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A new tool to champion human rights defenders

From left to right: Neri Colmenares, Abdul Aziz Muhamat, Juwairiya Mohideen, Nemonte Nenquimo and Intisar Al-Amyal.(True Heroes Films)

The Digest of Human Rights Awards champions human rights defenders, past and present.

A new online tool has been launched to champion human rights defenders and bring greater recognition to their work.

Recently launched by True Heroes Films, a Geneva-based media organisation which uses digital storytelling to raise the profile of human rights defenders around the world, the Digest of Human Rights Awards includes over 2,800 winners of 220 prestigious awards.

The Digest, while raising awareness about the work of human rights defenders, also  aims to serve as a useful tool for both the media and the human rights world to go beyond the often fleeting publicity that surrounds award ceremonies and ensure their work is not forgotten.

Hans Thoolen, co-founder of True Heroes Films and the Martin Ennals Award, told Geneva Solutions that the idea for the Digest came out of a research project he undertook in 2013 into the value of human rights awards.

Awards help bring greater recognition to a cause, boosting an individual’s profile and granting them greater protection, be it through prize money or the support of NGOs. However, many awards remain relatively unheard of and receive very little publicity, which Thoolen said is “absolutely crucial” to their value.

“Journalists are incorporated into the broad human rights movement. Without publicity, human rights defenders would be working mostly for nothing,” said Thoolen. “They need public attention for their cause and what they are trying to change. Without it, nobody would know what they are doing.”

In fact, the Digest reveals journalists make up the largest professional group of award recipients, with more than 400 laureates from the media. The database also provides images of the laureates and biographies of their life and work, as well as details of the awards themselves.

“Human rights awards generally try to achieve three main objectives,” explained Thoolen. “One is recognition at a psychological level, which should not be underestimated. Many human rights defenders are not very popular in their own society, sometimes not even within their own family, so when they get recognition that can be a very important boost to their mental health. ”

The value of awards also lies in “concrete support”, be it in the form of prize money or training opportunities, or the chance to connect with others working in the same field. They also provide protection for the laureates, which is another reason publicity is essential - to make it known that the world is watching. Although this publicity can bring with it some risks, Thoolen explains that his long career working in the human rights world has shown him that these are outweighed by the benefits.

“The feedback we get from lawyers is always the same: the [human rights defenders] have already taken enormous risks by going public. They are not afraid, and clearly the publicity helps them. ”

Showcasing the work of thousands of people from all different backgrounds, championing everything from women's rights to freedom of speech, Thoolen also hopes the Digest will serve as a “hall of fame” for role models to inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

“Most people get into human rights work when they're ‘hit’ by something, but usually it's not by reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Thoolen. “What inspires people is seeing and hearing a person: a human rights defender. They are the entry point into the much broader human rights movement. ”

Here are just some recent winners of prestigious human rights awards featured in the Digest.

Abdul Aziz Muhamat - Martin Ennals Award, 2019.

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In October 2013 Abdul Aziz Muhamat was fleeing war in Darfur, Sudan, when the boat he was on was intercepted by authorities and he was forcibly transferred to Australia’s  notorious offshore immigration system on Manus Island. Like hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers, he was stranded on the island for years, during which he documented his experiences of inhumane living conditions and inadequate medical care. He became a tireless advocate for refugee rights and led many peaceful protest movements while on the island. He was granted asylum in Switzerland in 2019.

Juwairiya Mohideen - The Front Line Defenders Award, 2020.

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Juwairiya Mohideen is a Muslim woman human rights defender based in the North West of Sri Lanka. She and her family are part of the northern Muslim community that were forcibly displaced by the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in 1990. Thirty years later, she still lives in a refugee settlement and works to provide support for other people internally displaced in Sri Lanka. In 2010 she established the Muslim Women’s Development Trust (MWDT) which provides daily practical support, advice and legal assistance to women and girls facing abuse, violence and discrimination.

Nemonte Nenquimo - Goldman Environment Prize, 2020.

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Nemonte Nenquimo is an indigenous Waorani woman from the Ecuadorean Amazon who has committed herself to defending her ancestral ecosystem, culture and way of life. She was the leader of an indigenous campaign that resulted in a court ruling protecting 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest and Waorani territory from oil extraction in 2019, winning a lawsuit that set a legal precedent for indigenous rights.

Mohammad Mosaed - International Press Freedom Awards and Deutsche Welle’s Freedom of Speech, 2020.

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Mohammad Mosaed is a freelance investigative reporter from Iran who has covered government corruption, economic sanctions, protest movements and the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019, he was forced to resign his post at newspaper Shargh Daily, allegedly under pressure from allies of a government minister who he had accused of corruption and embezzlement. He now publishes investigative news on social media. According to a tweet from Mosead in September 2020, he has been sentenced to four years and nine months in prison and given a two-year ban on all journalism activities.

Rugiati Turay - Theodor Haecker Prize, 2020.

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Rugiati Turay started campaigning to stop female genital mutilation in Kalia refugee camp, in Sierra Leone, over two decades ago after fleeing the country’s brutal civil war. Having been subjected to FGM herself at just 12 years old, Turay founded the Amazonian Initiative Movement (AIM) to reduce the incidence of FGM among refugees while she was still in the camp. In 2003, when she returned home after the end of the civil war, Turay started up a branch of the grassroots organisation in her hometown. She and other AIM activists now visit villages to talk to those involved in FGM, from women and girls to local chiefs and imams.

Intisar Al-Amyal - Per Anger Prize, 2020.

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Intisar Al-Amyal is a leading Iraqi women’s rights defender who has spent two decades campaigning for equality and the rights of women in Iraq. She works to ensure access to education for all children and youth, and champions the right of rural women to learn to read and write. She believes that women and youth must participate in political life to make equality, democracy and peace a reality in a future Iraq - a country where patriarchy and sectarianism lead to discrimination and violence against women. Despite multiple threats against her life, she continues to work to shine a light on domestic violence, child marriages, honour killings and the victimisation of women and girls by extremist groups.