Prizewinner 1997 together with Abe J. Nathan
Khémaïs Chammari was born on 7th November, 1942 in Tunis. After elementary school, he continued his education in the Tunisian capital as well as in Paris, studying Mathematics, Social Science and Economics.
The year 1968 brought a decisive change in the life of the then 26-year-old: After student unrests, the young man - who was politically and socially committed and fighting for Human Rights with great idealism - was expelled from Tunis University. In spite of the far-reaching consequences this had for his future plans, Khémaïs Chammari still managed to make his way professionally. Between 1970 and 1994 he held executive positions in various companies, organizations and institutions in his home country and worked as a journalist for various French, as well as Arab newspapers and magazines.
Khémaïs Chammari was not disheartened by the bitter experiences of 1968, and continued his rigorous fight for democracy and Human Rights. Very shortly afterwards he was one of the initiators of the „Committee for the Defence of Democratic Liberties in Tunisia“ and of a further group which aimed at supporting the victims of the repressive system.
His untiring commitment and his uncompromising nature very soon made him a leading member of the Human Rights movement in his Northern African home country: For fourteen years, between 1980 and 1994, he served as a board member of the „Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights“. In 1989, he was furthermore one of the founder members of the Arab Institute for Human Rights set up in Tunisia, serving on this body’s administrative committee until 1995. His competence very soon earned him respect and recognition beyond the Tunisian borders. Khémaïs Chammari developed into an internationally demanded expert on Human Rights. To name but a few examples: In 1983, the renowned „Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l’Homme“ (F.I.D.H.) in Paris elected him to the office of vice-president, which he was to hold for nine years.
Between 1991 and 1995 he served as an expert consultant on international procedures for the protection of Human Rights with the United Nations and the „Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation“ (ACCT). In 1992 he worked as an expert consultant for the „Conseil exécutif du Service International des Droits de l’Homme“ in Geneva. In the same year, he also worked for the United Nations Human Rights Commission. In 1993, he took part in the Second World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, having also been involved in the preparation of this meeting. Between 1972 and 1995 he participated in numerous conferences and international symposia on Human Rights and development issues in Europe, Africa, Asia, America and in the Arab world.
In 1990, his varied commitments for the protection of Human Rights were honoured for the first time, when he was one of the award-winners of the „Commission consultative française des Droits de l’Homme“.
Khémaïs Chammari also made a name for himself as an outspoken opponent of capital punishment: Between 1992 and 1996 he was one of the leading representatives of the international campaign aiming at the abolition of capital punishment by the turn of the millennium („Ne touchez pas à Cain“), continuing his commitment of earlier years: As early as 1984 he had participated in a campaign against the execution of the members of the so-called „Bread Revolt“ in Tunisia who had been sentenced to death.
Khémaïs Chammari is an intellectual who never retired to his ivory tower, but instead participated with great determination and admirable courage - regardless of all personal risk - in the struggle against any form of intolerance, racism, fanaticism and fundamentalism. Chammari has been defending his idealistic concepts from student days - of a more peaceful, more humane and more just world - against any trace of resignation, and he has contributed more than his fair share to theprocess of bringing reality closer to this dream. It was, therefore, only logical for Khémaïs Chammari to plead for a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Near East early on in his life, a solution based on mutual understanding. Risking life and limb, he was among the first Arab intellectuals to support the idea of political and religious dialogue between Arabs and Israelis, between Jews and Muslims. As early as 1963, a long time before the beginning of the peace process, he took part in a symposium in Florence which was to serve as an attempt at bringing some movement into the rigid positions in the Near East and building bridges of understanding. During the past three decades, he has seized every opportunity to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to gather at the negotiating table, always true to his conviction - that only talks can overcome the rifts and promote mutual understanding. For many Arabs he has become a symbolic figure on the long and difficult path towards peace, democracy and Human Rights in the Near East.
In his home country Khémaïs Chammari has had to pay dearly for his courageous commitment to those ideals - suffering bitter personal consequences. Between 1966 and 1987 he was arrested five times. In November 1995 he was accused in a Tunis court: of allegedly betraying state secrets to a foreign power. Since there was, however, no plausible proof whatsoever for these serious allegations, amnesty international presumes that legal proceedings were taken against Chammari in order to punish him for his political and Human Rights activities. During the trial, Chammari’s family was kept under police surveillance, and the Tunisian state administration imposed a ban on his leaving the country and confiscated his passport. In July 1996 he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, but was released in December after massive international pressure had been exerted. So far the end of his trials and tribulations is not yet in sight.