The Award for Courage and Leadership

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity to act despite our fears.”
Senator John McCain, “In Search of Courage” 2004

The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University’s Award for Courage and Leadership is presented each year to honor an individual who has stood unwaveringly for fundamental values and has inspired the world through acts of selfless courage. By recognizing this service to humankind, the McCain Institute hopes to nurture the courage in each of us to stand for what we know is right. The recipient is selected based on his or her acts of personal courage on behalf of human rights, humanitarian compassion, justice, freedom, and human dignity.



The Sedona Forum 2019 on May 4, 2019. Photo by Paul Morse

The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University was pleased to present the 2019 Award for Courage and Leadership to Chhaya Sharma, an officer of the Indian Police Service who is currently serving as deputy inspector general (DIG) at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India.

A resolute guardian of human rights, Sharma has led teams in detection and investigation of sensitive criminal cases and protection of human rights during her career spanning over 19 years. Sharma’s policing has consistently reflected victim-centric approach through her numerous investigations of serious crimes, particularly against women and children.

Since 2015, as DIG (Investigation) at NHRC, Sharma has been instrumental in bringing the voices of the victims of human rights’ violations for effective redressal by the National Commission. For this, she has guided a lean but effective unit of officers who directly meet the victims during spot enquiries. In addition to her background of being a police officer, her tenure with NHRC has allowed her to have pan-India outreach and deal with subjects including public health, food security, right to education, good governance and LGBTQ rights. 

Her stellar contribution, however, has been leading the investigation of the infamous Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder case of December 2012 in New Delhi. As the head of the special investigation team, she closely supervised all aspects of investigation of this blind case by actively taking charge of the situation – making quick decisions, giving directions, assimilating information and guiding with succinct inputs – all the while coordinating efforts of various teams. During the six grueling days of the manhunt across five Indian States, Sharma stood as a shield for her team of officers and men, insulating them from mounting media and civil society pressures, which led to quick apprehension of the perpetrators of that ghastly crime. As the lead investigator, Sharma kept the focus on meticulous documentation and collection of scientific evidence including use of forensic techniques like analysis for bite marks as evidence, hitherto unexplored in India. Scientific evidence was collated, stitched into the charge-sheet and filed in a record 18 days, which withstood various stages of judicial scrutiny all the way up to the Indian Supreme Court, the highest appellate authority, resulting in conviction with maximum punishment.  

Early in her career, Sharma successfully led several police operations for rescuing minors from commercial sexual exploitation for which she has received Commendation from the High Court of Delhi in 2001. Sharma’s investigation and prosecution of human trafficking finds a prominent mention in a research published by the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi in 2005. This research credited her for causing a paradigm shift in law enforcement in the human trafficking of women and children in India. Her avowed mission against human trafficking continues in her present role with the NHRC as well, where she has played a critical role in drafting Standard Operating Procedures and Guidelines to Combat Trafficking of Persons in India in 2017. Sharma has also been an active participant of the Core Group on issues of Human Trafficking, which advises the NHRC.   

Sharma’s work has received a number of appreciations and accolades throughout her career including two Special Duty Medals for her services in remote and insurgency affected areas in North East India in 2004 and 2015 and the prestigious President’s Police Medal for Meritorious Service in 2015.

2018 Award for Courage and Leadership

Cindy McCain and McCain Institute trustee Sen. Joseph Lieberman presented Raed Al Saleh and Kenan Rahmani with the 2018 Award for Courage and Leadership on behalf of the Syrian Civil Defence, the White Helmets.

The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University presented its 2018 Award for Courage and Leadership to the White Helmets. Known for the color of the helmets they wear during search-and-rescue operations, the Syrian Civil Defence is a group of nearly 3,000 volunteers who provide humanitarian relief to all Syrians in area where they are permitted to operate, based on the values of neutrality, impartiality and humanity.

Formed in 2013, the White Helmets fill the need for search-and-rescue missions in response to bombs dropped in civilian areas. Volunteers rush to the scene of attacks to try and save lives as quickly as possible, while minimizing further injury to people and damage to property. Volunteers come from all walks of life: bakers, tailors, engineers, pharmacists, painters, carpenters, students and more. The organization is neutral, unaffiliated with any political party or group.

In addition, the White Helmets deliver public services to nearly 7 million people, including reconnecting electrical cables, providing safety information to children, and securing buildings. They are the largest civil society organization operating in areas outside of government control, and their actions provide hope for millions.



2017 Award for Courage and Leadership

Meghan McCain and McCain Institute trustee Don Brandt presented Carl and Marsha Mueller with the 2017 McCain Institute Award for Courage and Leadership in honor of their daughter, Kayla Mueller.

Kayla Mueller was honored posthumously by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University with the 2017 Award for Courage and Leadership, which was accepted by her parents Carl and Marsha Mueller. Mueller, a humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz., spent her life dedicated to serving those in need; she was captured and held by ISIS until her reported death in 2015.

Mueller worked first as a volunteer and then ultimately as an employee for various advocacy and humanitarian organizations engaged in relief work in some of the areas of greatest suffering in the world. While working for an NGO in Turkey supporting Syrian refugees in 2012, Mueller accompanied a group of fellow humanitarians to a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo. Upon their return, they were ambushed and taken hostage in August 2013 just days before her 25th birthday. Mueller, the only American, remained in custody and was held hostage by ISIS until her reported death in 2015.

Despite the torture, violence and unimaginable abuse, Mueller remained committed to living a life of courageous compassion. As her fellow hostages would later tell, Mueller stood up to executioner “Jihadi John” to defend her faith and principles with a steadiness and dignity that seemed unimaginable given the terror and torture they all had witnessed and endured.


2016 Award for Courage and Leadership


Senator John McCain, Dikembe Mutombo and Cindy McCain

The McCain Institute was delighted to present the 2016 award to Dikembe Mutombo, a Congolese American humanitarian.

Mutombo came to the United States as an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in Washington. At 7’2”, he was soon chosen to play basketball on the University’s team. Thereafter, Mutombo had an 18-year career in the NBA.

Mutombo never gave up his goal to improve the health conditions of the people in the DRC and he decided to build a hospital in Kinshasa, the capital of the country. To that end, he created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in Atlanta in 1997. The Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, named after his mother, was inaugurated in July 2007 and it opened its doors to patients in December 2007. Mutombo personally contributed more than $23 million to build and equip the hospital.

The hospital currently has close to 170 beds with an ultimate future capacity of 300 beds. It is a modern facility offering the following services: primary care, internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, OB-GYN, surgical subspecialties such as neurosurgery, orthopedics, urology and ENT. Hospital management espouses the following values: respect for the dignity of the patients, professionalism, continuous quality improvement, transparency, and accountability. Currently, the hospital is the most modern, if not the best in the country, and has treated close to 200,000 patients.


2015 Award for Courage and Leadership


In 2015, the McCain Institute was honored to present its inaugural Award for Courage and Leadership to Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate.