Nobel Peace Prize: Fighting Together on Both Sides of the Frontline

Nobel Peace Prize: Fighting Together on Both Sides of the Frontline

VOf this year’s three recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, the organization is in the simplest situation, whose employees for the past seven months have had to live with the fear of rocket attacks from the territories of the countries from which the others honored by the Nobel Committee live: the Ukrainian “Centre for Civil freedoms”. The Ukrainian civil rights activists are not exposed to persecution by their own state, whose actions they critically observe even in times of war.

The other two award winners, on the other hand, are being harassed by overwhelming repressive apparatuses: Memorial, the oldest, largest and most important Russian human rights organization, was banned by the Supreme Court in Moscow at the end of December last year, but continues to work informally to some extent. Belarusian Ales Byalatsky has been in detention without a sentence since July 2021. Just last week, the charges against him were escalated from “tax evasion” to “smuggling cash”. The 60-year-old chairman of the human rights organization “Wjasna” (“Spring”), founded in 1996, faces between seven and ten years in prison.

These are not empty threats, as the fate of Byalyatsky’s comrade-in-arms at “Vyazna” Marfa Rabkova shows: The 27-year-old woman was arrested on September 6 for “participating in mass unrest” (meaning the peaceful demonstrations against dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko in the summer of 2020). sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. On the same day, Vyazna activist Andrei Chepyuk was sentenced to six years in prison. A total of seven members of the organization are currently behind bars – they are among the 1,324 political prisoners in Belarus that “Vyazna” had counted up to October 1st.

Beginnings in the Soviet Union

The Russian and Belarusian Nobel Prize winners have in common not only the persecution by their countries’ regimes, but also the beginnings of their activity in the human rights movement of the Soviet Union. One of the founders of Memorial was Andrei Sakharov in Moscow in 1987, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his fight for human rights – which is why the Soviet authorities considered him an enemy of the state.

In front of Memorial's Moscow office in 2013

In front of Memorial’s Moscow office in 2013

Image: dpa

Memorial was originally founded with the aim of erecting a memorial in Moscow for the victims of Stalinism. Documenting the crimes of the Soviet regime has remained a central part of the organization’s work over the three and a half decades of Memorial’s existence. She compiles lists of names of victims and collects testimonies of repression. Over the years, Memorial’s staff have amassed an impressive yet depressing archive of survivor accounts, letters from political prisoners, and objects from Soviet prison camps, and published their research in countless papers. This priceless collection is now in danger of falling into the hands of those who see themselves in the tradition of the perpetrators.

Memorial did not stop at coming to terms with the past. Since the early 1990s, the organization has also been documenting human rights violations in contemporary Russia. She led campaigns to enforce fundamental rights and denounced misdeeds by Russian security forces and courts. Memorial was also active in Chechnya during the two wars. Because of its origins and its numerous branches in different parts of Russia, Memorial has become something of the backbone of Russian civil society.

During the years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, this brought the organization into growing opposition to those in power. Since the repression in Russia increased after the demonstrations in winter 2011/2012, she kept lists of political prisoners. At the same time, the pressure on the organization grew, which the Russian Ministry of Justice assigned the status of “foreign agent” in Stalinist parlance. Violations of the obligation to indicate this status in all public statements eventually served as a pretext for the organization’s ban.

A younger generation

The “Centre for Civil Liberties” was created under very different circumstances than Memorial. The women who lead it belong to a generation no longer shaped by the conflict with the Soviet Union – the chairwoman Olexandra Matviychuk was born in 1983. The center was established in 2007 as a merger of human rights organizations from several successor states of the Soviet Union. At the time, disappointment was growing in Ukraine about the political forces that had come to power as a result of the Orange Revolution in 2004 but failed to keep the promises of democratic and rule-of-law reforms.

Olexandra Matviychuk in Kyiv in April

Olexandra Matviychuk in Kyiv in April

Image: Daniel Pilar

When the next Ukrainian revolution began on the Kiev Maidan at the end of 2013, the organization documented the acts of violence perpetrated against the protesters by the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, who later fled to Russia. After the victory of “Euromaidan”, the “Centre for Civil Liberties”, as one of the most important organizations of the very lively Ukrainian civil society, made a significant contribution to the fact that the new rulers were constantly under public pressure to really develop Ukraine in the direction of a democratic constitutional state.

The occupation of Crimea and the war started by Russia in the Donbass have made the documentation of war crimes another focus of the center’s work since 2014. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this activity became the focus of the organization’s work. She proceeds in the same way as with everything she has done in recent years – seriously, calmly and with an eye for accuracy.

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