By Rob Picheta, CNN
The new laureates were honored for “an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power” in their respective countries. “They have for many years promoted the right to criticize power and protect the fundamental rights of citizens,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
Their win comes seven months after Russia waged a full-scale war on Ukraine, with the assistance of Belarus. That ongoing conflict loomed heavily over this year’s award, and it had been speculated that the committee would seek to pay tribute to activists in the affected nations.
The Ukrainian group, Center for Civil Liberties, has “engaged in efforts to identify and document Russian war crimes against the Ukrainian civilian population” since the invasion was launched in February, the committee said.
“In collaboration with international partners, the center is playing a pioneering role with a view to holding the guilty parties accountable for their crimes.”
The head of the Center for Civil Liberties said the group was “proud” to win the prize, calling it “a recognition of work of many human rights activists in Ukraine and not only in Ukraine.”
Oleksandra Matviichuk, the organization’s head, said on Facebook she was “happy” that the Center had received the prize “together with our friends and partners.”
She also called for the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for war crimes.
Matviichuk also said Russia should be “thrown out” of the UN Security Council for what she called “systemic breaches of the UN Charter.”
Memorial was founded in 1987 and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, became one of Russia’s most prominent human rights watchdogs. It has worked to expose the abuses and atrocities of the Stalinist era.
The group was shut down by Russian courts in the past year, in a major blow to the country’s hollowed-out civil rights landscape.
Bialiatski, meanwhile, has documented human rights abuses in Belarus since the 1980s. He founded the organization Viasna, or Spring, in 1996 after a referendum that consolidated the authoritarian powers of president and close Russian ally, Lukashenko.
The activist was arrested in 2020 amid widespread protests against Lukashenko’s regime. “He is still detained without trial. Despite tremendous personal hardship, Mr Bialiatski has not yielded an inch in his fight for human rights and democracy in Belarus,” the committee said.
Belarusian opposition politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya congratulated Bialiatski. “The prize is an important recognition for all Belarusians fighting for freedom & democracy,” she wrote in a tweet. “All political prisoners must be released without delay.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen applauded the “outstanding courage of the women and men standing against autocracy.”
And French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that the Nobel committee had honored “the unwavering defenders of human rights in Europe.”
“Artisans of peace, they know they can count on the support of France,” Macron added.
It had been widely anticipated that the Nobel decision-makers would focus attention on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, given its aftershocks in security and stability across the globe.
But those involved in leading military campaigns, such as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, were seen as longshots given that government-led peace negotiations appear to offer slim hopes of a resolution to the conflict in the near future.
“The committee is giving a message about the importance of political freedoms, civil liberties and an active civil society as being part of what makes for a peaceful society,” Dan Smith, director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told CNN. “I think that’s a very important message.”
“This prize has a lot of layers on it; it’s covering a lot of ground and giving more than one message,” he added. “(It is) a prize about citizenship, and what is the best kind of citizenship if we wish to be citizens of peaceful countries in a peaceful world.”
“This year we were in a situation with a war in Europe, which was most unusual, but also facing a war that has a global effect on people all over the world,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the committee, told reporters.
Reiss-Andersen said the prize was not intended to send a message to Putin or any other individual. But she added that he represents “an authoritarian government that is suppressing human rights activists.”
The three winners will share the prize money of 10,000,000 Swedish krona ($900,000). The Nobel Prizes will be officially awarded to the laureates at a ceremony on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.
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CNN’s Arnaud Siad and Alex Hardie contributed to this report.