A Nobel Peace Prize’s universal aim

By honoring rights activists in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, this year’s prize challenges the notion of a world divided by civilizations.

A picture of one of the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2022, jailed Belarus rights activist Ales Bialiatski, is placed next to previous years Nobel Peace Prize winners at the garden of the Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Oct. 7.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to two civil society groups and one democracy activist, all of them champions of what the Nobel committee calls “fundamental rights.” Yet the prize’s more telling message may lie in the location of the three winners: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

In an article last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the “people” of these three neighboring countries are a united civilization, a “Russian world” distinct from the West with its assertion of universal values (such as fundamental rights).

Just days after the article was published in July 2021, Belarus’ dictator rounded up many pro-democracy activists – including Ales Bialiatski, one winner of the 2022 peace prize. Seven months later, Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Then last month, after an effort to annex eastern Ukraine to Russia, Mr. Putin again challenged the “West’s dogmatic conviction that its civilization ... is an indisputable model for the entire world to follow.”

The 2022 Nobel Prize could be a refutation of Mr. Putin’s notion that humanity is divvied up by civilizations, each entitled to its own facts with no binding, universal truths.

From his prison cell in Belarus, Mr. Bialiatski is perhaps subjected daily to Mr. Putin’s theories. One of his fellow prisoners and human rights activists, Valiantsin Stefanovich, sent out a letter last month citing constant state TV broadcasts “trying to convince us that human rights and democracy are an invention of the ‘collective West’ that is ‘alien to our traditional values.’”

Democracy, he wrote, “cannot be ‘western,’ ‘eastern,’ or ‘southern.’ The country’s either a democracy or not.” The autocracies of Russia and Belarus, he warned, “strive to impose their ‘separate civilization’ on other peoples, even by waging wars.” Rights are universal and inalienable, and cannot be taken away from us, he added.

The Nobel committee has thrown a lifeline to those fighting for individual rights in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. This year’s award aims to honor those who see values such as liberty as inherent to all. Free in their own conscience, these activists see others as also free to embrace fundamental rights. As Mr. Stefanovich wrote, such work is one of peace, not war.

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