The 2022 Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded on Friday to Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and two human rights organizations, Memorial from Russia and the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine.
The announcement of the awards comes as Russia wages war on Ukraine, the largest ground war in Europe since World War II. The war proved to be front and center of the minds of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as all of the prize winners have worked as challengers to human rights abuse, war crimes and misinformation during this time of tragedy and unrest.
According to The New York Times, Bert Reiss-Andersen, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said during the announcement ceremony, “The Peace Prize laureates represent civil society in their home countries. They have for many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens. They have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human rights abuses and the abuse of power.”
The committee specified that the winners were chosen out of a desire to honor the work done for “human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence in the neighbor countries of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.”
The awards ceremony comes on the day of Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday, a coincidence that perhaps becomes pointed with the fact that the awards were given to a Russian human rights group that he shut down, a Ukrainian group that is documenting war crimes and a Belarusian human rights activist imprisoned by Putin’s close ally President Alexander Lukashenko.
There were 343 candidates for this year’s prize — including 251 people and 92 organizations. Nominees include NATO, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Black Lives Matter, the World Health Organization, Greta Thunberg, Masih Alinejab and Alexei Navalny.
Here’s what to know about each of the winners.
Ales Bialiatski, 60, has been described by The New York Times as “a pillar of the human rights movement in Eastern Europe.” A scholar of Belarusian literature, he became involved in several human rights initiatives during the late 1980s. One of them was called the Belarusian Clandestine Party, which campaigned for Belarus to leave the Soviet Union and form a democratic country, organizing the first ever anti-Soviet protests.
In 1991, the Soviet Union fell, and after the 1994 election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Bialiatski formed the human rights group Viasna, or Spring. Since its formation, Viasna has become one of the countries leading civil liberties groups, monitoring elections and documenting human rights abuses. It is for his work with Viasna that Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
He served as director of a museum honoring Maksim Bahdanovic, a Belarusian poet, until being forced out by Lukashenko, who began to crack down on the Belarusian language and promote Russian.
In July 2021, Bialiatski was arrested for tax evasion and charged with a maximum penalty of seven years. He is currently being held in a prison in Minsk.
Per The New York Times, Natalia Pinchuk, Bialitski’s wife, sent him a telegram informing him of the honor, but had not yet received a reply.
Andrei Sannikov, a close friend of Bialatski and opponent of Lukashenko, hopes the award will bring to light the human rights abuses being perpetrated in Belarus, telling The New York Times that it was an important boost to “all of us who have been fighting for human rights and human dignity.”
The human rights watchdog Memorial International Society was formed in 1987 in order to uncover the atrocities committed by the regime of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin and document those who perished in the Gulag. The name of the organization is its very mission statement — to remember those whose names were repressed and forgotten. It was established during the Perestroika and glasnost years and initially led by Andrei Sakharov, another Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The organization has dedicated its time to researching Soviet abuses in the Gulag, forced labor camps where political prisoners toiled, many executed based on trumped-up evidence. Estimates for the death toll in the Gulag range from 2.3 million to 17.6 million.
Per The Washington Post, it built up an archive of more than 60,000 victims of Soviet-state repression. A killing field used by Stalin’s secret police was discovered by the chairman of Memorial’s branch in the northern republic of Karelia. They led an initiative called “Last Address” which puts a plaque on the side of the homes of those who perished under Stalin’s rule.
In the statement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, they described the organization as “based on the notion that confronting past crimes is essential in preventing new ones.”
Memorial has also investigated more recent human rights abuses in Russia. A separate arm of the organization was established to provide legal aid and other assistance to political prisoners and their families.
In 2014, Memorial was added to a list of “foreign agents” — groups believed to receive money from outside of Russia — and last year the organization was liquidated by Russian courts. Memorial is still active on social media accounts, where it has been documenting the detention of anti-war protestors and journalists during Russia’s siege on Ukraine.
Center for Civil Liberties
The Ukrainian group Center for Civil Liberties was formed in 2007 and uses international courts and introduces legislation in order to promote democracy and human rights in Ukraine. During the war in Ukraine, the group has extensively documented war crimes.
Under the group’s banner, several hundred volunteers are collecting civilian testimonies on atrocities and human rights violations. It has been doing significant work documenting the forced disappearances of activists, journalists and government officials in Russian-controlled areas. The Center of Civil Liberties has also been providing legal aid for detained anti-Russian protestors.
Yuriy Bilious, an attorney who worked with the organization, told NPR, “ First of all, they tell the world about what is going on in Ukraine. They hold international institutions accountable so as to prevent crimes in the future. Their work creates opportunities to discuss the future of international criminal law.”
The Center of Civil Liberties Executive Director Oleksandra Romantsova told The New York Times that the award illustrated how vital and important the organization’s work had become, saying, “By our own example we will show this and continue to work on it.”
The prize money of 10,000,000 Swedish Krona will be split three ways at a ceremony held on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel.
Reactions from world leaders
Emmanuel Macron, president of France, sent his congratulations to the winners, tweeting that “the Nobel Peace Prize pays tribute to unwavering defenders of human rights in Europe. Artists of peace, they must know they can count on the support of France.”
Ales Bialiatski en Biélorussie, l’ONG Memorial en Russie, le Centre pour les libertés civiles en Ukraine : le Nobel de la Paix rend hommage à des défenseurs indéfectibles des droits humains en Europe. Artisans de la paix, ils savent pouvoir compter sur le soutien de la France.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) October 7, 2022
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a leader of the Belarusian pro-democracy movement, congratulated Ales Bialiatski on her official website, writing that it was a “recognition of the contribution of all Belarusian human rights defenders to peace and human rights.”
Former executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, pointed out the significance of the awards. “On Putin’s 70th birthday, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a Russian human rights group that he shut down, a Ukrainian human rights group that is documenting his war crimes, and a Belarusian human rights activist whom his ally Lukashenko has imprisoned.”
On Putin's 70th birthday, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a Russian human rights group that he shut down, a Ukrainian human rights group that is documenting his war crimes, and a Belarusian human rights activist whom his ally Lukashenko has imprisoned. https://t.co/5Yozif0Qis— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) October 7, 2022
Bridget A. Brink, United States Ambassador to Ukraine, tweeted out her congratulations to the Center for Civil Liberties, calling them a “powerful example of the strength of Ukrainian Civil society overall.”
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said the meaning of the award changed when seen against the backdrop of war. “There is war in Europe. Your work for peace and human rights is therefore more important than ever before.”
Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, praised the recipients saying “the right to speak truth to power is fundamental to free and open society.”
However, some criticized the decision to honor Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians together.
Valeriia Voschevska, a Ukrainian human rights activists, praised the recognition of the Center for Civil Liberties, but noted that the committee’s choice of laureates reinforced Putin’s justification for the war in Ukraine as protecting the citizens of “brotherly nations.” On Twitter she wrote, “The more you force Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians into the same public spaces, the more you reinforce this concept and reinforce Putin’s narrative. “
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to Zelenskyy, tweeted, “Nobel Committee has an interesting understanding of ‘peace’ if representatives of two countries that attacked a third one receive @NobelPrize together. Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to organize resistance to the war. This year’s Nobel is ‘awesome.’”
Belarus’s Foreign Ministry decried the award, and ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz said that the Nobel Peace Prize was now so politicized that Alfred Nobel was turning around in his grave.
In an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, Oleksandra Matviichuk, the Ukrainian lawyer who heads the Center for Civil Liberties, said that the award was for the groups and not the countries. “They always called things by their name. That’s why Ales Bialiatski is in prison now and Memorial is banned. It’s not about the countries, but about the people who are jointly standing up to evil,” she said, per The Washington Post.