Father Stan Swamy honoured with award, the ‘human rights Nobel’


The Martin Ennals Foundation has posthumously honoured Father Stan Swamy for his contributions to human rights. “Father Stan was nominated for the Award in spring 2021, but he sadly passed away before it could reach him. The jury wished to shine a light on Father Stan’s many contributions to human rights, which cannot be eclipsed by his unjust incarceration by Indian authorities,” said Chair of the Award Jury, Hans Thoolen.

Every year, the Martin Ennals Foundation, based in Geneva, Switzerland, gives out an award that is regarded as the Nobel Prize for human rights defenders. The recipients of this year’s awards include Daouda Diallo from Burkina Faso, Pham Doan Trang from Vietnam and Abdul-Hadi Al-Khawaja of Bahrain.

Fr Stan Swamy who “leapt out of the boundaries of his Church to find Christ among the people” worked closely with indigenous communities to safeguard their land, forest and labour rights.  He is best known for taking legal action for the protection of indigenous youth who had been arrested and labelled rebels by various intelligence agencies. Bagaicha, the movement he founded in Ranchi, Jharkand carries on the work still. In what has been perceived widely as a vindictive act, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which had arrested Swamy with other activists such as lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in 2020, had claimed that he was a part of the banned Communist Party – India (Maoist).

According to the Martin Ennals Foundation, the award “strives to provide human rights defenders with much needed protection, raising their public profile and gathering international support for their work”. More than 60 defenders from 34 countries are associated with the award at present. Among the past winners have been Loujain AlHathloul, a women’s rights defender from Saudi Arabia, who was arrested and detained for campaigning for the #Women2drive movement and the end of the male guardianship system. She was tortured, denied medical care and put in solitary confinement on December 28, 2020. Human rights lawyer from Pakistan, Asma Jahangir, had won the award in 1995. The tribute to Swamy will highlight that he “advocated for empowering the Adivasi communities to claim the rights to their land and legitimize their cultural heritage and knowledge”.

In a special move, the Martin Ennals Foundation decided to posthumously pay homage to Father Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and tribal rights activist from Jharkhand who had been arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and passed away in July 2021 at the age of 84. There was widespread criticism of his death, seen as a custodial killing since he had been in Taloja jail, untreated for Covid-19 despite several pleas before the courts.

Ennals was a British activist who spent his life working to secure human rights across the world. He was Secretary-General of Amnesty International from 1968 to 1980. Ennals also co-founded several organisations, such as Article 19, International Alert and Huridocs and formed “the binding force between them”. “We criticise universally because human rights are universal even if they are universally disregarded….there are double standards and double talk and there will always be an infringement of human rights. The work we are doing is part of the overall package of human development whatever the political system, country or cultural background is,” Ennals had said in an interview. Ennals died in 1991 and, in his memory, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders is given to “individuals and organisations that have shown exceptional commitment to defending and promoting human rights, despite the risks involved”.

Three people were selected for the award this year. Diallo has been described as “a fearless activist who documents human rights abuses committed in the crossfires of Burkina Faso’s violent conflict”. Meanwhile, one of Vietnam’s top journalists, Trang has been a vociferous defender of freedom of expression, and Khawaja is a “champion of human rights and justice who has galvanised a new generation of activists in the Gulf region”.

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