From Sakharov to Snowden: Why Edward Snowden should receive the 2013 Sakharov Prize

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BarboraBukovska

26 Sep 2013

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Next week (30 September) members of the European Parliament will decide who will be awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The winner will be chosen by members of three committees (AFET, DEVE and DROI) and announced by Conference of Presidents on 10 October 2013. The Prize has honoured the efforts of individuals and organisations who defend human rights and freedom of expression annually since 1988.

Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower, is among the nominees for the Prize. 

While all of this year’s nominees are deserving of global recognition for their admirable and courageous action to highlight and defend human rights, it is Snowden’s exposure of a massive and unaccountable state sponsored surveillance programme that most closely captures the enduring legacy of the man that the prize is named after. The 1975 Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov.

Sakharov was a Russian physicist who rejected the USSR's nuclear programme; he shunned his own work in a secret research laboratory to become an outspoken opponent and critic of the oppressive reach of the Kremlin. Even in exile, Sakharov continued to raise his voice, denouncing social injustice and advocating the benefits of democracy.

It is fair to say that Sakharov was a security state insider, working on the powerful weapons that could affect all humanity. Snowden too was a security state insider, working on powerful weapons enabling the interception of the electronic communications. Through his revelations, Snowden voiced objection to the vast scale of secret state surveillance of millions of people around the world, including foreign presidents and companies. The revelations revealed how democratically elected U.S. senators had lied. These revelations have released information that is on of strong public concern, including previously classified judgments from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court articulating alarm about governmental conduct.

Over thirty years on from Sakharov’s exile, Snowden’s actions reflect that he is the true inheritor of the Sakharov legacy. Like Sakharov, Snowden decided to defect and stand for the values of society at large against the secretive interests of state machinery. Like Sakharov, Snowden finds himself an outcast, living in asylum and hounded as a result.

In divulging classified information, Snowden has greatly jeopardised both his professional and personal livelihood. Beyond displaying great courage, Snowden instigated and much needed and long overdue discussion and debate about the preservation of democratic ideals and the limits of permissible government interference with human rights in a world where national security has been used increasingly to justify the erosion of fundamental freedoms.

Snowden’s action has showed that blanket mass-surveillance practices are not limited to ‘communist states’ and ‘dictators.’

Many members of the European Parliament who grew up within a communist state will surely remember the effect such surveillance – the purpose of which was nothing more than to control behaviour and dictate the conduct of everyday life. One study of the EU Data Retention Directive poignantly observed that “under pervasive surveillance, individuals are inclined to make choices that conform to mainstream expectations.”

The Members of the European Parliament must make sure that human rights violations exposed by Snowden are addressed; surveillance must be constrained to cases when justified under international law. They also must make sure that governments remain accountable and transparent in an age where unprecedented technological advances allow for increased ability for subterfuge.

By the same token, Members of the European Parliament should also recognise the individual who has exposed these violations; a man who has fought for human rights protection and for the traditions and liberties that the Prize embodies.

Edward Snowden must be the recipient of the 2013 Sakharov Prize.

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