor’s mission was to reconcile the Han Chinese and the Uyghurs through dialogue. Tohti distanced himself firmly from radical Uyghur separatist groups and criticised ethnic extremism. But even this approach was too much for the Chinese authorities. Tohti was arrested in 2013 and was last seen in 2014. There has been no information about his whereabouts since then, although his daughter thinks he was taken from Beijing to Xinjiang. According to Jewher Ilham, who has resided in the US since 2013, their entire family in China is under surveillance and does not dare to communicate with her openly, which is why she has not received much information about her father.

The European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize is, admittedly, not very well-known. Meanwhile, it is official enough to let the relevant countries know the position of the European Union, and at least Russia and China have criticised the awards. The repression of Uyghurs in China has been in the public eye for some time, but no other state-level institution in the world has reacted to it as decisively as the European Parliament.

At the award ceremony in Strasbourg, MEPs demanded sanctions against China in relation to state violence against the Uyghurs. Far-reaching measures of leverage and repression have been imposed on the more than 10 million Uyghurs living in China, aimed at essentially destroying the Uyghur culture, and especially its foundation, religion. The same repression has been imposed against Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and other Muslim groups living in China. It is quite clear that the Chinese authorities have decided to extirpate Islam from the country. Interestingly, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have so far remained silent, although many Kazakhs and Uzbeks living in China have been sent to so-called “re-education camps”, and the cultural genocide in China has become well known, at least in Kazakhstan, thanks to coverage in the local media and the narratives of escapees. However, as both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are part of the new Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, their governments prefer not to state their position on the repression of Muslims.

And here another dimension of the Sakharov Prize emerges: simplified symbolism. Similar to how the Chinese national policy against the Uyghurs is directed against Islam in their country as a whole, Oleg Sentsov is merely a piece in the puzzle of Russia’s imperial ambitions, manifested in desperate attempts to maintain its grip on political spheres of influence, meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and breaching their territorial integrity. The laureates of the last two years are great examples of how breaches of human rights and freedom of speech can go deeper and have more layers in some countries than can be expressed in just a few sentences.

Aung San Suu Kyi, who received the Sakharov Prize in 1990 for her activity in opposition to the regime in Burma/Myanmar and promoting democratic values, was only able to accept the award in person in 2012. But later, as the de facto prime minister of Myanmar, she became directly responsible for the genocide of the local Muslim Rohingya minority carried out by the military, leading many to demand that her Sakharov Prize and Nobel Peace Prize be revoked.

Analysing the Sakharov Prize as a bystander, one might argue that, although it is about good intentions and noble ideas, the award only draws attention to a small part of a larger issue, just one aspect of a more complex breach of human rights and generally recognised international canon. As was the case with Aung San Suu Kyi, an idealist approach to pointing out the poor state of human rights and freedom of speech in a country may come with some ramifications that can later lead to doubt about the nominated activist’s principles or the universality of democratic ideals. In the cases of China and Russia, the topics raised by the prize barely scratch the surface of a much bigger problem. It is difficult to know whether it is a question of the MEPs’ comfort zone or their unwillingness to dig deeper into issues and criticise offending countries in stronger terms or to compromise, but neither Ilham Tohti’s nor Oleg Sentsov’s case has led to strong disapproval or scrutiny of the diverse and internationally identified breaches of law in China and Russia.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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