Are European Parliament prizes hopelessly politicised?

By Saman Rizwan

Sometimes, an award says more about the one handing it out than about the one receiving it. When the European Parliament for example awarded its “Sakharov” human rights prize to Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director, this was meant as a rebuke to Russian authorities, who had accused Sentsov of plotting terrorist acts. MEPs however considered him to be a political prisoner. This is only one of the many prizes the European Parliament awards.

There is always a fierce political debate in the European Parliament on who should be nominated for this. Last year, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange made it as one of three Sakharov prize finalists. This was partially a result of the support of Italy’s “anti-establishment” Five Star Movement, which described the finalists’ vote result as a “big political victory against indifference towards the WikiLeaks founder,” who is currently risking 175 years in prison in the United States. In turn, the EP’s GUE group backed the Colombian Truth Commission “for its work shedding light on atrocities committed in Colombia’s armed conflict.”

Unfortunately, there have been reports of possible corruption with the attribution of this Prize. According to the FT, investigators of the Qatargate scandal have alleged that former MEP Panzeri and his group may have been able to influence votes against two Moroccan activists shortlisted for the EP’s Sakharov human rights award both in 2018 and in 2021. During the 2021 selection process, they would have managed to get the Socialists in the European parliament to support a Bolivian candidate nominated by the far right, instead of a Moroccan nominee put forward by the far left.

Another example of the total politicization of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize is how a 2016 EP screening of a film critical to Magnitsky-style sanctions was apparently attended by Russian individuals that at the time were already targeted by these kinds of sanctions.

The same kind of politicization is visible with the European Parliament’s film prize. A film screening of a film in Catalan language provoked a debate on whether this was not an official EU language. Obviously, it would be difficult to expect an award handed out by a Parliament not to end up politicised, but then the question is why the European Parliament is involved in the business of handing out prizes – certainly film prizes – in the first place.

Not only a problem for European Parliament awards

Politization is however not only a problem for prizes awarded by the European Parliament. Even the prestigious Nobel prize has been singled out for criticism. According to French literature laureate Annie Ernaux, the Nobel prize is an institution “for men”. She laments that “It manifests itself by this desire for tradition. Being bound to traditions is perhaps more masculine, it is a way to transmit power to each other.”

This is hard to deny. Out of the 954 Nobel Prize recipients until today, a mere 6 percent have been women. Moreover, the same can be said when it comes to minorities. Even if there was the first black laureate in 1950, only 16 nlack individuals won the prize since then, with none ever receiving the coveted awards in chemistry, medicine, or physics. Naturally, race should not play any role in determining whether someone deserves the prize, but perhaps the Nobel Prize’s selection process needs to be reviewed, to see whether the decision makers are not mostly coming from the West, which increases the risk of a certain bias.

Certainly given the economic rise of the “rest of the world”, this may be a good idea, so to safeguard the Nobel Prize’s global prestige. What’s more, also religious leaders continue to be overlooked, in particular those coming from the Muslim world. This despite the face that Islamic leaders have been making great efforts to promote interfaith relations, thereby countering ills like extremism or Holocaust denialism, while even challenging the science-faith divide in climate action.

These voices of the Global South deserve to be heard more often, and awards like the Nobel Prize can contribute to that. The Nobel Prize could truly serve as a catalyst for progress, by broadening its scope and embracing greater diversity. This could help to uplift voices from marginalized communities, empower underrepresented groups, and inspire a new generation of thinkers, peacemakers, and creatives from around the world.

If the likes of the European Parliament and the Nobel Prize committee can do one thing to avoid irrelevance, it is to counter the politicization of their awards, by broadening their horizon.

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