Why Edward Snowden should receive the Sakharov prize – and why he’s unlikely to get it


By Simon Davies

In recent weeks there has been a groundswell of support for US whistleblower Edward Snowden to receive the Sakharov Prize, which since 1988 has been awarded by the European Parliament to individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought. The European Green party appears likely to nominate Snowden for the award.

Snowden – in many respects – is an ideal candidate for this prestigious award. Like Sakharov – nuclear physicist turned enemy of the state – Snowden has used his position in national security and defence to raise concerns about the preservation of human rights. In their transition from state apparatchiks to rights advocates both men became criminals and dissidents, persecuted and maligned by their former masters.

Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov

Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov

The Sakharov prize – if it is to truly commemorate the great activist – should concern itself only with the ideals and influence of candidates rather than politically inspired considerations of national security and national dignity. In the eyes of some, the jury is still out on whether Snowden’s actions have damaged global security but there can be no doubt about his impact on awareness of individual rights and of state transgressions.

The Sakharov home page makes no mention of political parameters in the granting of an award. Were this to be a condition Sakharov himself could never receive an award – let alone brand it. In his time the USSR had argued that Sakharov destabilised its own security.

Indeed the European Parliament has laudably withstood arguments of state security considerations in the granting of the Sakharov prize. In 1996 and again in 2008 it courageously gave the prize to dissidents and democracy activists in China.

However the parliament’s courage ends there. The Sakharov prize has never been awarded to activists whose primary focus is Europe or the US. Indeed the vast majority of the parliament’s focus is on activism in rogue and despotic states. Whether it has the tenacity or motivation to recognise an enemy of the US and EU security realm is yet to be seen, but few people are holding their breath. It’s a far safer bet for parliamentarians to support activism against totalitarian regimes. And, of course, providing the 50,000 euro cash prize would be controversial in itself – not least in the US where that action would be regarded as funding of criminal activities.  

The European Parliament must act with caution, lest it betray everything that Sakharov stood for.

In recent years there have been complaints that the Sakharov prize has become mired in politics, with major power blocks within the parliament jostling for their own candidates – often without regard for due process at any ethical level. In such circumstances Snowden’s candidature would be blocked by centre and conservative political groups.

However Snowden’s nomination cannot so easily be brushed under the carpet. His actions represent a challenge to state power at the global level, and thus without regard to conventional and simple national dynamics. He could well be the first contender to enshrine the need for activism without borders in a networked world.

The European Parliament must act with caution in this matter, lest it betray everything that Sakharov stood for.

EU officials had approached Sakharov a year before his death to secure naming rights for the prize, dangling the carrot of an inaugural joint award to Nelson Mandela and Soviet activist Anatoly Marchenko – neither of whom had abided by their own governments’ interpretation of the rule of law. Unless the parliament now seriously considers Snowden as a nominee it risks a charge of hypocrisy and self-interest over the primacy of its own rule of law.