Václav Havel Human Rights Prize awarded to Saudi feminist activist Loujain Al-Hathloul

Loujain Al-Hathloul

This year’s Václav Havel Human Rights Prize, which honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights, has been awarded to Saudi feminist activist Loujain Al-Hathloul. It was awarded at an online session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on Monday.

The Saudi Arabian female activist Loujain al-Hathloul was among an all-female line up of prize finalists, who are all involved in women’s rights and gender equality. They included a group of Buddhist nuns promoting gender equality in the Himalayas and the Congolese human rights activist Julienne Lusenge.

The Václav Havel Human Rights Prize is awarded each year by the Parliamentary Assembly, in partnership with the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation, to reward outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights in Europe and beyond.

Rik Daems, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who presented this year’s award, recalled the legacy of the late Czech president and dissident:

Václav Havel | Photo : Jaroslav Mrkvička,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC 2.0

“Václav Havel continues to inspire us to dream big. As he said, we should not be afraid of dreaming of what seems impossible. He said the world will become a better place if we have the courage to raise our eyes to the stars.

“Our nominees have the courage, the passion, the energy and the determination to dream big and fight for their dreams of a better and equal world. With this prize we honour their contribution to equality and justice, to solidarity, to upholding and strengthening human rights and women rights.”

The laureate of the 2020 Václav Havel Prize, Loujain Al-Hathloul, is one of the main figures of the Saudi feminist movement. She has defended women’s right to drive and called for an end to the patriarchal male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia.

Arrested in 2018, she was sentenced to almost six years in prison under a broad "anti-terrorism" law. Following pressure from the international community, she was released last February, but she is still subject to many restrictions.

It was her sister Lina, who accepted the prize on her behalf on Monday. After the ceremony she spoke to the Václav Havel Library, highlighting the importance of international recognition in her sister’s fight for human rights.

“When Loujain was first arrested in 2018, there was a huge defamation campaign in Saudi newspapers. The Saudi Arabian authorities would not even answer our letters, saying she was a traitor.

Women in Saudi Arabia  | Photo: International Labour Organization,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“At some point we said: OK, if we cannot resolve this problem within Saudi Arabia we need the international community to do something and to help us. Once we started to speak, she started to gain recognition and we started to make visits to the jail.

“The more she was recognized, the more people said they didn’t believe the campaign. The more prizes she got, the better treatment Loujain got and the more strength it gave her.

“I think that the Saudi regime have been repressing their people more than ever and the only thing that saves our people is international recognition.”