Human rights activists from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine receive the Nobel Peace Prize

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a jailed Belarusian human rights activist and two human rights groups in Russia and Ukraine in a statement supporting the award for their opposition to Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Kyiv and his authoritarian rule in the region.

Belarusian rights activist Ales Bialiatski, Russian group Memorial and Ukraine Center for Civil Liberties were joint laureates, the Nobel Committee announced on Friday.

“The Nobel Peace Prize winners represent civil society in their home countries. They have been promoting the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens for many years,” the committee said. “They have gone to great lengths to document war crimes, human rights violations and abuse of power. Together they demonstrate the importance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Committee, told reporters the award was not given as a snub to Russian President Vladimir Putin, although it was presented on Friday on his 70th birthday.

“This award is not addressed to President Putin, not on his birthday or in any other way, except that his government, like the government in Belarus, represents an authoritarian government that represses human rights defenders,” she said.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, left, chair of the Russian human rights group Memorial with the group's leader, Oleksandra Romantsova
Oleksandra Matviichuk, left, chair of the Russia rights group Memorial with group leader Oleksandra Romantsova © Facebook

The Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties has been actively involved in documenting alleged Russian war crimes since Putin annexed the Crimea peninsula in 2014 and fomented a slow-burning war in the eastern Donbass region.

After years of work defending Ukrainians held captive in Russian-held territories, the center has now focused on atrocities against Ukrainian civilians since Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country in February.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of the center, wrote on Facebook: “Now the army is speaking because the voices of human rights activists in our region were not heard before. We may have been heard in the UN Human Rights Committee, but certainly not where decisions are made by those in power.

“If we are not to live in a world where rules are made by someone with more powerful military capability, rather than the rule of law, things need to change.”

Bialiatski is the founder of Viasna, a Belarusian human rights organization that helps the families of political prisoners imprisoned by the regime of strong leader Alexander Lukashenko.

After backing opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the 2020 presidential election and documenting Lukashenko’s crackdown on protests over his disputed victory, Byalyatski was jailed last year for tax evasion.

He previously spent three years in prison after a similar crackdown on a previous challenge by the Lukashenko regime in 2010.

Bialiatski has “dedicated his life to the cause of Belarus and human rights in very dark and uncompromising times,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus. “And when he was released, he continued his work. He is an extremely decent, gentle, humble man, an admirable person, an admirable human being, and an extremely effective and dedicated fighter.”

Since then, Lukashenko has become a key player in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has let Russia use his country as a base for regular attacks.

Memorial, which documents the memory of the worst atrocities and violations of the Soviet era in what is now Russia, was closed late last year. Some of their activists have continued their work on a new project as pressure on their activities continues. A Moscow court is set to rule on the expected state seizure of the group’s offices.

“You cannot destroy [Memorial]just as one cannot destroy the national memory, which is now radically different from the state’s false ‘memory’,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Memorial is part of the real Russia, which cannot be equated with Putin’s Russia. It’s the exact opposite and it applies regardless of whether anyone wants to equate all Russians with Putinists.”

Memorial is under particular pressure for its work documenting human rights abuses in Chechnya, whose powerful leader Ramzan Kadyrov has played a key role in the Ukraine campaign. Their senior researcher there, Natalia Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered in 2009 shortly after Kadyrov personally threatened her.

Lana Estemirova, her daughter, tweeted: “She worked tirelessly to help the victims of the Russian war in Chechnya and to hold the criminal regime to account. Everything we do, we do in their memory.”

The awarding of the prize to Belarusian and Russian activists has drawn criticism from some quarters in Ukraine, which faces daily rocket and missile launches from both countries.

“The Nobel Committee has an interesting understanding of the word ‘peace’ when representatives of two countries attacked a third,” receiving the award, Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, tweeted. “Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to organize resistance to the war. This year’s Nobel Prize is ‘awesome’.” Human rights activists from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine receive the Nobel Peace Prize

Adam Bradshaw

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