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In Rebuke to Putin, Nobel Peace Prize Goes to Human Rights Campaigners in Ukraine, Belarus & Russia

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The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to two human rights groups, the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine and Memorial in Russia, as well as imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski. The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised their work criticizing power and protecting fundamental human rights in neighboring countries torn apart by war. We speak to Anna Dobrovolskaya, who served as executive director of Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, part of the Nobel-winning group Memorial, before it was shut down by the Russian government. “People can see this as a common victory for civil society, not just in Russia,” says Dobrovolskaya. We also speak with Ole von Uexküll, executive director of the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation; all of Friday’s Nobel winners are also previous Right Livelihood laureates, known informally as the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize.” The hope of these international awards is that Belarus will “immediately release Ales Bialiatski” and that Russia will stop their legal persecution of human rights organizations, says von Uexküll.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has announced the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to the imprisoned human rights activist Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, as well as the Russian human rights group Memorial and the Ukrainian organization Center for Civil Liberties. The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced this year’s Peace Prize winners at a ceremony this morning in Oslo.

BERIT REISS-ANDERSEN: By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022 to Ales Bialiatski, Memorial and the Center for Civil Liberties, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to honor three outstanding champions of human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence in the neighbor countries Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Through their consistent efforts in favor of human values, anti-militarism and principles of law, this year’s laureates have revitalized and honored Alfred Nobel’s vision of peace and fraternity between nations — a vision most needed in the world today.

AMY GOODMAN: After the Nobel Committee’s announcement, Anna Trushova of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine spoke to reporters.

ANNA TRUSHOVA: [translated] I am happy. I am delighted to be part of the team that is so motivated, that does such wonderful things for our country. We understand that defenders of law are catalysts of changes, and this recognition motivates us even more to introduce these changes into our society. … When the full-scale aggression started, we obviously did not sit idle. We organized a team of defenders of law which actively documented war crimes. We have logged over 20,000 war crimes so far. And this is done in order to punish all perpetrators.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Joining us from Stockholm, Sweden, is Ole von Uexküll. He’s executive director of the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation. All three winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize are Right Livelihood laureates. And with us in Moscow is Anna Dobrovolskaya. She is the former executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, which was part of the group Memorial, which has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her organization was shut down by the Russian government.

Anna, let’s begin with you. The significance of this announcement? Did you know before the announcement that your group was going to win the Nobel Peace Prize? And what does this mean for what’s happening right now in Russia?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Hello, Amy.

No, I had no idea that we can be winners this year. Memorial have been nominated several few times before, and some of our staff members have been nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize before. And, of course, it’s a great honor. Though I’m no longer with Memorial, I still keep receiving congratulations from all over the world.

And people consider this as a common victory for civil society, not just in Russia, because it has some importance in Russia, but it’s extremely important now when there is a war between Russia and Ukraine. It is extremely important now to support organizations in all of those countries, and especially it is important for Ales, who is behind the bars. In Russia, I’m sure it will also have some significant importance, because Memorial keeps facing huge difficulties in continuation of its work, although the legal entities have been shut down. So I’m hoping that Russian authorities will step back. But, unfortunately, as we know, it didn’t help, for example, Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief was awarded the Peace Prize before, so, unfortunately, no bright forecast here.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what Memorial worked on, when it was allowed to function, and what needs to be done right now in Russia.

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: When Memorial was able to function, we did lots of things. We had two major flows of work, so to say. We had a pillar related to historical remembrance, Soviet past, the political repressions during Soviet time and memorialization of those events, and we had this human rights wing, which I was the chair of. We worked with documenting the war crimes in Chechnya. We documented human rights violations all over the country. We helped the victims of political repressions and also provided various legal aid to the victims of human rights violations everywhere.

Right now this all better be continued, because modern Russia is the place where lots of violations is happening. And actually, the current events is the continuation of the thought that has been promoted by Memorial for a long period of time, that if you have human rights violations within the country which are ignored and where you have impunity instead of putting people responsible for those human rights violations, it means that sooner or later it will go beyond the borders, beyond the national borders of the country. And that’s what we see exactly now with Russia, Ukraine, before with Georgia and with some other countries, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: In March, Democracy Now! spoke to Oleksandra Matviichuk the head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, which won the Nobel Peace Prize today. This is what she said then.

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: When the war started, I asked myself, “Do I feel a fear?” And I was emotional, but I don’t have fear. I have two main emotions. The first emotion is anger. I really anger, as the millions of Ukrainians, that Russia invades to our country, that Russia try to stop our democratic choice, that Russia try impose the logic of Soviet Union and push us away to the past, which we don’t want to return to. But most big emotion is love. This is a love to my country. This is a love to our people. It’s love to our values. And we will stand for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Oleksandra Matviichuk speaking in a video produced by the Right Livelihood Foundation. She’s one of this year’s Right Livelihood laureates.

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: Now in Ukraine we are going through the difficult times. We are fighting for our freedom in all senses: for a freedom to be independent country; for a freedom to be Ukrainians, with our own language and culture; and for a freedom to have a democratic choice. … We are documenting war crimes in this war with Russia in order to hold war criminals accountable, to provide justice for each victims of these crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ole von Uexküll is the executive director of the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden. They produced that video, because the Center for — CCL, the Ukraine human rights group, the Center for Civil Liberties, not only won the Nobel Peace Prize today, but it was just announced they won the Right Livelihood Awards. Can you talk about the significance of the two organizations converging, the Nobel Committee and the Right Livelihood Awards, and just who Oleksandra, CCL, Memorial and the Belarusian group — the Belarusian human rights activist, in prison right now, what this means, Ole?

OLE VON UEXKÜLL: Thank you, Amy. And congratulations, Anna.

I am overjoyed. It was amazing for us to hear this morning when we followed the announcement from Oslo and then, as you heard, a first Right Livelihood Award laureate was announced as a Nobel Peace laureate, and then a second one, and then even a third one. And awarding them together, I think, is very significant. It’s a very, very good sign.

And it’s particularly significant that they received a peace award — they, as defenders of democracy and as defenders of the rule of law, received a peace award — because, as Anna already pointed out, democracy is really a precondition for peace. And we see in their work how they are laying the foundations for post-Soviet societies to be peaceful. And, I mean, that’s something we’ve been hearing from Memorial and from Ales Bialiatski, who have been our laureates for a bit longer, for many years, that the crackdown they experience in their own countries also has to be read and understood as a preparation for war.

And I think it’s particularly fantastic — I mean, they both, Ales Bialiatski and Memorial, are from — have their roots in the democracy movement of the '80s. Olexsandra Matviichuk, who we just heard, is a younger generation of democracy activist. I think she's 38 years now, started her activism already 15 years ago. And this work that she does really shows the alternative to that kind of brutal aggression, the alternative which you can find in international law and accountability.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Anna, if you can talk about the significance of a Russian group, a Belarusian human rights activist now in prison and CCL in Ukraine winning this award together? In the West, it’s always presented as Russia versus Ukraine, but your perspective as a human rights activist and lawyer?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Yeah, that’s a very good question, actually. A lot of people are now concerned about the words which were said in the Nobel Peace Committee, saying that they were hoping for the peaceful coexistence. And actually, a lot of — for many people of Ukraine, those words about peaceful coexistence were very, very controversial. And some people will also see that building these together, like bringing Ukraine, Belarus and Russia together, is some kind of attempt to stress how that these countries still have the common past, and maybe they still have common future, as that’s what Vladimir Putin and his government is hoping for. So, here, I see some potential contradiction. But at the same time, I know that, and we all know that, there always will be people who are not satisfied or completely happy with these or any other decision.

Some people in my team in Memorial, they said — I spoke to them this morning, and they said that “We think that we don’t deserve it, because we couldn’t stop the war. We couldn’t be receiving the Peace Prize in this horrible moment, because, yeah, the war is still going. We couldn’t stop the war in Chechnya. There was a war in Georgia. There was a war in Syria and in many other places.” But again, the question is: Would it be different without us? And we most truly know that the world will be probably a worse place without human rights activists in Belarus, in Ukraine and, of course, in Russia.

And I’m definitely hoping that for Ales Bialiatski, my longtime, esteemed colleague, that this will help to put not just him but many other people, activists and journalists from Belarus out of the bars, because they keep receiving horrible sentences. Just yesterday, a very prominent journalist, Andrei Alexandrov, was sentenced to 14 years in prison, which is absolutely horrible. And I’m just hoping that the demonstration that there is a Peace Prize and that the international community is paying attention to the work of civil society in all the three countries will definitely change the fate not just of the laureates but of everyone.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize. This is a couple-minute video produced by the Right Livelihood Foundation when he won in 2020.

NARRATOR: Ales Bialiatski is a human rights activist in Belarus, leading an almost 30-year campaign for democracy and freedom. In 1996, he founded the human rights center Viasna, which today is the country’s leading organization documenting human rights abuses and monitoring elections.

Belarus, under the authoritarian rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Elections are rigged, opposition voices are silenced, and civil society is severely restricted.

Bialiatski has been arrested more than 25 times and spent several years in prison on trumped-up charges as Belarusian authorities have tried to impede him. The government has also frequently targeted Viasna and its members.

However, Bialiatski and Viasna’s persistent and long-standing efforts to empower the people of Belarus and ensure their democratic rights have rendered them an unstoppable force for freedom. During the recent large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations, Viasna has been playing a leading role in advocating for the freedom of assembly, defending the rights of people arrested for protesting, and documenting human rights abuses.

Bialiatski and Viasna continue to stand for the multitude of courageous people protesting Lukashenko’s dictatorial reign at high personal risk. Through their commitment to democracy and freedom, Bialiatski and Viasna have laid the foundations of a peaceful and democratic society in Belarus.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s hear the imprisoned Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski in his own words. Again, today, it was announced he has won the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke in Stockholm when he won the 2020 Right Livelihood Award.

ALES BIALIATSKI: [translated] Dear friends, this year’s Right Livelihood Award to the human rights center Viasna and myself is a very important and exciting moment in our lives. We are receiving the award, popularly called the alternative Nobel Prize, at a time when a peaceful revolution is underway in Belarus. For six months now, the Belarusian society has been engaged in a breathtaking struggle — a fight for human rights, democracy and justice; a fight for the right to “be called people,” as the Belarusian writer Yanka Kupala has said; a fight against Europe’s last dictator and the regime he has built over 26 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Ales Bialiatski ended his Right Livelihood Award acceptance speech speaking in English. He congratulated his fellow winners, including the leading human rights activist in the United States, Bryan Stevenson, and the Right Livelihood Award winner, the Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was in prison at the time.

ALES BIALIATSKI: There, Nasrin is in a terrible situation now. I can imagine how it is for her to be in prison, and even harder to go back. Sometimes I have dreams that I am in prison again, and those are my darkness dreams. My heart and soul are with Nasrin now. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Nasrin Sotoudeh, the Iranian human rights lawyer, was in prison in 2020. She is home now on medical leave from prison. Ole von Uexküll, I want to go back to you to talk about that moment. I was just texting with Bryan Stevenson, who also won that year. He is calling for Ales’s freedom, for his release from prison, congratulated him winning the Nobel Peace Prize today. He was not able to meet him in person because it was in the midst of the pandemic. I believe Ales was the only one — right? — who came to Sweden for the awards.

OLE VON UEXKÜLL: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And so you spent time with him.

OLE VON UEXKÜLL: Yeah, that was really incredible also now to hear his words there again, and very typical for him to always think of others first and think of the international and universal nature of this fight for democracy and for human rights. And he called the prospect of having to go to prison his darkest dream, in what we just heard, and, unfortunately, that is what happened. Last summer, he was arrested again, together with other Viasna colleagues. He just spent his 60th birthday, now a couple of days ago, in prison in very bad conditions that we have also been protesting at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

So, with this Nobel Peace Prize now, Belarus has to understand that they have to immediately release Ales Bialiatski and all the Viasna staff and other pro-democracy fighters who are in prison. And they also — and Russia has to understand that they have to end their legal prosecution of Memorial. And I hope that will be the effect of this award.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Democracy Now! spoke to Natallia Satsunkevich. She works with the imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski in their organization, which in English translates into “Spring.” She was speaking to us from Vilnius — this was in March — from Vilnius in Lithuania, talking about her country.

NATALLIA SATSUNKEVICH: There are more than 1,000 of political prisoners in Belarus. And the conditions where they stay, they are awful. It influences extremely on their health. And there is at least one case when a person died in Belarusian prison, a political prisoner. So, I really call you to keep in focus this topic also, political prisoners in Belarus, and to spread this information, to show your solidarity and to support them by sending letters and postcards of solidarity from all countries, from the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Anna Dobrovolskaya, again, you’re in Moscow, executive director of what was the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow. If you can talk about the role of Belarus right now in Russia’s war on Ukraine?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: It is very hard to describe what is going on, because we have the official position, which is like Belarus has nothing to do with the war, but, unofficially, we of course see that a lot of troops, a lot of weaponry and a lot of, like, logistical flows are made through Belarus. And it was recently reported that there was first a missile issued on Ukrainian territory from Belarus. And Lukashenko is a very close person to Putin. He is like the closest companion maybe of all post-Soviet countries.

And in terms of civil society, we see that Belarus is like a few steps ahead of us, ahead of Russia. And unfortunately, what is happening in Belarus — what was happening in Belarus before starts happening in Russia like maybe in couple of years. And right now the situation there with the civil society and everything is absolutely horrible. But unfortunately, in the international agenda, people of Belarus, as well as people of Russia, are presented often as those who support the war, which is absolutely not true, and especially for Belarus. It’s a country where almost no protest is possible and where people are being severely beaten up and detained even if they try to do something very, very innocent like, I don’t know, giving money to some opposition groups or something like that. And unfortunately, looking at Belarus, we always see that this is the future of Russia, if nothing changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Today’s Nobel announcement comes on Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday and also on the 16th anniversary of the assassination of a fierce journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, critic of Putin, a critic of Russia’s war in Chechnya, crusading human rights and anti-corruption reporter. What do we know about her death at this time, Anna?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: I’m not sure about the recent developments, but I think that it was not properly investigated at this moment, as it happened with the death of all other journalists and human rights activists in Russia. There probably are some people who have been imprisoned due to the fact that they have been, like, those who implemented the murder itself. But there was no proper investigation of her death or of the death of Natalya Estemirova, who was a human rights activist from Chechnya and my colleague from Memorial. So, unfortunately, all these crimes are not being — yeah, they’re not being taken care of by the government. Previously, we had the possibility of going to European court if stuff like this happened, but right now it’s not the option again for the Russian human rights defenders.

So, yeah, her death was a tragedy. It was the first one, followed by, unfortunately, many others. And to this day, she is very well remembered. She has books. People come bringing flowers to the place in Moscow where she lived. And everyone understands that this death, her killing, her murder, was like the point of no return, where it was already clear that Russia is going into some strange direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna, how do you see this war ending?

ANNA DOBROVOLSKAYA: Oh my god. I would really, really hope — well, it’s really difficult, because a lot of people are hoping that Ukraine will win. I’m hoping that there could be some possible settlement. I definitely think that Russia will pay a lot of money to everything that happened in Ukraine, and that I’m really hoping that there will be some international treaty now against the war criminals, against military criminals, and people who were accountable will be held accountable for the deaths. That’s my hope. Will there be some peace negotiation now or later? That’s just very, very hard to predict. And a lot of people are saying that no peace is possible, and no peace agreement is possible, which is, of course, understandable. I’m just hoping that nobody will die, but, unfortunately, the conflict is still going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ole von Uexküll, you know, the Right Livelihood Awards are often referred to as the “alternative Nobel Prize.” Now the alternative has merged with the actual Nobel Prize. And if you can talk about what that means, and in the world today, to see human rights activists and groups in Belarus, in Ukraine and Russia all receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, what this could lead to?

OLE VON UEXKÜLL: Thank you, Amy. Yeah, we’ve been presenting the Right Livelihood Awards since 1980, and there has been an understanding of the importance of civil society activism from the very beginning. And with the Nobel Prizes, sometimes they honor that, but then also they honor people like Abiy of Ethiopia or Barack Obama, with — where there seems to be a totally different kind of understanding of how change should come about in the world. We believe strongly that power lies in people who get organized to fight for important causes like democracy, like peace, like human rights, and that that actually has a huge effect.

And in this regard, I would say that the three Right Livelihood — now Right Livelihood-Nobel laureates, who won the Nobel Peace Prize today, that’s an incredible message of hope. It’s really a symbol of the weakness of Vladimir Putin and the old-style military aggression, with all its dangers to world peace, right? I’m not doubting that. But it shows the enormous power of the civilized way to handle conflict in international conflicts, to build societies for peace, which is, you know, by rule of law, through mechanisms of democracy. It’s incredible that the CCL, the Center for Civil Liberties — Oleksandra Matviichuk, we heard — they have collected more than 20,000 pieces of evidence for war crimes. So I have no doubt that there is going to be accountability. Putin is going to emerge as the loser, and not through the traditional military means alone, but really be defeated by accountability, by rule of law, by democracy. And that, for me, is the message of hope, which Nobel picked up this year, very much in line with our thinking for more than four decades. And yeah, it’s very significant.

AMY GOODMAN: Since you seem to be a predictor of those who will win the Nobel Peace Prize, can you talk about who won this year? You just made the announcement for the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, the four winners.

OLE VON UEXKÜLL: Right. We also gave an award to Somalia this year, to Ilwad Elman and Fartuun Adan, a mother and daughter who’ve built the Elman Peace Center, which does local peace work with communities, for instance, disarmament of former combatants, working a lot with child soldiers, working against gender-based violence. And for us, it was also very important and a really good message to have this conflict in Somalia, which, unfortunately, for too many around the world, is perceived as more of a forgotten conflict, you know, to have that honored in the same year with Ukraine, which, very rightly so, gets a lot of attention right now — because there are so many parallels in how you work for peace.

And then, we always have four laureates, so our award also goes to Cecosesola, which is a cooperative — a network of cooperatives in Venezuela that are providing more than 100,000 families for their needs, much more successfully so than the failing economic system, and really shows the power of solidarity economics in times of crisis.

And we gave an award to the Africa Institute for Energy Governance from Uganda for its work for localized, decentralized renewable energy and their important voice in the campaign against the disastrous East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline and bringing the voices of local people into these international campaigns.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we have been tracking the rise of neofascism in Europe, whether we’re talking about Meloni in Italy, the Brothers of Italy party, to be the new, well, most far-right prime minister since Mussolini, is very proud to embrace Mussolini; Poland’s ruling party; and, of course, what’s happening in Sweden with the Sweden Democrats — might surprise people to hear who the Swedish Democrats are. Is this a concern of yours, Ole, as you speak to us from Stockholm?

OLE VON UEXKÜLL: Oh, it’s a huge concern. It is terrible. The Sweden Democrats are a party with its roots in fascism. And the conservative and even the Liberal Party now chose to align themselves with the Sweden Democrats just for tactical gain, in order to be able to get the next prime minister elected. And when traditional established parties do something like that, we’ve seen so many times in history, then, obviously, they normalize this kind of hateful discourse, which borders to fascism. And in the process, people then, in the end, vote for the original. So, the conservatives were defeated, but now together with their new ally, the Sweden Democrats, they will probably form the next government.

And that’s just — it’s a terrible blow to Sweden. It’s not a coincidence that an organization like ours was founded in this country, but it was founded in this country because also of our history, long-standing history here, supporting democracy and rule of law and human rights around the world. And now Sweden will not be able to do that in a credible way any longer. And people don’t seem to realize that that’s going to weaken Sweden a lot. Like what I just said, you know, the power of the universal values of democracy and rule of law, yes, they are under attack, but I think they will prevail, and it’s very sad to see Sweden starting to turn away from this camp.

AMY GOODMAN: Ole von Uexküll, we thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation. The Right Livelihood Awards have gone to all three Nobel Peace Prize winners announced today. And I also want to thank Anna Dobrovolskaya, executive director of, now closed down, Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow. Memorial was just honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. She was speaking to us from Moscow.

Coming up, the president, Biden — President Biden pardons thousands of people convicted of marijuana possession. We’ll speak to the Drug Policy Alliance. Stay with us.

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