The Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament and human rights worldwide

The Sakharov Prize community

In 2008, the European Parliament decided to build on the impact of the prize by launching a network to enhance the defence of human rights through the Sakharov Prize Community, in time to coincide with the prize’s 20th anniversary. Its creation recognised the special role of Sakharov Prize laureates as Ambassadors for Freedom of Thought. Together with the European Parliament they are able to join their efforts through common action in support of human rights defenders around the world. The community allows laureates react together to global events in real-time: against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic, 14 Sakharov Prize Laureates and 62 Members recently signed an open letter calling for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders, including all Sakharov Prize laureates.

The Sakharov Prize community honours the special role of Sakharov Prize laureates as Ambassadors for Freedom of Thought and strengthens cooperation on human rights issues. It enables joint actions between laureates and the Parliament by connecting laureates, Parliamentary Members and representatives of civil society, providing a direct communication channel for both laureates and the European Parliament to address human rights issues. Its members regularly give Sakharov lectures across Europe to raise awareness of their causes and spark public debate in European capitals. The community organises regular conferences to bring these inspiring voices together, with the most recent event in 2018 marking the prize’s 30th anniversary. These conferences encourage debate on human rights globally and provide an opportunity to take stock of the community’s achievements and identify future challenges.

This community allows laureates to communicate their message in other, more creative forms as well: in a joint initiative enabled through this network an audio-visual performance “White torture underground poetry” was recently staged by Lorent Saleh, one of the Sakharov Prize 2017 laureates from the democratic opposition in Venezuela. The performance took place at the garage of the European Parliament in Brussels in February 2020, plunging the audience in the oppressive environment of a sophisticated modern torture centre and bringing the reality of human rights abuses starkly into the public realm.

In an effort to empower the next generation of human rights defenders to serve as agents of democratic change in their own countries, the European Parliament has been awarding Sakharov fellowships since 2016. Given to up to 14 human rights defenders from countries outside the EU and now with connections in over 40 countries, these fellowships provide a powerful platform to activists who initiate real change. Just one recent example of this is the denouncement by Sakharov fellows of the persecution of the Bahá’í minority in Iran and their request for the support of the international community to counter this injustice.

Sakharov fellows are given the opportunity to take part in a two-week intensive training course to further equip them in their important work, with one week in Brussels and another at the Global Campus of Human Rights in Venice. Here participants can learn more about EU and international human rights frameworks, policies and mechanisms, and are given the opportunity to meet with Members, academics and NGO representatives. They also learn practical tools designed to help communicate with the public, seek funding and better understand the security issues that human rights defenders often face. The programme has been organised annually since 2016 and has continued remotely during the 2020 Covid-19 crisis, allowing fellows to keep strong ties with the European Parliament and EU Delegations in their own countries.