On 2 June 2022, the Martin Ennals Awards 2022 were given in Geneva Switzerland to four courageous persons from different parts of the world. They were Dr. Daouda Diallo from Burkina Faso, a fearless activist who documents human rights abuses committed in the cross- fires of Burkina Faso’s violent conflict; Ms. Pham Doan Trang from Vietnam, a leading journalist and champion of freedom of expression who inspires others to speak up; and Mr. Abdul-Hadi Al-Khawaja from Bahrain, a champion of human rights and justice who has galvanized a new generation of activists in the Gulf region. The Martin Ennals foundation, this year, in an unprecedented move also honoured Jesuit Father Stan Swamy from India, who died whilst still in police custody on 5 July 2021. Stan was posthumously honoured during the ceremony, for his exceptional work in accompanying the indigenous people (Adivasis) of India in the struggles in the defense of their legitimate rights.
Every year the ‘Martin Ennals Award’, celebrates exceptional human rights defenders who are leading architects of the human rights movement. The award, like the Nobel Prize, is never given posthumously. The award which is often referred to as the ‘Nobel prize’ for human rights is named after Martin Ennals who was a British human rights activist and served as the Secretary General of ‘Amnesty International’ from 1968 to 1980. Ennals also co-founded the human rights organizations ARTICLE 19, International Alert and HURIDOCS.
All four: Daouda, Pham, Abdul-Hadi and Stan are(were) persons of unflinching courage: sheer grit and great determination. They do not (did not) hesitate in raising their voices for justice and truth. They do so (did so) at great risk and have gone through much suffering. Two of them Abdul-Hadi and Pham are still languishing in jails today.
There are several other amazing persons, who epitomise courage today! They do so in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges; they possess an indomitable spirit which motivates them to enter domains which even the bravest dared not go! They did so and triumphed! These include Rose Mapendo, a Congolese human rights advocate, an example of courage and grace, who rose above the gruesomeness of war and violence and suffered greatly because of her ethnicity. In 2010, a powerful film ‘Pushing the Elephants’, was made on her life as mother, widow, victim, refugee – she now reaches out to help others. Then there is Ahed Tamimi, a 21-year-old Palestinian, is a living icon today for the cause of her people; some years ago, she was also jailed by the Israeli authorities for her unequivocal stand. Irena Sendlerowa, was a remarkable Polish woman and is regarded as a hero of World War II. She defied the Nazi regime and saved over 2,500 Jewish children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto, between 1942 and 1943 to safe hiding places. She provided them with false identity documents, found non-Jewish families to adopt them and saved them from the holocaust.
Rigoberta Menchu, is a Guatemalan human rights activist, who began campaigning for human rights as a teenager. She has since dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of indigenous people and for justice for all the victims (mainly indigenous women) of the brutal Guatemalan civil war. In 1980, Menchu was forced to flee Mexico because of her activism; in 1992, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to protect social justice and respect for the rights of indigenous people. Another Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, from Pakistan is today legendary for demanding that the girl child must be educated; she says, “our books and our pens are our most powerful weapons”. Who has not heard of Greta Thunberg of her courageous commitment to the environment and her ‘Fridays for Future’ movement, which addresses the endemic causes of climate change? The list is endless!
These are the more known names: persons of tremendous courage, who are deservingly recognised and honoured. Our world definitely needs such stalwarts, who because of their courage are a source of inspiration and motivation to many others to do much more at different levels.
There is also the incontrovertible fact that there are millions of other women and men everywhere, unknown, faceless, who will never be recognised or honoured, who personify courage today. They are ordinary people, many even uneducated perhaps living in villages or shanties. These are people who have no second thoughts in plunging into a street brawl and stopping it; jumping into raging waters to save a drowning child; refusing to pay a bribe to a corrupt official, knowing fully well that the consequences for not doing so would be disastrous; standing up to powerful vested interests (even politicians!) who exploit people, situations and resources. These are extraordinary women and men who are unsung- but they do make a difference. They become the change; they want to see it take place in their society! The world does have many such courageous persons! They need to be recognised and their acts of exemplary and selfless courage need to be told and retold!
‘Courage’ therefore, is a value which cannot be confined to a text book definition. It has several interrelated yet complementing dimensions; these includes an awareness of the reality, the readiness to do bring about change; the willingness to engage in risk -taking behaviour regardless of whether the consequences are unknown or possibly adverse and above all, the determination if needed, to take on the most powerful: institutions or persons; to walk alone and pay the ultimate price if needed! Mahatma Gandhi gave the world the twin doctrine of ahimsa(nonviolence) and satyagraha (the force of truth). He was convinced that one needed the moral courage to internalise and actualise these. “Courage”, Gandhi said, “is the strength to stand alone!”
It is not easy though! Our world today is rife with war and conflict, xenophobia and jingoism, exclusion and exploitation, divisiveness and discrimination. We need many more women and men, who will internalize and put into practice this popular song that was part of my childhood:
It takes courage to answer a call.
It takes courage to give to all.
It takes courage to risk your name.
It takes courage to be true.
It takes courage to dare- what no other will share.
To be standing alone with whom no one will.
To be ready to stake for another man’s sake.
It takes courage to be true.
It takes courage to say what no other will pay.
To give each man his share.
Though there will be less to spare.
To be seeking no more than the neighbour next door.
It takes courage to be true.
Our world today desperately needs more people, who have the courage to listen and say “yes” to that call!