October 21, 2019
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Freedom Of Thought

A prize forever?

 Aung San Suu Kyi at the European Parliament on October 22, 2013. (Photo: Patrick Seeger EFE/EPA)

Aung San Suu Kyi at the European Parliament on October 22, 2013. (Photo: Patrick Seeger EFE/EPA)

Strasbourg (France), Nov 16 (efe-epa).- Three decades after the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was established, the conduct of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi has prompted the European Parliament (EP) to open a debate over the possibility of rescinding an award when the recipient’s subsequent actions prove disappointing.

The Sakharov rules lack any procedure for taking away a prize, and no consensus exists within the EP for instituting such a process, according to opinions gathered by EFE from members of its different groups.

"Burma (Myanmar) is a country of many peoples, of many opinions, of many religions, of many races. We have to all come together and create unity out of diversity," Suu Kyi said in an address to the EP in October 2013, when she traveled to Strasbourg to receive the Sakharov Prize that had been awarded to her 23 years earlier, during her time under house arrest.

Rohingya Muslims - considered stateless in Myanmar - do not appear to be included in Suu Kyi's many peoples and religions.

The minority group has been subject to a military campaign since August 2017, which has led to hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas fleeing to neighboring Bangladesh for refuge.

"We hope that you will be with us to point out our mistakes when we need to know that we've made mistakes," Suu Kyi went on to say in her acceptance speech. However, so far she has only turned a deaf ear to petitions – from the EP and others – to stop the repression of the Rohingyas.

"It's also time for EP to look at the statute of this prize and make some changes," said Estonia’s Urmas Paet, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) who belongs to the EP’s Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group.

There should be the "possibility to call back the prize if the person who got it later on will act or inact completely differently than expected," he said.

The EP, during its plenary session on September 13, reminded Suu Kyi that the Sakharov is awarded to those who defend human rights and protect minorities, and then called for an assessment of whether the prize could be revoked in the event its winner later fails to live up to these criteria.

For Estefania Torres, a Spanish MEP who belongs to the European United Left group, human rights should be at the heart of European policy and no prize should be awarded to anyone who fails to uphold them.

"But yes, if I give you a prize because you are considered a model for that, what cannot happen is that you later completely change track," she added.

Should Suu Kyi return the prize?

Romanian MEP Cristian Preda, of the conservative EPP group (the largest in the European Parliament), explained that the EP lacked the majority required to ask Suu Kyi to return the prize.

"Moreover, we do not have a procedure to take back a prize from someone who was awarded (one)," he said.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s response has been the same. Their regulations also do not provide for the possibility of the prize being rescinded, with the idea that the winner is named for his or her actions prior to being chosen for the award. As a matter of "principle", the committee has refrained from commenting on what it can "say or do afterward."

Suu Kyi was awarded the Sakharov Prize in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, when the current de facto ruler of Myanmar was under house arrest for opposing the military junta that then ruled the country.

Other Nobel Peace Prize laureates have joined the chorus of international voices calling for Suu Kyi's prize to be rescinded.

"There are no procedures" for taking away a Sakharov, said MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, of the EP’s Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group.

"There could be personal opinions. Without doubt, I believe that the international criticism of Suu Kyi's attitude should lead to a verification of whether this prize she has received corresponds to the day-to-day actions of her government," he added.

A symbol of freedom

Besides the lack of a majority for amending the regulations of the most important European human rights award, several MEPs were sympathetic to Suu Kyi, with Preda saying that "she does not have a free hand; she is not the only one responsible" in her country, where "the influence of the military is extremely powerful.”

Moreover, "she did not receive the prize as a defender of minorities. She received the prize because she fought for freedom (...) She was and continues to be, I believe, a symbol of political freedom," Preda stressed.

"Her inability to manage this problem, of course, is concerning.  But I believe that we should first try to resolve the humanitarian crisis" created by the Rohingya exodus.

Monitoring the honorees

Suu Kyi has been the most notorious and criticized instance of a prizewinner who went on to disappoint.

The Sakharov Prize was also awarded in 1991 to Kosovo Albanian Adem Demaci, who, over time, went on to lead a guerrilla movement and rival the pacifist Ibrahim Rugova, former president of Kosovo and 1998 Sakharov winner.

However, no consensus exists among MEPs regarding a possible solution that involves not awarding the prize to political dissidents.

This year, the Sakharov Prize was given to eight Venezuela opposition members - political leaders, mayors and activists -, seven of whom were in prison.

"It is an interesting suggestion, but we cannot always give the prize in the memory" of someone, said Panzeri.

"The main problem is to verify whether there is an effective coherence in the prize. In the case of Suu Kyi it has created some contradictions, but in other cases it has been an important prize because it has allowed, in a substantial manner, to bring light, freedom and rights to certain countries," he said.

A greater monitoring of the prize winners is, according to the Italian MEP, "absolutely essential, because the activity of the EP cannot end with awarding the prize."

By Marta Merino and Julia R. Arévalo 

Translated by Shubhomoy Chatterjee



The project was co-financed by the European Union in the frame of the European Parliament's grant program in the field of communication. The European Parliament was not involved in its preparation and is, in no case, responsible for or bound by the information for opinions expressed in the context of this project. In accordance with applicable law, the authors, interviewed people, publishers or program broadcasters are solely responsible. The European Parliament can also not be held liable for direct or indirect damage that may result from the implementation of the project.

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