January 28, 2023

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Rights Advocates Honored at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony

3 min read

KYIV, Ukraine — The head of Ukraine’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization used her acceptance speech on Saturday to make an impassioned case that the only way to secure a just and lasting peace in Ukraine is to fight.

“People of Ukraine want peace more than anyone else in the world,” said Oleksandra Matviychuk, the head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. “But peace cannot be reached by a country under attack laying down its arms. This would not be peace, but occupation.”

Her organization, and the other laureates — Memorial, a Russian organization, and Ales Bialiatski, a jailed Belarusian activist — have become symbols of resistance and accountability during the largest ground war in Europe since World War II, set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They were honored at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo.

They also have emerged as some of the starkest challengers to the widespread misinformation and harmful myths disseminated by authoritarian leaders.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told the audience in Oslo that the laureates had “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 abuses of power,” she said. “Together, they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

Jan Rachinsky, who accepted the award for Memorial, said that his organization is committed to documenting crimes in both the past and the present.

“What we see as the root cause of these crimes is the sanctification of the Russian state as the supreme value,” he told the audience. That exaltation, he said, results in impunity.

“We saw this in the hostilities in Chechnya, and we see it happening again today in the occupied territory of Ukraine,” he said. “After the bombing of Grozny, the destruction of Mariupol, tragically, was not anything new.”

Natalia Pinchuk, the wife of Ales Bialiatski, received the prize on her jailed husband’s behalf and shared what she said were some of his reflections, including on the parallels between Russia and Belarus in light of the war in Ukraine.

“I know exactly what kind of Ukraine would suit Russia and Putin — a dependent dictatorship,” she said. “The same as today’s Belarus, where the voice of the oppressed people is ignored and disregarded.”

The Nobel committee’s decision to group a Ukrainian civil society organization with human rights defenders from Russia and Belarus — two of the country’s aggressors — prompted some initial backlash in Ukraine when the award was announced in October. Some saw it as an affront to those who have been working to protect Ukrainians since Russia invaded the country in February.

Founded in 2007, the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine was chosen along with Memorial and Mr. Bialiatski for its actions that “demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, issued a scathing criticism of the Nobel committee soon after the award was announced, saying that it had an “interesting understanding of the word ‘peace.’”

“Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to oppose this war,” he said in a statement.

Ms. Reiss-Andersen said before the ceremony that the awards were given to send a signal that the conflict in Ukraine must end.

“Sometimes an effort for peace lies with civil society and not with state ambitions alone,” she said. “Peace is a wish and achievement that comes with a value that all laureates work: Addressing atrocities, war crimes and rule of law.”

She said that a disregard for those values was at the core of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Exactly in these times this is a very important reminder,” she said.