Raji Sourani

Awarded 2013

Gaza, Palestine

For his unwavering dedication to the rule of law and human rights under exceptionally difficult circumstances.

Raji Sourani is a Palestinian lawyer who has defended and promoted human rights in Palestine and the Middle East and North Africa region for decades. As the most prominent human rights lawyer based in the Gaza Strip, Sourani established the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) to document and investigate human rights violations committed under Israeli occupation and has defended countless victims before Israeli courts. Never hesitant to speak truth to power, Sourani has been imprisoned six times by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In his efforts pursuing justice, accountability and bringing high-ranking Israeli officials accused of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity before a court, Sourani has pioneered applying the concept of universal jurisdiction. This legal principle allows states or international courts to claim criminal jurisdiction over someone accused of serious crimes regardless of territory. Seven years after Sourani received the Right Livelihood Award, and after tireless work for more than a decade together with colleagues from PCHR and other organisations, the International Criminal Court ruled in 2021 that it has jurisdiction over the Palestinian Territories occupied by Israel.

Sourani has for decades been deeply engaged in strengthening respect for human rights across the MENA region. He has inspired and empowered activists across the Middle East by example, and through various trainings and other initiatives in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Hard times push us to either give up or to stand undaunted in the face of challenges. As representatives of victims, we have no right to give up.

Raji Sourani, 2013 Laureate

Biography

Raji Sourani is one of the most prominent Palestinian human rights defenders, tirelessly promoting justice and accountability. Despite imprisonment and harassment, he has remained an outspoken defender of rule of law, empowering activists across the Middle East and North Africa region.

No place for human rights in Palestine

More than 50 years have passed since Israel began to occupy the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Since 1967, Israel has imposed a discriminatory system against the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, one of Israel’s most prominent human rights organisations, have described this system as apartheid. In these areas, the human rights of Palestinians are violated daily. Peaceful protests are crushed with violence. Civil society leaders and civilians, including children as young as 12, are tried in military courts and systematically sentenced to jail.

Israel has, in violation of international humanitarian law, maintained a blockade of Gaza since 2007. Through the siege, Israel has controlled almost every aspect of life in the area. Armed confrontations between Israel and militant groups in Gaza, such as Hamas, have erupted several times since the blockade was imposed. Thousands of civilians, a vast majority of them Palestinians, have been killed. Both sides have been accused of committing war crimes.

Palestinian pro-democracy and human rights activist do not only have to fear the occupying power. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have for years harassed Palestinians demanding accountability and change. Those who dare to speak up often face threats, torture or imprisonment.

Defending human rights in Israel and Palestine

After finishing his law studies in 1977, Raji Sourani founded his own law firm and soon found himself almost fully dedicated to working on human rights cases. From early on, he has received wide recognition for his effective defence of Palestinians before Israeli military courts. His dedicated work towards achieving justice for victims of human rights violations posed a challenge to the Israeli administration. From 1977-1990, he was prohibited from leaving Palestine. Throughout this period, he was constantly harassed, and his office and house were subject to dozens of raids.

In 1979, Sourani was imprisoned by Israel for his political activities. During his 3-year sentence in a Gaza prison, he was also tortured. Three more imprisonments in 1985 and 1986 followed. He was then prevented from visiting prisons or working on any cases from 1986-1987. While held in administrative detention in 1988, Sourani was declared an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience. 1990 Right Livelihood Laureate Felicia Langer defended Sourani before Israeli military courts when he was imprisoned for his human rights work in the 1980s.

Sourani has never shied away from speaking out against human rights violations, no matter who committed them. He was concerned that the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords did not contain a single word about human rights. His subsequent criticism of the new Palestinian Authority’s formation of State Security Courts and its use of several of the same suppressive laws applied by Israeli authorities led to him becoming one of the Palestinian Authority’s first political prisoners in 1995.

“I had thought that struggling against the occupation was the most difficult thing, but I discovered that I was naïve,” Sourani once said. “Struggling against your own authority for respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights is much more complicated and difficult.”

After his release from Palestinian prison, Sourani founded the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), where he continues to serve as Director. PCHR soon became a leading human rights organisation in Palestine monitoring and documenting human rights violations, and providing legal assistance to victims of these violations. Its regularly published reports and other publications are valuable sources of information for media and civil society groups operating in the area. PCHR also organises workshops, conferences and trainings in Gaza.

Innovative use of universal jurisdiction

When all attempts for national remedies failed, Sourani innovatively turned to using the concept of universal jurisdiction to bring cases against high-ranking Israeli officials accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Universal jurisdiction is a legal principle that allows states or international courts to claim criminal jurisdiction over someone accused of serious crimes regardless of where the crime was committed or what national jurisdiction the perpetrator belongs under. In partnership with lawyers in European countries, Sourani has brought cases under universal jurisdiction in the UK and Spain against alleged Israeli war criminals.

Sourani has for decades been deeply engaged in strengthening respect for human rights across the MENA region. He has inspired and empowered activists across the Middle East by example, and through various trainings and other initiatives in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Working for peace

Sourani believes in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has maintained good relations with Israeli lawyers, academics and human rights activists since the 1980s, facilitating their visits to refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Sourani regrets Israel’s closing of the Gaza Strip, which he believes is a deliberate effort to prevent dialogue and exchanges between Israelis and Gazans. Sourani has been deeply engaged in reconciliation between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and believes that his role vis-à-vis the peace process is to enhance democracy and the rule of law in the Palestinian context.

Promoting human rights and empowering human rights defenders in the Middle East

Sourani has inspired and empowered human rights defenders across the Middle East both by example and through concrete programmes, interventions and trainings. Since April 2012, he has served as President of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR).

At Sourani’s prompting, the AOHR lobbied the Arab League in 2004 to make amendments to the Arab Charter for Human Rights to bring it in line with international human rights standards, achieving partial success. In addition, Sourani facilitated the Arab League Fact Finding Mission to Gaza after the Israeli “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009.

Sourani believes that his duty is to continue to promote the rule of law in the MENA region and ensure that the space for human rights work gets wider and is fully utilised. Upon receiving the Right Livelihood Award, PCHR established close working relationships with civil society organisations and provided practical and theoretical knowledge to human rights defenders in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, with the aim of strengthening civil society in those countries. Following these trainings, two new human rights NGOs were established in Yemen. Sourani was also part of the first team of human rights monitors who went to Libya after the fall of Colonel Muammar Qadaffi, where he was able to persuade the new Libyan government to investigate the disappearances of human rights defenders.

International work

For the past decades, Sourani has actively worked with the United Nations and its various Special Rapporteurs, the European Union, the Quartet on the Middle East, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), making oral and written submissions on the human rights situation in Palestine. All these bodies consider PCHR’s material credible and impartial. For many years, PCHR lobbied the Palestinian Authority to sign the Rome Statute of the ICC, which they finally did in January 2015. As a result, it is now possible to bring cases of human rights violations in Palestine before the Court.

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