Edward Snowden deserves the Sakharov Prize

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A deserving recipient of the 2013 Sakharov prize would be the American whistleblower Edward Snowden, writes Stefan Svallfors. By exposing the US Prism spying program, Snowden made it possible for us to say ‘No – this is not a development and a society we want’, he argues.

Stefan Svallfors is Professor of Sociology at Umeå University (Sweden) and the Institute for Future Studies (Denmark). This op-ed was originally published in Swedish in Sydsvenska dagbladet on 29 August 2013.

Since 1988, the European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize. According to its statutes, this is given to a person or group "who made remarkable efforts to defend human rights and fundamental freedoms" and thus "worked against intolerance, fanaticism and oppression."

The award is given in memory of the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989), known as one of the men behind the hydrogen bomb but even more as a Soviet dissident with his Human Rights Committee and his defence of political prisoners. Sakharov stands as a symbol of the individual human being who dares to stand up against tyranny and oppression, even when the personal cost is very high.

A most deserving recipient of the 2013 price would be the American whistle blower Edward Snowden. In May, The Guardian published his disclosure of the extensive, illegal and deeply intrusive monitoring conducted by the American National Security Agency. For this heroic effort Snowden has paid a heavy personal price. He is hunted as an outlaw by the U.S. government, accused of crimes that will put him in jail for the rest of his life. The U.S. government has threatened the governments that dare to offer him asylum with serious consequences. In a painful irony, the only sanctuary that had been found for Snowden is Russia, a country whose democratic problems and authoritarian tendencies are obvious.

But is really Snowden a worthy recipient of the prize, someone may sneeze. Is not America the world's leading democracy, a friend of Europe, committed to the rule of law? Yes. But even democracies can hide pockets of tyranny in their hearts: a democratic state may well coexist with other systems that are characterised by anything but democracy and law. As the monitoring system which now puts its global tentacles far into the private lives of citizens. By exposing this system Snowden made it possible for us to say No – this is not a development and a society we want, we protect our civil rights and freedoms when they are threatened.

Snowden's revelations make explicit demands on citizens and politicians to act and react. How have we responded to these demands? Not in any impressive way one must say. Individual politicians and many citizens have reacted, expressed support for Snowden, trying to act in his defence. They see the unpleasant consequences of a surveillance system where innocent citizens get their electronic communication and their phone calls tapped and mapped. The German President Joachim Gauck, with his personal East German experience, for example stated that Snowden "deserves respect" for his actions. But otherwise an awkward silence, evasive answers, gentle tiptoeing. Merkel hums, The European Commission whispers, the parliaments remain silent.

On the Swedish side, even more depressing inaction is observed. Sweden acts together with Britain to make sure the question should not be addressed at European level. This is a bilateral issue and by the way, no Swedish interests are at stake, the Foreign Minister distractedly announces before returning to Twitter. The government obviously sees no reason to allow this issue to eclipse the splendor of Obama's forthcoming state visit. From the political left, a complete disinterest is shown. No social democratic position is advanced or even formulated.

It is tragic to see how thin the liberal veneer is in many places. When liberalism is no longer easy and obvious, when it requires courage and sacrifice, when we are forced to choose and our choices have real costs, what happens then? We fall into line, we bend to power. Without grumbling we let fairly manageable threats from terrorists sweep away fundamental rights and freedoms.

We must demand more of ourselves and our elected officials than that. We could start by giving Edward Snowden the prize whose name symbolises a man who refused to bow to oppression and thereby actually changed history.