The story so far: The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize has been jointly awarded to Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Centre for Civil Liberties. The award was announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo on Friday.
“The Peace Prize laureates have, for many years, promoted the right to criticise power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power. Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a press release.
Who are the winners?
Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski is the founder of Viasna, a human rights centre in the country, named for the Belarusian word for ‘spring.’ . Mr. Bialiatski created Viasna in 1996 when a wave of democratic opposition tookover Belarus.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who took over the country in 1994, gradually becameincreasingly autocratic. His rule has been described as “Europe’s last dictatorship”. In 1996, locals protested against Mr. Lukashenko’s rule in large numbers, and the uprising was popularly called the Minsk Spring.
Viasna’s registration was cancelled by the Supreme Court of Belarus in 2003. In 2004, it became a member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
Mr. Bialiatski is a champion of human rights in Belarus and has dedicated his life to the cause of democracy in his country. The dissent has, however, come at the cost of personal liberty. The activist was arrested in July 2021, following the large-scale anti-government protests in the country that started in 2020. He has, since, been detained without trial. Human Rights Watch reported that he has been charged with tax evasion and faces up to seven years in prison.
This is not Mr. Bialiatski’s first stint in prison. He also spent around three years in jail between 2011 and 2014.
“Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr Bialiatski has not yielded an inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” the Nobel Committee said.
Answering a question on whether the Nobel Peace Prize would potentially increase hardships for awardees, Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairperson of the committee, said, “We are particularly concerned about Mr. Bialiatski who is detained under very hard conditions in the prison and we do pray that this prize will not affect him negatively, but we hope it might boost his morale.”
“This is a dilemma that the Nobel committee always faces. But, we also have the point of view that the individuals behind these organisations have chosen to take a risk and pay a high price and show courage to fight for what they believe in,” she said.
Mr. Bialiatski was also awarded the Right Livelihood Award, nicknamed the alternative Nobel Prize, in 2020.
Memorial is a Russian human rights organisation started in 1987 in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights advocate, were among its early organisers. The organisation was started as a movement to expose repression under the regime. Eventually, it expanded into civil society groups that ran a museum, a library, an archive, and support centres to help Soviet-era repression victims and their family members. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Memorial also focused on the compilation of information on political repression and human rights violations in Russia.
In 2009, Natalia Estemirova, head of Memorial’s Chechnya branch, was killed after the organisation started gathering and verifying information about abuse and war crimes during the Chechen wars. “When civil society must give way to autocracy and dictatorship, peace is often the next victim,” Ms. Reiss-Andersen said while announcing Memorial as a winner of this year’s prize.
In December 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of the International Memorial Society for violation of “foreign agent law”. A Moscow city court also granted a request to shut down Memorial Human Rights Center, a sister organisation, just a day later.
Memorial’s databases reportedly contain details of more than three million victims as well as thousands of perpetrators who worked for the Soviet Union. A few months before the forced dissolution, it published a list of 419 political prisoners kept in jail by Russian President Putin’s administration.
The Nobel Committee noted that when addressing the government-mandated shutdown of the organisation, Memorial chairman Yan Rachinsky had said, “Nobody plans to give up.”
Centre for Civil Liberties
Ukrainian human rights organisation Centre for Civil Liberties was founded in Kyiv in 2007 with the goal of transforming the country into a full democracy. In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the Centre for Civil Liberties participated in mobile monitoring groups in Crimea as well as Donbas. The organisation is presently focused on identifying and documenting Russian war crimes following the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“For many years we worked in a country that was invisible,” Volodymyr Yavorskyi of Centre for Civil Liberties was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “This is a surprise for us. But human rights activity is the main weapon against war,” he added.
The organisation also campaigns for Ukraine’s affiliation with the International Criminal Court.