Rights champions in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine win Nobel Peace Prize

A trio of human rights watchdogs from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a highly symbolic choice of laureates drawn from three nations at the centre of the war in Ukraine.

The honour went to detained activist Ales Bialiatski of Belarus, Russian rights group Memorial and Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, which is recording the toll of the conflict on the nation.

“They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power,” the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, told reporters.

“Together they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy,” she added.

As predicted by experts, the committee’s choice of laureates this year marked a stinging criticism of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, which has plunged Europe into its worst security crisis since World War II.

But the five-member committee stopped short of criticising Russian President Vladimir Putin directly.

Reiss-Andersen called his regime an “authoritarian government that is suppressing human rights activists”, stressing that the committee wanted to highlight the “way civil society and human rights advocates are being suppressed.”

The Nobel committee also called on Belarus to release Bialiatski, 60, the founder of rights group Viasna whose work has charted the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Alexander Lukashenko and his security forces.

Bialiatski has been jailed several times since 2011, including after large-scale demonstrations against the regime in 2020 when Lukashenko claimed victory in elections the international community deemed fraudulent.

Minsk cracked down hard on the mass protests, with at least 37,000 people detained in a matter of months according to the UN, and many alleging they were mistreated and tortured in detention.

Lukashenko, who has clung to power since 1994 and has long been backed by Russia, is one of Moscow’s rare allies in the war on Ukraine.

Bialiatski’s wife said she was “overwelmed with emotion” by the Peace Prize news.

– ‘Not yielded an inch’ –

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — herself mentioned in Nobel speculation before Friday’s announcement — meanwhile said the prize was “recognition for all Belarusians fighting for freedom and democracy”.

Bialiatski was imprisoned from 2011 to 2014, in 2020, and again in July 2021.

“He is still detained without trial. 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.

Meanwhile, Memorial, founded in 1989 by 1975 Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, is the largest human rights organisation in Russia, compiling and systematising information on political oppression and human rights violations in Russia.

It has also established a centre of documentation on victims of the Stalinist era.

The country’s Supreme Court ordered it dissolved in December 2021, and the group on Friday denounced a new court hearing on the issue.

“Right now, as the whole world is congratulating us for the Nobel Prize, a court hearing is taking place at the (Moscow) Tverskoy district court over the seizure of Memorial’s assets,” the centre for human rights of the organisation said on social media. 

Both Bialiatski and Memorial have been mentioned in Nobel speculation in previous years.

Last year, the Peace Prize went to another Kremlin critic, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, whose newspaper Novaya Gazeta also had its licence revoked. 

He won together with Philippine journalist Maria Ressa for their fight for freedom of the press.

– ‘War crimes’ –

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), founded in 2007, has since the invasion in February identified and documented “Russian war crimes against the Ukrainian civilian population”, the Nobel committee said.

It hailed the CCL’s “pioneering role with a view to holding the guilty parties accountable for their crimes”.

The head of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties said Putin should face an “international tribunal”. 

Oleksandra Matviychuk said on Facebook the tribunal should be created to “give the hundreds of thousands of victims of war crimes a chance to see justice…”

UN investigators on September 23 accused Russia of committing war crimes on a “massive scale” in Ukraine, citing bombings, executions, torture and sexual violence on victims aged four to 82.

Moscow has also been accused of committing massacres after the bodies of dozens of civilians were found in Bucha, outside Kyiv, and the discovery of hundreds of others in Izium, a region liberated by Ukrainian troops last month.

Beyond the countless deaths and material destruction in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has revived fears of a nuclear strike by Russia, which has struggled since Ukraine launched a counter-offensive in September.

The Peace Prize comes with a gold medal, a diploma and a prize sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $900,000).

The award will be presented at a formal ceremony in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of the prizes’ creator, Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel.

by Pierre-Henry DESHAYES