The U.S. human rights monitoring group, Human Rights Watch, has given its highest recognition to activists from Egypt, Liberia and the United States. The honors recognized efforts on behalf of torture victims in Egypt, in defense of individual freedoms in Liberia, and to improve conditions for juvenile offenders in Los Angeles, California. Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla was honored for her work to combat torture and promote women's rights and freedom of association in Egypt. Human Rights Watch credits Dr. El Dawla for breaking the silence surrounding torture in Egypt by forming the Egyptian Association Against Torture. Dr. El Dawa's organization was the first group dedicated to documenting and assisting victims who had been tortured by Egyptian police and security forces.
"I'm a psychiatrist, and I know what it's like when people feel physically and psychologically trapped," he said. "The term we use for this is learned helplessness. One of important roles played by human rights organizations even if they don't receive some redress in specific case is to support the victim. We say you are not alone. We reject the idea of helplessness."
Dr. El Dawla's contributions to human rights span 20 years. She began by speaking out against female genital mutilation and by fighting to prevent religious fundamentalists from eliminating women's basic freedoms in Egypt.
She has since expanded her efforts to treat women who have been subjected to all forms of domestic violence.
Human Rights Watch also saluted one of Liberia's top human rights lawyers, Tiawan Gongloe, who has defended many political detainees who were abused by the regime of former president Charles Taylor.
Mr. Gongloe was captured by Liberian police in April of last year and was beaten and tortured. He then fled to the United States, where he has been living ever since. He says he hopes to return to Liberia, where he estimates only 200 lawyers remain to help rebuild the legal system. He wants the United States to commit to helping Liberia recover.
"Liberia expects greater support from the United States for lasting peace," he said. "We were very disappointed that the U.S. did not intervene militarily this summer to end the chaos, but we were glad the U.S. voted for a United Nations resolution to put 15,000 international peacekeepers in Liberia. But the U.S. must go farther. We need sustained political engagement from the United States. It should develop a clear agenda for the training of the police, the army and the judiciary."
In the United States, issues of civil rights are mentioned more frequently than human rights. But Human Rights Watch included a Catholic lay chaplain in California, Javier Stauring, among its 2003 honorees, for his work to improve prison conditions for young criminals in Los Angeles. Mr. Stauring says a growing trend in the courts of treating juvenile offenders as adults is an alarming violation of human rights that has dangerous implications for the future.
"You take a boy who is 16 and put him in a adult prison, now this boy gets out after a few years, he's had no education, no job training and now he's got a criminal record," he said. "This is both immoral and it is stupid. We've not only ruined this kid's life, we've made him even more dangerous to society."
In May, two young prisoners attempted suicide while incarcerated at a Los Angeles jail for adults, where they are kept in small cells without windows for 23.5 hours per day and receive no education or rehabilitation. Mr. Stauring's advocacy efforts have succeeded in persuading city officials to stop sending juvenile offenders to that facility, although the young people in custody there have yet to be transferred out.
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, says even small steps toward advancing human rights are significant. "Both terrorism and the response to terrorism have provided a whole new set of excuses for ignoring our core values. But we shouldn't let the bad news obscure the progress we have been able to make on so many fronts," he said.
Human Rights Watch is marking its 25th anniversary this year.