By: Leah Colgan
On November 22, 2020 the Sakharov Prize was awarded to the Democratic Opposition in Belarus, a movement epitomising the power of bravery, resilience and strength. This prize is the highest recognition given by the European Union to human rights defenders, in the past going to people like Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Malala Yousafzai. Named after Andrei Sakharov, an activist and human right defender on the human rights implications of nuclear weapons, the Sakharov Prize credits those who have given an outstanding contribution to protecting freedom of thought. In addition to this, the Sakharov Prize promotes freedom of expression, the rights of minorities, respect for international law, the development of democracy and the implementation of the rule of law.
The prize recognises individuals, groups and organisations that have tirelessly advocated for their cause and promoted human rights despite the obstacles they have been challenged with. The prize often brings to the forefront activists and groups of activists that are unknown to many people, an important aspect of this particular prize. In a world where the news is catered to a country’s own interests, it is essential that those across the globe championing the human rights ideals we all hold dear and often take for granted, are recognised for their actions.
From an assortment of shortlisted candidates, the European Parliament selected the Democratic Opposition in Belarus. The other deserving candidates included the Guapinol environmental activists and Berta Cáceres from Honduras, Monsignor Najeeb Michaeel, Archbishop of Mosul, Polish LGBTI activists Jakub Gawron, Paulina Pajak, Paweł Preneta and Kamil Maczuga, founders of the website Atlas of Hate and Mgr Najeeb Moussa Michaeel.
So, what set the Democratic Opposition in Belarus apart? Represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of brave women and political and civil society figures, the Democratic Opposition in Belarus protested against a brutal regime fuelled by an illegitimate election result. The anger and frustration caused by authoritarian President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s disregard for democracy led to an uprising against him and subsequently, a brutal crackdown on protestors or anyone who dare speak in dissent. President Lukashenka’s rule has been characterised by violence, cruel repression, torture and now a brutal crackdown against peaceful protestors. Belarus remains an exception to the Eurocentric notion of democracy. Lukashenka is frequently referred to as Europe’s last dictator.
His main opponent was Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya who, along with much of Belarus, remains adamant that the election was rigged. Tsikhanovskaya is thought to have received more than half of the actual votes, although official figures show that President Lukashenka won 80%. Following the election, Tsikhanovskaya had to flee Belarus because of a fear for her own and her children’s safety. An act in itself that clearly demonstrates the dire human rights conditions in Belarus under President Lukashenka’s rule.
This fraudulent election has not escaped international attention. The EU Parliament has adopted new recommendations calling for a comprehensive review of the EU’s relationship with Belarus. Due to the close proximity, it is imperative that the EU is not a passive bystander and acts against this challenge to the democratic process. The EU is calling for new, free and fair elections to be held in Belarus under international supervision. The practicality of this remain to be seen but the election results are not recognised by the EU. When voting on the issue there were 602 votes in favour, 44 against and 44 absentees. However, the fact that there were 44 votes against this supports the view that democracy remains fragile even in Europe.
Tsikhanovskaya maintains the ongoing Belarusian uprising is not a geopolitical revolution, not pro or anti-Russian, not pro EU or anti EU, it is simply pro-Belarus and democratic revolution. The strength of the Sakharov prize lies in its ability to pressure governments to address their human rights violations. This is exactly the sort of tool the Democratic Opposition in Belarus needs to enact meaningful change.
Worryingly, threats to democracy have been a significant feature of 2020. With Donald Trump’s refusal for a peaceful transfer of power, even countries that have traditionally been global advocates for democracy have fallen victim to leaders with personal agendas rather than public interest agendas. The fragile nature of democracy has come to the forefront on international attention and this warrants serious analysis. Human rights are conditional on a free and fair government, a rise of authoritarian regimes would be catastrophic. Seemingly democracy has fallen victim to attack, this is why the work of the Democratic Opposition in Belarus is so vital and why they are such a deserving winner.