Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, US civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, indigenous rights and environmental activist Lottie Cunningham Wren of Nicaragua and Belarusian pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski and the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Centre “Viasna” have been selected as the 2020 Right Livelihood Laureates, the Swedish Right Livelihood Foundation announced on Thursday.
The Right Livelihood, widely known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, has been honouring courageous changemakers since 1980. By recognising the actions of brave visionaries and building impactful connections around the world, the award aims to boost urgent and long-term social change.
Indigenous rights and environmental activist Lottie Cunningham Wren of Nicaragua “for her ceaseless dedication to the protection of indigenous lands and communities from exploitation and plunder.”
Sotoudeh is the first Iranian Right Livelihood Laureate, while Bialiatski and Viasna are also the first Belarusian recipients of the award.
“This year’s laureates are united in their fight for equality, democracy, justice and freedom,” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation.
“Defying unjust legal systems and dictatorial political regimes, they successfully strengthen human rights, empower civil societies and denounce institutional abuses. This year’s selection of recipients highlights the increasing threats to democracy globally. It is high time that all of us in favour of democracy around the world stand up and support each other.”
The four laureates, selected by an international jury, will each receive a prize money of 1 million SEK ($111,800). As in previous years, the laureates were nominated in an open process where anyone could submit individuals and organisations for consideration. The laureates will be honoured during a virtual award presentation on December 3, 2020.
Established in 1980, the Right Livelihood Award aims to nurture the human courage needed to achieve peace, justice and sustainability for all. By recognising the actions of brave visionaries and building impactful connections around the world, the award aims to boost urgent and long-term social change.
The Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Foundation presenting the award sees its role as being a megaphone and shield for the Laureates, providing them with long-term support. The foundation’s main aims are to raise the profile of the laureates and their work, provide protection when Laureates’ lives and liberty are in danger and educate people on the innovative solutions presented by Laureates. The foundation has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
A particular feature of the award is that anyone can nominate individuals and organisations for consideration. An international Jury selects the laureates after careful investigation by the foundation’s research team. Unlike most other international prizes, the Right Livelihood Award has no categories. It recognises that in striving to meet the challenges of today’s world, the most inspiring and remarkable work often defies any standard classification.
The following sections include short biographies of the laureates and quotes by the laureates.
Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian lawyer who advocates for the rule of law and the rights of political prisoners, opposition activists, women and children in the face of Iran’s repressive regime. She is currently serving a long prison sentence for standing up against the country’s draconian legal system. Despite her imprisonment and constant threats to her family, Sotoudeh remains a defiant advocate for the rule of law.
Under Iran’s oppressive leadership, human rights and political opposition are heavily restricted. Women face especially harsh oppression and limitations due to the country’s strict interpretation of Islamic law. Despite pro-democracy protests in recent years and heavy international criticism for its human rights record, Iran remains one of the most repressive regimes worldwide.
Sotoudeh rose to prominence in the aftermath of the 2009 anti-government protests, the so-called “Green Revolution” following the country’s presidential elections. Sotoudeh defended several activists arrested during the government’s aggressive crackdown on the demonstrations, including Heshmat Tabarzadi, the head of the banned opposition group Democratic Front of Iran. Sotoudeh also represented Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi. As a member of the organisation called “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” (LEGAM), Sotoudeh has fought to abolish the death penalty in Iran. Most recently, she defended some of the women who in 2018 protested Iran’s draconian law requiring hijabs by taking off their headscarves on the streets. Sotoudeh has also campaigned against the death penalty for minors convicted of crimes committed under the age of 18.
Because of her unrelenting commitment to justice, Sotoudeh has been frequently imprisoned, including in solitary confinement, since 2010.
In March 2019, she was sentenced to a total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes on made-up charges including stoking “corruption and prostitution.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Sotoudeh went on hunger strikes to protest the continued arbitrary detention of political prisoners amid abysmal conditions in Iranian prisons.
Sotoudeh’s insistence on the rule of law and her unrelenting fight against oppression have made her a symbol of the struggle for justice in Iran.
“Many thanks to the Swedish Right Livelihood Foundation for granting its annual award to Nasrin and three other human rights activists. Our family is going through difficult times. Actions by the Iranian government towards Nasrin and our family are in some cases beyond imagination. They have blocked Nasrin’s bank accounts, detained our daughter Mehraveh, detained me, sentenced Nasrin to a staggering 38.5 years in jail and lashes. The Iranian government thinks they can ruin our family by imposing heavier attacks on us. They have targeted the pressures towards our whole family in the hope that they can achieve their goals. I am so worried about Nasrin’s condition that I am beginning to think of the worst-case scenario, which I never thought of before.
Bryan Stevenson is a leading US civil rights lawyer striving to reform the country’s criminal justice system to ensure equal rights for all. As systemic injustice disproportionately affects people of colour, Stevenson has dedicated his life to the pursuit of racial equality and challenging the historical legacy of institutional racism in the United States. Stevenson’s decades-long struggle to stand up for the marginalised, including people on death row, has paved the way for a more just society.
Stevenson’s work is rooted in the realisation that society and the justice system are plagued by systemic racism due to the unresolved history of slavery and white supremacy in the US. This is also manifested by the US having the highest rate of incarceration in the world, disproportionately affecting people of colour and the poor.
In 1989, Stevenson founded the organisation that is today called the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which has for decades advocated for people on death row. They represent hundreds of individuals in the criminal justice system yearly and have won the release, relief or reversal for over 140 wrongfully condemned individuals on death row. He is an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Stevenson has also argued and won cases before the US Supreme Court that have advanced the rights of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system and those of minors prosecuted as adults.
Campaigning to end excessive sentencing practices, which often disproportionately affect the poor and people of colour, has been another important aspect of Stevenson’s work.
Stevenson and EJI have also been deeply engaged in documenting the history of slavery, lynchings and segregation in the US, opening both a museum and memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. By advocating for a society-wide process to face the legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the US, Stevenson is paving the way for the structural changes needed for societal healing from the country’s long and violent history of racial injustice.
Working with the condemned and marginalised, Stevenson’s compassion has shined a light on the innate worth of each human being. As he put it in his 2014 bestseller memoir, Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
“It’s a great honour to receive an award with this kind of prestige. It’s very affirming and very encouraging, and it comes at a moment when there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of anxiety about our efforts to achieve justice in America.”
Lottie Cunningham Wren is a lawyer from the Miskito indigenous group defending the rights of indigenous peoples in Nicaragua to their land and resources. She has been instrumental in ensuring legal protections, including initiating the process of demarcation and titling of indigenous lands in Nicaragua. Cunningham has also fought to uphold the human rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants, protecting them and their livelihoods from armed settlers.
Indigenous communities around the world – but especially in Latin America – face a multitude of threats, from land grabs and exploitation of their natural resources to violence, endangering their very existence.
In Nicaragua, the majority of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities are harassed by armed settlers, who use the land to ranch cattle and harvest wood while pushing indigenous communities off their farmlands and out of their villages. Because of the state’s promotion of extractive industries, vital natural resources, such as clean water sources, are often destroyed.
Through the use of international and domestic law, Cunningham has secured indigenous land rights in Nicaragua, pioneering legal strategies that have been successfully used by indigenous communities around the world to demarcate their lands. Cunningham has also shown that the protection of indigenous land is instrumental to the protection of local ecosystems. She has played an important role in supporting the mobilisation against the planned Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal, a Chinese-financed government project to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The construction of the canal would cut through indigenous territories, lead to their forced displacement and destroy ecosystems needed for their survival.
A fierce advocate for her people, Cunningham has also advanced the rights of indigenous women, including establishing programmes to reduce domestic violence and pushing to create space for them in decision-making bodies. She also works to educate youth on how to formally demand respect for their human rights and report violations.
“I am deeply grateful for this honour and I want to express my sincere gratitude to the Right Livelihood Foundation for recognizing my people, my team and me for our struggles. I am truly humbled to accept this award in the name of indigenous people on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, especially those who have given their lives defending the territory and our Mother Earth. It will help make our struggles visible in a crucial time when people are facing a humanitarian emergency and Nicaragua is in one of the deepest human rights crises of its history.”
Belarusian pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski and Human Rights Centre “Viasna”
Ales Bialiatski is a human rights activist in Belarus, leading an almost 30-year campaign for democracy and freedom. In 1996, he founded the Minsk-based Human Rights Centre “Viasna” to provide support for political prisoners. It has since become the country’s leading non-governmental organisation contributing to the development of the civil society in Belarus through documenting human rights abuses and monitoring elections.
Belarus, under the rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” This reputation rightly stems from his authoritarian rule in which elections are rigged, opposition voices are silenced, and civil society is severely restricted by state institutions which are, in effect, a continuation of the country’s Soviet past. The country is also unique on the continent for its continued use of the death penalty.
Since the mid-1980s, Bialiatski has led a nonviolent and non-partisan campaign to ensure that democratic freedoms and a vibrant civil society are established in Belarus. As part of this work, Bialiatski has campaigned to end the death penalty. As an active member of the national human rights movement, Bialiatski has been arrested and spent several years in prison on trumped-up charges, as Belarusian authorities tried to impede him. The government has also frequently targeted Viasna and its members.
However, Bialiatski and Viasna’s persistent and long-standing efforts to empower the people of Belarus and ensure their democratic rights have rendered them an unstoppable force for freedom.
During pro-democracy protests, including the recent large-scale demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2020 fraudulent presidential elections, Viasna has been playing a leading role in advocating for the freedom of assembly, defending the rights of people arrested for protesting and documenting human rights abuses.
Bialiatski is also a member of the Coordination Council, which was set up in August 2020 by opposition and civil society figures with the aim of facilitating a peaceful transfer of power in the country.
Bialiatski and Viasna continue to stand for the multitude of courageous people protesting Lukashenko’s dictatorial reign at high personal risk. Through their commitment to democracy and freedom, Bialiatski and Viasna have laid the foundations of a peaceful and democratic society in Belarus.
“Being the recipient of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award imposes an additional obligation. I fully realize that it is a historical combination of circumstances, namely the tragic and wonderful struggle of my people for justice, their sacrifices and selflessness, that have led to the fact that human rights work in Belarus this year has become more necessary and relevant than ever. This award is a sign of moral support for all Belarusians who are striving for democratic change. I hope that the international attention that the prize attracts will help make the work of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” in Belarus more meaningful and less dangerous.”
- A Tell/ APO Group joint report