Human Rights Strasbourg Trip
Human Rights LLM Student Martin McDonnell shares some insights about the recent Human Rights trip to Strasbourg for the Sakharov Prize
Myself and a number of students studying a Masters in Human Rights Law at Queens’s University, Belfast, got the opportunity to visit the European Parliament in order to attend the Sakharov Prize ceremony. This award is bestowed by the European Parliament people who dedicate their lives to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought. Dedicated to Soviet Union dissident Andrei Sakharov, the award was founded in 1988, and is usually awarded to those that strive to protect human rights. The trip was also a chance to explore Strasbourg and see the European Parliament in session and its neighbour building, the European Court of Human Rights.
Before witnessing the ceremony, we were escorted through the Parliament building itself. The EU is a supranational institution that represents 28 countries and this is definitely reflected in the scale of the parliament. The Parliament building is composed of interactive tourist exhibits, conference rooms and over 1,000 offices which are all interconnected by narrow walkways and escalators within a shopping mall like complex. Before the trip I had imagined the building as a stuffy bureaucracy, however the building largely avoids the grey and sterile vibe that government buildings usually give off. This is mostly achieved by the expansive glass ceiling which provides for an abundance of natural light, making the interior space feel more open and airy whilst allowing for a variety of aesthetic vertical gardens to be placed around the structure.
In order to see the ceremony, we were brought on a tour of the premises and then escorted up 4 escalators to the parliamentary theatre which sits encased in a large dome within the building.
Our seats were perched over the vast and imposing EU hemicycle, allowing us to get a bird’s eye view of the enormous chamber which seats the entirety of the European Parliament. Modelled after Roman amphitheatres, the circular design of the room is designed to encourage consensus among political parties rather than confrontation, with the seats on the floor separating different political factions like wedges in a pie chart.
The Sakharov Prize
This year, the Sakharov prize went to Ilham Tohti, an economist and lecturer who campaigned for stronger rights for Uyghurs within China. Tohti used his lectures and website Uyghur Online to advocate for greater regional autonomy and enforcement of anti-discrimination laws for the Muslim minority group in the Xinjiang region of China. For his efforts, Tohti was continually harassed by Chinese authorities and ultimately arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 2014 after a forty-eight hour trial where he was falsely accused of being a separatist.
In response to radical Islamic terrorist attacks in China, Uyghurs have seen their rights eroded by state authorities in what is being described as an oppressive ‘cultural genocide’ whereby millions of Uyghurs are being sent to ‘re-education’ camps where they are forced to abandon their religion and language. Moreover, recent investigative journalism efforts have revealed how China is targeting Uyghurs for example the leaked operations manual for the despotic mass detention camps in Xinjiang, ‘predictive policing’ powered by artificial intelligence and an expanding mass surveillance program, systematically designed to collect personal information on Uyghurs.(One of the instructions within the detention camp training manual obtained and translated by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, note: prisoners referred to as ‘students’)
In light of the emergent information that continues to demonstrate the full scale of human rights abuse in China, the Sakharov prize ceremony was a prime opportunity for the European Union to galvanise the campaign towards ending the injustice being perpetrated against the Uyghur population.
The ceremony itself saw Tohti’s daughter, Jewher, accept the award on Tohti’s behalf. Reflecting the precarious nature of human rights work, it is often the case that the Sakharov prize is awarded to individuals who are detained, such as last year’s winner, Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker jailed by Russia for protesting against the annexation of Crimea.
One thing that was particularly striking to me about Jewher’s situation was her age. Jewher was just eighteen when she was separated from her father, narrowly escaping the same fate as him when the Chinese authorities released her at the airport. A major theme within her talk was how she was robbed of a normal life and thrust into the role of being a public figure for Uyghur rights as well as becoming an enemy of her own state.
During her speech, she brought home the pain of having her father ripped away from her and not knowing if he was still alive; at one point recalling an emotional vignette of how he would labour away in her bedroom, trying to spend as much time with her as possible as he tirelessly worked his university position whilst building his campaign for Uyghur equality.
Jewher’s ceremonial address reminded me, coming from Belfast, of a local human rights advocate, John Finucane, who took on the human rights mission of his father Pat Finucane after he was murdered by paramilitaries. Similarly, Jewher was able to harness the solemnity of her father’s victimisation in order to command the attention and respect of the audience which included members from the Council of the EU and European Commission, MEPs and the other nominees for the award.
A particularly memorable moment in her talk happened during the Q and A session at the end, when two separate audience members recalled how they received dismissive responses when they tried to open a dialogue with Chinese natives about the Uygher crisis. Jewher explained how Chinese people have a strong sense of pride about their country and anyone levelling criticism against their government’s treatment of Uyghers will be accused of being brainwashed by the Western Anti-China agenda. In light of this, she urged that any case for the Uyghur cause should be communicated constructively, challenging denial of China's human rights abuse with clearly represented facts and a respectful attitude.
As a Postgraduate student studying Human Rights Law, the opportunity to see Jewher carry on her father's mission to spread awareness about Uyghur persecution was an education on effective rights advocacy. Moreover, the personal story of a person brave enough to campaign against injustice perpetrated on such a wide and complex scale by a global superpower left an impression with my friends and I long after we had left Strasbourg.
Our brief sit-in at the Parliament also provided a good taster experience to observe the EU machine in motion. For a first-time visitor, seeing the Parliamentary proceedings allows you to see how this powerhouse of a political institution is able to operate, which can be hard to glimpse from snippets that appear on news segments and social media. Communication in the session is facilitated through headphone channels that simultaneously relay the proceedings in all 24 official languages of the EU by way of the on-site translators who sit behind and above the Parliamentarians.
The session we witnessed contained the last round of voting which saw Emily O'Reilly re-elected to the Office of European Ombudsman, a role created with the aim of tackling the perceived lack of transparency with regards to EU law-making. MEPs also voted in favour of Hate speech legislation and voiced their concern over the rising hate crime in Estonia, Spain and Hungary as well as local discriminatory measures like the 'LGBTI free zones' which have appeared in Poland. The session moved quickly and we were able to witness the votes regarding these matters and debates on economic issues such as VAT fraud all within the hour or so before going to lunch.
European Court of Human Rights
The next day we visited the European Court of Human Rights which is just beside the Parliament.
The building is less extravagant than the parliament and the Court was not in session so there wasn't much activity as we stopped by. We were shown a montage of the subject matter of cases which the court has dealt with in the past such as the use of torture against interned terrorist suspects in Ireland, the killing of human rights activists in Chechnya and the right to privacy of public figures in Germany, to name a few.
Coming from a law background I was familiar with the rulings of a number of the cases that were discussed in the videos we watched and the pamphlets we received. However, the first-hand experience of stepping inside the Court allowed me to appreciate the material resources and manpower that are committed to delivering justice to applicants.
The City of Strasbourg
Our trip to Strasbourg was just for 2 nights so there wasn’t time for a comprehensive tour of the city but I still managed to get a nice feel for the city decorated for Christmas and got the chance to visit the Strasbourg art museum that was located near our accommodation.
Due to its proximity to Germany, Strasbourg's cityscape is a cross-breed of German and French influences. Its central features are the medieval French gothic cathedrals and half-timbered houses which are branched together by twisting cobblestone alleyways.
Meanwhile, there is the more modern and German side of Strasbourg which includes neo Renaissance buildings like the national theatre and Rhine palace situated within the Neustadt area, an extension to the main town that was built under the German Empire which had annexed Strasbourg after the Franco-Prussian war.
Strasbourg Modern Art Museum
A memorable stop for me was the Strasbourg modern art museum. There was an impressive collection of work on display featuring pieces from greats like Picasso, Rodin, Degas and Kandinsky.
Compared with modern art museums like the Tate Modern and Glasgow Modern Art Museum which predominantly feature avant-garde pieces, the Strasbourg gallery has a nice balance of contemporary exhibits alongside its more experimental displays; making it a good choice for anyone that’s a bit hesitant about the cryptic/challenging side of modern art.
The range of contemporary sculptures, photography, drawings and interactive exhibits was well worth the small admission fee and in particular, I would highly recommend the museum for anyone interested in abstractionist art.
Upon leaving Strasbourg, I felt that I had experienced a lot despite the brief period I was actually there, attending the Sakharov prize ceremony as well as experiencing the two of the premier political/legal institutions of Europe first hand. In addition, it was surreal to see footage from the ceremony posted on social media outlets when I had returned back home. Seeing these posts which had amassed millions of views crystallised the widespread reach of the EU and the power it has to elevate human rights causes.