The ninth Václav Havel Human Rights Prize – which honours outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights – has been awarded to Belarusian human rights activist Maria Kalesnikava.
The 60,000-euro prize was presented at a special ceremony on the opening day of the autumn plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg.
Maria Kalesnikava is one of the opposition leaders in Belarus and a member of the Co-ordination Council. She was the head of the campaign headquarters of former presidential nominee Viktar Babaryka, and has become one of the three female symbols of the Belarusian opposition and the struggle of the people of Belarus for civil and political liberties and fundamental rights.
She was abducted in Minsk in September 2020 and made headlines when she tore up her passport at the border to prevent her forced removal and exile from Belarus. She was subsequently detained, and in September 2021 was sentenced to 11 years in prison for her activity.
Accepting the award on her behalf, Maria’s sister Tatsiana Khomich thanked the award committee and said her sister would want to dedicate her win to all those in Belarus fighting for their rights: “This award is a sign of solidarity of the entire democratic world with the people of Belarus. It is also a sign to us, Belarusians, that the international community supports us, and that we are on the right track.”
Presenting the award, PACE President Rik Daems, who chaired the selection panel, said: “In standing up against a regime which has chosen force and brutality against peaceful and legitimate protest, Ms Kalesnikava showed that she is ready to risk her own safety for a cause greater than herself – she has shown true courage.”
He added: “Indeed, courageous is the word that I believe best describes all three of our shortlisted candidates. Just like Mr Havel, all have shown a willingness to sacrifice their own safety, their own well-being, and ultimately their own freedom, for a greater cause – the protection of human rights for all. This may be a prize, but it comes at a heavy price.”
The two other shortlisted nominees were Reporters Sans Frontières, the leading international NGO working to defend media freedom, and Burundian human rights defender Germain Rukuki, both of whom were awarded diplomas. Reporters Sans Frontières was represented by its Director General Christophe Deloire. For security reasons, Mr Rukuki was unable to be in Strasbourg in person, but he was represented by his sister Scholastique Rukuki, who received the diploma on his behalf.
The Václav Havel Human Rights Prize is awarded each year by PACE, in partnership with the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation, “to honour outstanding civil society action in defence of human rights in Europe and beyond”. It consists of a sum of 60,000 euros, a trophy and a diploma.
Since its creation, the Prize has been awarded in turn to Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Alhathloul (2020), jointly to Ilham Tohti and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (2019), Oyub Titiev (2018), Murat Arslan (2017), Nadia Murad (2016), Ludmilla Alexeeva (2015), Anar Mammadli (2014) and Ales Bialiatski (2013).
Nominations for the Prize should be addressed to the Secretary General of the Parliamentary Assembly and be signed by at least five sponsors, other than the nominee, on the special form to be found at the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize website.
Nominations shall provide details of the nominee's work in the defence of human rights and specify the reasons why the nominee's work can be considered to be outstanding. Relevant supporting documents should be provided. Nominations should be submitted in either of the two official languages of the Council of Europe, English or French.
Individuals or non-governmental institutions active in the defence of human rights can be nominated for the Prize.
The Selection Panel of the Prize is composed of the President of the Assembly (or a person designated by him/her) and six independent persons (who cannot be current members of the Assembly) with recognised moral standing in the field of human rights.
The Panel will examine the nominations, submit a shortlist of three nominees to the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly for information and, subsequently, designate the Prizewinner for the year in question.
Three Panel members are appointed by the Bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly and three Panel members by the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation. The six independent experts are appointed for a two-year period, renewable twice.
The Panel is chaired by the President of the Assembly or the person designated by him/her.
The Prize is awarded at a ceremony which takes place in Strasbourg on the Monday of the Autumn Session of the Parliamentary Assembly, usually in late September or early October.
The name of the Prizewinner is announced by the President of the Parliamentary Assembly.
The former Czech First Lady, Dagmar Havlova, is invited to honour the ceremony with her presence.
The Václav Havel Library will organise, at a later date, an international conference in Prague in honour of the Prizewinner.