Each year, the European Parliament awards the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to honour individuals, organisations, and movements who make exceptional efforts in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. This Prize expresses the will of the Parliament to make protection of human rights a top priority, awarding persons who demonstrate incredible courage in fighting for democracy and equality. It is a booster shot reminding us of our obligation to uphold human rights, stay vigilant, and never take fundamental rights for granted. It helps to understand what is at stake.
Today, more than ever, human rights are being threatened and challenged and with them the core of our European values. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on women, vulnerable populations and minorities all over the world and has accelerated the erosion of the democratic fabric of our societies. It has also provided many governments with an ideal pretext to exploit fears and restrict people’s rights.
However, the health crisis has not stopped the people of Belarus. They take the streets peacefully and claim their right to live in dignity, under the rule of law and enjoy democratic freedoms. The democratic opposition in Belarus is the laureate of the Sakharov Prize 2020, represented by the Coordination Council, an initiative of brave women, political and civil society figures, led by main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. They accepted the Prize on 16 December at the European Parliament in Brussels.
The Sakharov Prize acknowledges the pain, the abuses, and the violence happening in Belarus. It is the proof we support the democratic opposition movement in their struggle. It is the word of honour of the European Parliament to stand with them. Our message is clear: Belarusian citizens must be able to fully enjoy their democratic rights and live freely, and we do have a moral duty to support them. This is all the more true for the three laureates whom the Lukashenko regime keeps in prison: Maria Kolesnikova, Sergey Tikhanovsky, and Nikolay Statkevich.
Tikhanovskaya said: “Each and every Belarusian who takes part in the peaceful protest against violence and lawlessness is a hero. Each of them is an example of courage, compassion, and dignity.” The laureates and the people of Belarus have shown the world the true meaning of not giving up on their legitimate aspirations.
The European Parliament has been following closely the worsening situation in Belarus during the past years. It has adopted several resolutions on the growing deterioration of fundamental rights in the country, and the continuous use of violence and intimidation against opposition, journalists, and activists. In its last resolution on November 2020, Parliament called for a complete freeze on all EU fund transfers. It also called for the suspension of negotiations on the EU-Belarus Partnership Priorities until free and fair presidential elections have taken place, and for the EU to lend support to an international investigation of crimes perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime against the people of Belarus.
As the Chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, I stand firmly behind the need to end impunity and bring justice to the victims. What the Belarussians need now, is concrete help with the collection of evidence of human rights violations and independent vetting of individual cases. Universal jurisdiction applied by the EU Member States can be one avenue to hold the perpetrators of human rights violations accountable. Parliament will continue shedding light on human rights abuses and giving a voice to the victims.
The courage of the democratic opposition of Belarus and their strong women leadership impress me deeply. In her acceptance speech, Tsikhanovskaya quoted Nelson Mandela, the first laureate of the Sakharov Prize in 1988, saying, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”
Despite the pain, the suffering, and the fear, Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnikova, Kovalkova, Svetlana Alexievich, Veronika Tsepkalo, Tikhanovsky, Ales Belyatsky, Sergey Dylevsky, Stepan Putsilo, and Statkevich showed us what courage is.
2020 may go down in history as one of the toughest years for human rights in the world. And yet, I wish it to be remembered as a turning point. A year, when more and more courageous people, like the democratic opposition in Belarus, demanded freedom and respect for human rights. Let us be inspired by them. This inspirational moment is what the Sakharov Prize is about.