Activists Honored for Risky Work in Human Rights Field

Article excerpt

FOR Guatemalan elementary school teacher Amilcar Mendez Urizar, the choice was a simple one. Not to have taken an active role in opposing glaring human rights abuses committed against Guatemala's Indian majority by the armed forces would have been to condone injustice.

Yet Mr. Mendez readily concedes that members of human rights advocacy groups, such as the one he founded in his home two years ago, run high risks. Ten members of his Council of Ethnic Communities "Runujel Junam," known as CERJ, have been killed and another five have "disappeared" (apparently abducted and presumed dead) during the group's short history.

In the last four years more than 113 human rights monitors around the world have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group. Just within the last year 31 such workers have been killed (Guatemala leads the list with 8 dead) and another 8 have "disappeared."

To pay tribute to such courage and remind authoritarian regimes that killing the messenger does not kill the message, former President Jimmy Carter and Houston philanthropist Dominique de Menil this week awarded their fifth annual human rights prize to two groups in the forefront of the action.

Splitting the honor and the $100,000 prize are CERJ of Guatemala, which has now gathered some 10,000 members, and the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, a small, inter-ethnic group of professionals formed 19 years ago to protect the civil and political rights of the ordinary citizen.

"Both do just fantastic and irreplaceable human rights work," says Holly Burkhalter, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.

The awards ceremony at New York University was punctuated by frequent standing ovations for Mr. Carter and award representatives. Suriya Wickremasinghe, a lawyer and founder of the Sri Lankan group, said human rights work is often tedious and discouraging.

Yet in commenting on the fear exhibited by ordinary citizens over such apparently small matters as whether or not to vote or open their shops on a "strike" day, or to voice unpopular views in what she called the atmosphere of increasing intolerance, she seemed to signal the vital need for continued work by groups such as hers. …