Thunberg and the Fridays for Future youth movement received Amnesty International's Ambassadors of Conscience award on Monday for their work highlighting the need for urgent action to avert climate disaster.
The 16-year-old, who is taking a year out of high school, received a standing ovation from students at The George Washington University in the US capital where the ceremony was held.
“The politics required to take on this crisis simply doesn't exist today,” Thunberg said, standing on a step to reach the microphone.
“That is why every single one of us must push from every possible angle to hold those responsible accountable and to make the people in power act.”
She added that the prize was not just for her but the millions of youth who have taken part since last year in weekly school strikes held every Friday, inspired by the sit-in she began outside Sweden's parliament in August 2018.
The next of these will be on September 20th, a day when Thunberg and thousands of New York students are expected to pour into the streets as part of a “global climate strike” along with other protests around the world.
That will be followed on Saturday by the first Youth Climate Summit at the UN and the Climate Action Summit on Monday, which the UN chief has convened because the world's biggest polluters remain woefully behind their greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Thunberg spoke forcefully on Monday about the “destruction” of the planet and the large-scale deaths that could come about as a result of climate change, water and air pollution and the destruction of food chains.
But she said she also saw an “awakening”.
“Even though it is slow, the pace is picking up and the debate is shifting,” she said, before concluding: “See you on the street!”
She was joined on stage by some young American activists.
“They can't just ignore us any more,” said Jerome Foster, 17.
'No human rights without humans'
Earlier, Kumi Naidoo, the secretary general of Amnesty International, told AFP that the organization was originally not going to give out the prize in 2019, following the unprecedented decision to withdraw it from Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2018.
Amnesty rescinded the award from the Myanmar leader for “the shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for” over Suu Kyi's “apparent indifference” to the suffering of the Rohingya population.
But Naidoo was swayed by the impact Thunberg and other youth activists had already achieved and could achieve in future, adding that the UK's parliament declared a climate emergency after she met with British political leaders.
“The award is about acknowledging that they've already done something that many of us who've been involved for decades have not been able to do, they've been able to actually inspire a much larger number of people,” he said.
“These young, high school students are playing a very important role in educating their own parents.”
Naidoo added that the issue of climate change was increasingly a human rights issue, and touched upon every aspect of Amnesty's work, from refugees to indigenous rights to the defence of rights defenders, with an ever growing number of environmental activists being killed.
More than that, “climate change threatens the very ability of human beings to exist on this planet and with no human beings there are no human rights,” he concluded.
Article by AFP's Issam Ahmed