This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a jailed Belarusian human rights activist and two rights groups in Russia and Ukraine, in a statement of the award’s support for their opposition to Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Kyiv and his authoritarian rule in the region.
Belarus rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the Russian group Memorial and Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties were joint winners of the award, the Nobel Committee said on Friday.
“The Nobel Peace prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries. They have for many years promoted the right to criticise power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens,” the committee said. “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.”
Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, told reporters the prize was not awarded as a snub to Russian president Vladimir Putin, though it came on his 70th birthday on Friday.
“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.
Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties has been active in documenting alleged Russian war crimes since Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula and fomented a slow-burning war in the eastern Donbas region in 2014.
After years working to defend Ukrainians held in captivity in Russian-occupied territories, the centre now focuses on atrocities against Ukrainian civilians since Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country in February.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, the centre’s chair, wrote on Facebook: “Now the army is speaking because the voices of human rights activists in our region have not been heard before. We may have been listened to at the UN Committee on Human Rights, but certainly not where decisions are made by people in power.
“If we do not want to live in a world where rules are determined by someone with more powerful military potential rather than the rule of law, things must change.”
Bialiatski is the founder of Viasna, a Belarusian human rights organisation that helps the families of political prisoners jailed by strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
After endorsing opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in 2020’s presidential election and documenting Lukashenko’s crackdown on protests against his disputed victory, Bialiatski was jailed last year for tax evasion.
He previously spent three years in prison following a similar crackdown against an earlier challenge to Lukashenko’s regime in 2010.
“This award is a strong message of support for all Belarusians who fearlessly stand up to tyranny [and] an award to all political prisoners,” said Tsikhanouskaya. “It reminds us of our common duty to make sure all political prisoners are released. We should work hard to get Bialiatski free as soon as possible.”
Bialiatski has “devoted his life in very bleak and uncompromising times to the cause of Belarus and human rights,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former UK ambassador to Belarus. “And when he was released, he continued his work. He’s an extremely decent, gentle, unassuming man as well as a highly effective and devoted campaigner.”
Lukashenko has since become an important player in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, letting Russia use his country as a base from which to launch regular assaults.
Memorial, which documents the memory of the Soviet era’s worst atrocities and rights abuses in contemporary Russia, was shut down late last year. Some of its activists have continued its work under a new project as the pressure on their activities continues. A Moscow court is set to rule on the expected seizure of the group’s offices by the state.
“Memorial is part of the real Russia that you can’t equate with Putin’s Russia. It’s a polar opposite and it holds, regardless of whether anyone wants to equate all Russians to Putinists,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Memorial has faced particular pressure for its work documenting human rights abuses in Chechnya, whose strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov has played a key role in the Ukraine campaign. Its lead researcher there, Natalia Estemirova, was abducted and murdered in 2009 shortly after Kadyrov threatened her personally.
Lana Estemirova, her daughter, tweeted: “She worked tirelessly to help the victims of the Russian war in Chechnya and hold the criminal regime to account. Everything we do, we do in her memory.”
Awarding the prize to Belarusian and Russian activists drew criticism from some quarters in Ukraine, which is facing daily missile and rocket launches from both countries.
“Nobel Committee has an interesting understanding of word ‘peace’ if representatives of two countries that attacked a third one” receive the award, tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak, senior adviser to president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Neither Russian nor Belarusian organisations were able to organise resistance to the war. This year’s Nobel is ‘awesome’.”
Additional reporting by Raphael Minder in Warsaw