Human rights activists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a strong rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine has outraged the international community, and to the Belarusian president, his authoritarian ally.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2022 prize to imprisoned Belarus activist Ales Bialiatski, the Russian group Memorial and the Ukrainian organisation Center for Civil Liberties.
Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the panel wanted to honour ”three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence.” “Through their consistent efforts in favour of human values and anti-militarism and principles of law, this year’s laureates have revitalised and honoured Alfred Nobel’s vision of peace and fraternity between nations, a vision most needed in the world today,” she told reporters in Oslo.
Belarus’ Foreign Ministry denounced the Nobel Committee for honouring Bialiatski, with the spokesman calling its choices in recent years so “politicised” that “Alfred Nobel got tired of turning in his grave.” Asked whether the Nobel Committee was intentionally rebuking Putin, whose 70th birthday is Friday, Reiss-Andersen said the prize was not against anybody but for something.
“This prize is not addressing President Putin, not for his birthday or in any other sense, except that his government, as the government in Belarus, is representing an authoritarian government that is suppressing human rights activists,” she said.
It was the second straight year that Putin’s repressive government was implicitly rebuked with the prize. It was awarded last year to Dmitry Muratov, the editor of independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression. Both have struggled in the past year.
This year the prize comes amid the largest war in Europe since World War II, a conflict that has displaced millions from their homes, destroyed cities and killed a still undetermined large number.
”We are talking about two authoritarian regimes and one nation fighting a war and we would like to highlight the importance of civic society,” Reiss-Andersen said.
Bialiatski was one of the leaders of the democracy movement in Belarus in the mid-1980s and has continued to campaign for human rights and civil liberties. He founded the non-governmental organization Human Rights Center Viasna.
He was detained following protests in 2020 against the re-election of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin. He remains in jail without trial and faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted.
”Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr. Bialiatski has not yielded one inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” Reiss-Andersen said, adding that the Nobel panel was calling on Belarusian authorities to release him.
Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, visiting Paris, told The Associated Press she felt “honoured and delighted” that Bialiatski was among the laureates.
“For sure, it will attract more attention to (the) humanitarian situation in our country,” she said.
Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is also imprisoned, said Bialiatski “is suffering a lot in punishment cells” in Belarus.
Memorial was founded in the Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure the victims of communist repression would be remembered. It has continued to compile information on human rights abuses and track the fate of political prisoners in Russia. The country’s highest court ordered it shut down in December, the latest move in a relentless crackdown on rights activists, independent media and opposition supporters.
Tatyana Glushkova, a board member of the Memorial Human Rights Defense Center, said she and her colleagues were ”very, very happy” to have the importance of their work recognized.
Glushakova said one of the reasons the Kremlin views Memorial as a threat is “because Memorial understands the parallels between Putin’s regime and the Soviet regime … Stalin’s regime. And it makes these parallels published and informs everyone about how all these regimes are similar.” She also noted that some previous Nobel Peace Prize winners were heads of state, but in modern Russia “working for peace, it’s not the work of the state, it’s the work of civil society,” and the fact that Memorial was awarded the prize this year highlights that.
Glushkova said the award was handed to the group on the day when it once again had to appear in court in Moscow — this time on a case related to its office building in central Moscow.
The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 to promote human rights and democracy in Ukraine during a period of turmoil in the country.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the group has worked to document Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.
“The center is playing a pioneering role with a view to holding the guilty parties accountable for their crimes,” said Reiss-Andersen.
A researcher at the center, Volodymyr Yavorskyi, said the award was important for the organization because “for many years we worked in a country that was invisible.” “Human rights activity is the main weapon against the war,” said Yavorskyi, who is married to a Belarusian and lived in Minsk until May 2021, when he was expelled along with his 9-year old son. He is barred from entering Belarus for 10 years and said law enforcement beat him during interrogations.
The prize carries a cash award of 10 million Swedish kronor (nearly $900,000) and will be handed out on Dec. 10. The money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, in 1895.
Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the prize committee, told the AP that if Bialiatski is unable to receive the award in person, he can ask a representative to collect it for him, like Polish winner Lech Walesa did in 1983. Otherwise, the committee might choose to symbolically place an empty chair on the stage, like it did when imprisoned Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo won in 2010.