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10 October, 2013

Appropriating Moral Authority

It was more than once that I felt astonished by and ashamed of some of my colleagues’ choices for the Sakharov Prize, the supreme award of the European Parliament for human rights defenders and activists

Meant to serve the purpose of empowering human rights defenders or getting them out of jail as well as sending a message to regimes that have little if any respect for freedom of expression and other fundamental rights and civil liberties, this award started losing the moral grounds and criteria becoming little more than a beauty contest of politicians or a sheer pragmatic PR action for domestic use.

Firstly, one can be astonished by a total confusion of criteria: human rights activists and defenders cannot be mistaken for abstract humanists or charity workers. With all due respect and admiration, neither Albert Schweitzer nor Mother Teresa would qualify for the club of those who founded the Helsinki Accord groups in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States, and other European countries. By no means does this fact somehow diminish the uniqueness and validity of their humanism and work for humanity; they simply fall into another category.

Secondly, the attempts to use the Sakharov Prize merely to highlight EU political attentiveness to the emerging dissenting elites or rebel groups in troubled regions and states, without paying more attention to their liberal sensibilities and democratic credentials have already become a real threat to this supreme award in the area of human rights and freedom of expression.

READ ALSO: Political Prisoners: Big and Small

This year’s nominees include people whose credentials in the area of the defence of human rights and civil liberties are far from clear. No matter how much I empathise with people who were victims of violence practiced against women and children, a victim herself or himself has yet to become a human rights defender. A heart-breaking story on TV does not translate into a meaningful action for the benefit of humanity. Victimhood may become a passport to the Heaven of Success, yet it does not necessarily become an instrument to fight for human rights and dignity all over the world.

Edward Snowden may be said to have become the most sensational case in a series of surprising, not to say shocking, news. Whether Snowden was a whistle-blower and human or civil rights defender, or a person suspect of high treason for violation of his code, was and continues to be a highly debatable and delicate matter.

READ ALSO: Lessons Learned From the Snowden Scandal

Even if we do not accept the wording of American commentators and politicians refusing to apply the word “traitor,” Snowden would unquestionably remain a renegade – a person who radically changed or rejected his allegiances and views. Even if we credit him for what he did, this does not allow us to regard a renegade as a human rights defender. He was not one, and he is highly unlikely to become one, if we judge him by his attitude to the state that gave him a shelter. Let’s call a spade a spade.

This is what Garry Kasparov had to say on his Facebook profile about Snowden and his nomination for the Sakharov Prize:

Snowden is taking shelter in Putin's Russia and has since made several statements praising the Putin dictatorship. Regardless of what you think about the NSA leaks or Snowden's status as whistleblower or lawbreaker or fugitive, his providing cover to the Putin regime should disqualify him from any award bearing the name of the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. But now Snowden has been shortlisted for the Sakharov Prize. The next day, the Russian Communication Minister announced that the Russian FSB (KGB) can listen to ANY conversation, read any email or text or any other form of communication with no warrant or special permission. I imagine Snowden will have some strong comments about this! But I suspect not...

READ ALSO: Transatlantic Spying: the Snowden Case

This passage brings me to the crucial point: How on Earth can we use the name of Andrei Sakharov, the greatest human rights philosopher, ideologue, advocate, activist, and defender, in this banal story of our nurturing a manifestly anti-American sentiment in the EP with the help of a ludicrous story of a controversial employee of American secret services?

Andrei Sakharov was a person who sacrificed his wellbeing for the sake of his ideals. He could have secured for himself the position of a celebrity of the Soviet Union and a genius favoured by the Kremlin. Instead, he gave it all up choosing the life of a dissident with all its unsafety and insecurity.

Even if we set aside Sakharov himself, the human rights paradigm and discourse in world politics has become a success story in dismantling or delegitimizing and dealing a blow to the Soviet and other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes precisely due to the courage of Russian and other Eastern European dissidents.

Andrei Sakharov’s wife and life companion Elena Bonner and their brothers-in-arms, such as Andrei Amalrik, Yuli Daniel, Andrei Siniavsky, Aleksandr Galich, Aleksandr Ginzburg, Vladimir Bukovsky, Semen Gluzman, Piotr Grigorenko – their names were a legion, and without all of these people human rights would have remained little more than a passionately romantic way of addressing issues left out of Realpolitik. Add to them the greatest ones in Central Europe – Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Adam Michnik – to have a gallery of alternative, or elusive, founding fathers of the EU.

READ ALSO: Human Rights and Multiculturalism in Our Troubled World

Yes, they appear to have been as legitimate and powerful founding fathers of the EU as Robert Schumann, Jean Monnet, or Altiero Spinelli. Since human rights have become over past decades the heart of EU identity and value orientation, it would be fair enough to note that people like Andrei Sakharov had long been for the EU incomparably more than a source of admiration and academic interest. They created the new legitimacy of the EU. Each time the EU fails to achieve its goals as a global player in economy and international relations, it can safely rely on its great moral authority which is drawn from the best of East and Central European(and also Chinese and Cuban) dissidents.

Human rights story was and continues to be, as Michael Ignatieff rightly observed, a happy combination of Eastern courage and Western organization. Global NGOs, Russian and Chinese dissenters or disbarred lawyers, and least cynical politicians, who are still faithful to the ideals of Sakharov, are behind this epic battle for human dignity and freedom.

This is why the time has come to ask whether it is appropriate to appropriate Andrei Sakharov’s name and moral authority for the sake of flip-flop, beauty contests, brutal PR actions, and all that Vanity Fair of EU politicians.


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