Oscar Romero Award Ceremony Honors Nassera Dutour, Algerian Mother and Champion of Missing Algerians

Madame Nassera Dutour, Receipent
Larry Cox, Keynote Address

The Rothko Chapel, one of the world’s most celebrated twentieth century sacred spaces and an institution committed to advancing human rights and interfaith understanding, will present its  Oscar Romero Award to Madame Nassera Dutour for her tireless efforts on behalf of the families of approximately 7,000 men and women who disappeared in Algeria in the 1990s.  She initiated her quest for justice after her own son was kidnapped from the street near his home.  Madame Dutour will speak about her work and be recognized in a ceremony that is open to the public.  Larry Cox, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, will speak about the global implications of human rights violations and their redress.

The public is invited to the ceremony and to a reception to meet Madame Dutour and Larry Cox on the Chapel plaza immediately after the program.  

This award commemorates the martyrdom of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, who was murdered in 1980 for his efforts to expose government corruption and to fight exploitation of the poor in El Salvador.  Initiated by the Chapel’s founder, Dominique de Menil, in 1986, the Oscar Romero Award is given to individuals or organizations in recognition of their unsung, heroic efforts in the area of human rights.  Madame Dutour was chosen to receive this year’s award by the board of the Rothko Chapel from 15 nominees selected by a national committee of human rights advocates.  The award includes a cash gift of $20,000 to the recipient.

Juan E. Méndez, Chair of the 2011 Oscar Romero Award Advisory Committee, said, “Oscar Romero was a champion for the rights of the poor and was not afraid to confront a regime in El Salvador committed to silencing his voice.  It is therefore fitting that this year the Rothko Chapel honors Nassera Dutour, a woman who has worked tirelessly to raise the voices of the families of Algeria’s disappeared despite pressure from the Algerian government to be silent, as the recipient of 2011 Oscar Romero Award.”  Mendez is a Visiting Professor of Law at the American University – Washington College of Law, and since November 2010, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In 1998, Madame Dutour founded the Collective for the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria and its partner organization SOS Disparus.  What has become her life’s work was sparked by the disappearance of her own son, Amine, who was twenty-one when he inexplicably disappeared in January 1997.  He had left home to buy pastries for the evening’s iftar (breaking of the fast during Ramadan) and never returned.  Like the other thousands of civilian “disappeared,” he fell victim to the civil war and violence between government security forces and armed Islamist opposition groups that raged in Algeria between 1993 and 1997.  For years, Madame Dutour followed every trace of a lead—searching prisons, police stations, and morgues around the country, and persistently pressed the government for information, yet like the thousands of others, the government has given no information or explanation of his fate.

Since her son’s disappearance, Madame Dutour has channeled the pain of her personal tragedy into building a human rights movement and to shattering the silence surrounding the disappeared. She has become a spokesperson and advocate for the families of the disappeared, pursuing truth and justice for a crime that denies the very existence of a person.  Her organization has a Paris-based branch and an Algerian office and operates strategically both inside and outside of Algeria to generate public awareness of state abuses and to press the Algerian government to accountability.  All of its activities are undertaken despite the risk of criminal charges and ongoing harassment by the government.  In 2006 a decree that provided amnesty for many of the crimes committed during the war also created penalties of up to five years in prison for any statement or activity concerning “the national tragedy” which “harms” state institutions, the “good reputation of its agents,” or “the image of Algeria internationally.”

Fighting a powerful and well-resourced government that does its best to thwart activists at every turn, Madame Dutour frequently organizes discussion forums and seminars on forced disappearances and transitional justice.  SOS Disparus provides legal support to an average of fifteen families per week requesting an official investigation into the disappearance of loved ones. She works directly with the families of the disappeared, informing them of their rights and helping them navigate bureaucratic obstacles designed to force those who seek information into retreat. In addition, since 1998, she has organized weekly demonstrations of women whose relatives disappeared during the war at the headquarters of the National Advisory Commission for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights.  In June 2010, the Commission announced that future such demonstrations were forbidden.  SOS Disparus is currently working on plans to open a center in Algiers to provide medical treatment, psychosocial support and legal aid to victims of torture. 

Currently events in North African and the Middle East represent a rare opportunity for human rights activists to move their agenda forward, and Madame Dutour is a leading voice in the charge for reform in Algeria.  Fostering broader public participation in activities challenging abuses of the regime has become a natural extension of the work of SOS Disparus, which has also played a constructive role both in helping other human rights organizations acquire the tools they need to better challenge human rights violations and in promoting greater collaboration between different segments of the human rights movement.
Since its inception, SOS Disparus has documented thousands of disappearance cases. Though many are still unsolved and the government remains an uncooperative and often hostile counterforce in their search for answers, the organization has compiled extensive records and will be in a position, when a more favorable environment is established, to provide the witnesses and testimonials needed to establish the truth. In 2010, SOS Disparus developed an “online memorial”—a website which serves both as a database with information on individual cases of disappearances and as a testament to the collective memory of the victims. 

Efforts to educate European governments, non-governmental organizations, and communities about Algeria’s failure to provide information about the disappeared have resulted in regular coverage of the issue of disappearances by European media outlets. In addition, thanks in large part to shadow reports produced by the organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council, within the context of the Universal Periodic Review, the Human Rights Committee, and the Committee against Torture all have scrutinized Algeria's human rights record. In the last few years, the latter two bodies called on the Algerian authorities to take concrete measures to combat impunity; to investigate all cases of grave human rights abuses including forced disappearances, torture, and rape; to bring perpetrators to justice using methods that meet international standards for fair trials; to provide victims and their families with effective remedies and to bring national legislation in line with international standards. The UN Human Rights Committee has also made recommendations on specific cases of disappearances submitted by SOS.

Please click here to listen to Dutour's interview on Arab Voices Radio Talk Show. 

Please click here to listen to Dutour's interview on KPFT.

Larry Cox executive director of Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) from 2006 until October 2011. A veteran human rights advocate, he came to AIUSA after serving 11 years as senior program officer for the Ford Foundation’s Human Rights unit, where he focused on the promotion of international justice and the advancement of domestic human rights.  Cox also served as executive director of the Rainforest Foundation, an international organization that works with indigenous peoples in the Brazilian Amazon to protect their rights. During his time at the Rainforest Foundation, Cox dedicated much of his time to the issue of demarcation of indigenous territories in Brazil.

While at the Ford Foundation, Cox co-edited and co-wrote the introduction to the report, “Close to Home: Case Studies of Human Rights Work in the U.S.”  The report examines the traditional human rights tools—such as fact-finding, litigation, organizing and advocacy—that U.S. human rights organizations use to reduce poverty, promote workers’ rights and environmental justice, abolish the death penalty and end discrimination.

Past winners of the Oscar Romero Award are:

2009:  Dr. Murhabazi Namegabe, Democratic Republic of Congo
Dr. Namegabe led a sustained and successful effort to rescue and rehabilitate children recruited to serve as soldiers by warring rebels in that country.

2007:  Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, No More Deaths,Tucson, AZ 
Arrested in 2005 for evacuating three violently ill migrants from the Arizona desert for urgent medical care, Ms. Sellz and Mr. Strauss were recognized for their integrity and willingness to risk their freedom for their belief that providing humanitarian aid should never be a crime. They donated half of their award to No More Deaths, an organization dedicated to giving humanitarian aid to prevent deaths along the Arizona-Mexican border.

2005: Torture Abolition and Survivors’ Support Coalition International, Washington, DC 
Torture Abolition and Survivors’ Support Coalition Int. (TASSC), established in 1998 by Sr. Ortiz, is a coalition of survivors, currently representing more than 60 countries and ethnic groups, that calls for abolition of torture and mistreatment.  Sr. Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun, survived imprisonment and torture in Guatemala while serving as a missionary teacher of Mayan children.  TASSC was recognized for its vital efforts to empower victims of torture to lead the movement for its abolition.

2003: Ishai Menuchin, Yesh Gvul, Israel
Ishai Menuchin helped found Yesh Gvul, an Israeli organization dedicated to supporting soldiers’ right to refuse orders, on moral grounds, from their military superiors.  Yesh Gvul means “there is a limit.”  Mr. Menuchin, a Major in the Israeli Defense Forces Reserves, was imprisoned for insisting that there is a limit to what citizens or soldiers should be required to do.

1997: Salima Ghezali, Algeria
In 1994, Salima Ghezali became Algeria’s only woman newspaper editor when she took over La Nation, a French language weekly with a circulation of 60,000. Mrs. Ghezali was continuously under threat of kidnapping, torture, and death for refusing to submit the publication to the authorities for censorship.

1997: Abdennour Ali Yehya, Algeria
Abdennour Ali Yehya, an attorney and former government minister, distinguished himself under various regimes by his persistent denouncement of human rights violations and by his tenacity to uphold legal safeguards for the victims. He was arrested, detained, and deported for his struggle for freedom and the defense of his fellow citizens.

1993: Oslobodjenje, Bosnia
Oslobodjenje, which means "liberation," a daily newspaper run by a multi-ethnic, multi-religious team of journalists in Sarajevo, was established during World War II as the voice of liberation. Their unity of purpose and their commitment to democracy expressed the fundamental hope of the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  In the early 1990s despite Serbia’s efforts to destroy this symbol of multi-ethnic cooperation, the Sarajevo daily continued to be printed and distributed under bombing, sniper fire, and critical survival conditions.  Gordana Knezević and Rasim Cerimagić (in place of Kemal Kurspahić) received the Award.

1991: Monseñor Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, Guatemala
Monseñor Quezada, Bishop of Zacapa and Pastor of Esquipulas, was the moving force that initiated and maintained dialogue with the conflicting parties during Guatemala’s civil war.  As the principle mediator between the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, he obtained from both parties a commitment to find a peaceful settlement to the political, social, and economic problems of the country.

1990: Bishop Medardo E. Gomez Soto, El Salvador
Bishop Gomez of the Resurrection Lutheran Church of the Salvadorian Synod, was honored for his courageous support of peace and human rights in El Salvador. As violence escalated in El Salvador, the Lutheran Church expanded its work with the poor and the displaced. Bishop Gomez, church leaders, and members suffered harassment, threats, capture, and torture for their stand in support of peace and reconciliation, and their commitment to the most vulnerable people.

1990: Maria Julia Hernandez, El Salvador
Maria Julia Hernandez, Director of Tutela Legal the Catholic Archbishopric’s human rights and legal aid office in El Salvador, was recognized for her great courage under dangerous conditions in reporting human rights abuses by both the government and rebel forces.  Under her leadership, Tutela Legal documented human rights violations and provided legal aid to victims of such violations.

1988: Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns, Brazil
Cardinal Arns, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, an internationally known human rights advocate, was chosen for his long and indefatigable efforts on behalf of the poor and for his remarkable courage in confronting the terrorism of the military regime that held power from 1964 to 1985. One of his most extraordinary accomplishments was the surreptitious collecting and publishing detailed documentation, from military archives, concerning secret detentions, torture, and execution of thousands of the “disappeared.”

1986: Leonidas Eduardo Proaño Villalba, Ecuador
Bishop Proaño, “Bishop of the Indians” as he was called, defended the rights of indigenous people of Ecuador for land reform.  His efforts improved the inter-ethnic relationship marked by generations of discrimination and economic exploitation.

Sunday, November 13, 2011
3:00 PM

Join a celebration of human rights defenders.