Rebuke to Putin as Eastern European rights campaigners win Nobel Peace Prize

Russia’s Memorial, Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties and Belarus’ Ales Bialiatski win coveted award

David Harding
Friday 07 October 2022 19:24 BST
Nobel Peace Prize jointly awarded to human rights advocates

A trio of Eastern European human rights campaigners from three neighbouring countries have been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Ales Bialyatski – a human rights advocate from Belarus – took the award along with Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation the Centre for Civil Liberties.

The award can be seen as a rebuke to the rulers of Russia and Belarus as the three are linked to fighting political repression in their own countries, as well as the war in Ukraine.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, praised all the winners for the importance of the “right to criticise power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens”.

The recipients were also praised for their efforts to document “war crimes, human rights abuses and the abuse of power”.

She added that the Nobel committee wanted to honour “three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence in the neighbour countries Belarus, Russia and Ukraine”.

“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.”

Asked if the awards were anti-Putin, she replied: “We always give the prize for something and to something and not against someone,” she told reporters.

European leaders though did see a political element to the awards.

“I hope the Russian authorities read the justification for the peace prize and take it to heart,” Norwegian prime minister Jonas Gahr Store said. “It sends a signal that keeping civil society down is protecting one’s own power. It is seen from the outside and it is criticised.”

French president Emmanuel Macron tweeted that this year’s awards paid “homage to unwavering defenders of human rights in Europe”.

“Crafters of peace, they know they can count on France’s support,” he added.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ales Bialyatski, head of the Vyasna (Spring) rights group, behind bars in Belarus (AFP/Getty)

Mr Bialyatski 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 in the authoritarian country. He founded the non-governmental organisation Human Rights Centre Viasna.

He is currently in prison, having been detained in 2020, for tax evasion by Belarusian authorities, charges which are politically motivated claim critics. He remains in jail without trial and faces seven years in jail if convicted.

“Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr Bialyatski has not yielded one inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” Mr Reiss-Andersen said, adding that the Nobel panel was calling on Belarus to release him.

Exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya told the Associated Press that the award would further increase the spotlight on Belarusian political prisoners and said she felt “honoured and delighted” that Mr Bialyatski was among the laureates.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is also imprisoned, said Mr Bialyatski “is suffering a lot in punishment cells ... but there are thousands of other people who are detained because of their political views, and I hope that it will raise awareness about our country”.

Belarus has been in political turmoil since August 2020 when Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, was said to have won the presidential election with 80 per cent of the vote, despite widespread opposition, and international observers claiming the elections were neither free nor fair.

Memorial said on Friday that winning the award was recognition of its human rights work and of colleagues who continue to suffer “unspeakable attacks and reprisals” in Russia.

It 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 tracked the fate of political prisoners in modern-day Russia.

Nobel Peace Prize (TT NEWS AGENCY)

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, said: “We are very, very happy.”

She added: “For us, this is a sign that our work, whether it is recognised by the Russian authorities or not, it is important for the world, it important for people in Russia,” Ms Glushkova said.

The organisation was closed last year after it was declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin, a designation forced on media outlets and non-governmental organisations the state claims that received funding from abroad.

A supporter of the human rights group ‘Memorial’ wears a face mask reading ‘Memorial is not banned’ while gathering for a preliminary court hearing last year (EPA)

That decision was widely condemned at the time, including by then British foreign secretary Liz Truss who wrote that: “Memorial has worked tirelessly for decades to ensure abuses of Soviet era are never forgotten. Its closure is another chilling blow to freedom of expression in Russia.”

Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties said on Friday it was proud to win.

It was founded in 2007 to promote human rights and democracy in Ukraine during a period of turmoil in the country and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the group has worked to document Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

“Morning with good news. We are proud,” it wrote on Twitter.

A representative of the centre, Volodymyr Yavorskyi, said the award was important for the organisation.

A local resident sits outside a building destroyed by Russian, Iranian-made, drones after an airstrike on Bila Tserkva, southwest of Kyiv (AFP/Getty)

“This is a surprise for us but human rights activity is the main weapon against the war.”

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