Bruno Kreisky Prize 2007: ZARA vs. Racism

Recognition for “a Culture of Human Rights So Urgently Needed in our Society Today.”

Matthias Wurz | September 2007

The ZARA-team at the Bruno-Kreisky Prize Award ceremony in the National Library (Photo: Caroline Manahl)

Siding with minorities against the establishment is not usually the way to win awards – in Austria, or anywhere.  Thus receiving the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights 2007 was a big deal for ZARA, the Austrian anti-Racism organisation.

"The prize is an important recognition," said Barbara Liegl, Director of ZARA at the award ceremony, at the Austrian National Library on Jun. 28. Anti-racism work "is not always easy," and the all important visibility within the human rights community that brings in funding and support can be hard to come by.

In the citation, EU Commissioner Beate Winkler described ZARA’s "culture of human rights, so urgently needed by society today, a culture of justice, and equal treatment, a culture of dignity, a culture that counteracts with respect the fears and defences that minorities so often carry inside them."

The prize, initiated by former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1911 – 1990) in 1979, recognises significant contributions to the enhancement of human rights within Austria and abroad. Among those honoured this year was also the Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been banned from practicing by Chinese authorities and was not allowed to travel to Vienna to receive the prize.

The same was true for Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941–1995), Nigerian writer and human rights activist, who, in 1995, was awarded the Kreisky Prize only weeks away from his politically motivated execution by the Nigerian military regime.

Saro-Wiwa protested the destruction of his tribe, the Ogoni, by what he described in 1992 as "the combined effort of the multi-national oil company, Shell Petroleum Development Company, the murderous ethnic majority in Nigeria and the country’s military dictatorships." The tribe, he said, had been gradually "ground to dust." The protests he led provoked a temporary withdrawal by Shell, followed by the brutal suppression of the peaceful protests by the military regime.

Among the recipients of previous years was the former Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz König (1905 – 2004), a key supporter of Pope John Paul II’s approach towards the former communist countries of the 1980s, highlighting the human rights abuses.

Other recipients have included Ute Bock, known in Vienna for her engagement for asylum seekers;  Israeli politician, writer and peace activist Uri Avnery, who already in 1948 believed in the peaceful coexistence of Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine, and famously, during the Lebanon War in 1982 met PLO Leader Yassir Arafat, who then was considered a terrorist.

For ZARA, the prize means visibility, according to Liegl, and greater independence from political influences, both extremely important to an NGO. However, "the political process should not be relieved of all its responsibility of financing an institution like ZARA," she added, "because the advising and looking after victims and witnesses of racism is something the state should do."

Founded in 1999, ZARA developed from the anti-Racism Hotline "Helping Hands" at SOS Mitmensch. Since 2000, the City Council has been supporting the organization’s Beratungsstelle (counselling center) in Vienna’s 6th District. However, the public funds are limited and "only last for about half a year," she said. The rest comes from by donations and voluntary work.

With the change of government in January 2007, the organisation hopes to be able to acquire further funding for projects; among those proposed is a one-year training course for teachers, a project tackling racism in the internet. Another project idea is the creation of a ‘Know-your-rights’ brochure for immigrant apprentices.

"Among this social group is a large number of immigrant workers whose awareness regarding racism is low, and a government program to inform them of their rights non-existent", says Liegl.

A study published in August by the Austrian Arbeitsmarkservice (Employment Services), concludes that two-thirds of the immigrant youth 15 and 21 are unemployed or without an apprenticeship, mainly due to lack of education and German language skills.

This opens doors for discrimination and further alienation. Educating people in this group on matters of racism seems an important step to improve their working and living conditions.

This has been confirmed by the Vienna-based EU Fundamental Rights Agency in its first report, Report on Racism and Xenophobia in the Member States of the EU,published the same month. The report claims that widespread indirect discrimination in Austria’s employment sector that jobs done by third-country nationals usually "pay low wages, require irregular working hours, exhibit tough working conditions and are dangerous."

The report claims also that 50% of non-EU nationals work in jobs below their actual qualifications. Despite national anti-discrimination legislation, penalties are low and are not often enforced, the Rights Agency concluded.

Meanwhile raising awareness on issues of racism is a key element of ZARA’s work, along with the documentation of racist incidence and advising victims, which remain the bulk of the organisation’s work. ZARA also publishes an annual Racism Report, which is the only comprehensive publication on racism in Austria. Printing costs and the English translation are financed by the Austrian government..

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