The canary is alive – but needs our help

When those who fight for basic human rights are persecuted, imprisoned and killed, it is a danger signal to us all. We should all do more to protect the people who are at the forefront of the fight for our universal rights.

Human rights defenders could be compared to the proverbial canary in the coal mine. When the canary stops singing, it warns everybody that its environment has become dangerously toxic. More and more often, those who fight for basic human rights – such as freedom of expression, economic and social equality, the right to education, work and health – are being forced into silence. This should provide a warning for all of us.

The Nobel Peace Prize for 2022 was awarded to the human rights activist Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organization Memorial and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties. In this way, the Norwegian Nobel Committee signalled that civil society plays a crucial role in protecting citizens from human right abuses and the abuse of power, and in building and preserving peaceful, democratic societies. Without human rights – and without those who defend, protect and fight for them –there can be no peace.

Most people live in autocracies

We live in a world where democracy is on the retreat. In recent years, a number of countries have gone in a more authoritarian direction. According to the research institute V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), the level of democracy in the world has gone back to what it was in 1986. Over 70 percent of the world's population now live in autocracies. 

In these countries, the people fighting for human rights often face significant risks. The reason for this is that activists who are able to engage people in resistance are a major challenge to dictators. This year's Nobel Peace Prize laureates are living examples of exactly that. Ales Bialiatski is one of over 1,400 political prisoners in Belarus. In March this year, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His crime was financing "illegal business" – the same business for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

An attack on one is an attack on us all

The Russian human rights organization Memorial has been forcibly closed down by the Russian authorities and its members are constantly subjected to prosecution. In Ukraine, the Center for Civil Liberties workers are putting their lives on the line, documenting war crimes after the full scale Russian invasion in February last year. Unfortunately, the fates of these Peace Prize laureates are not unique. In 2022, The International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders documented a record high number of murders of human rights defenders, with 400 targeted, fatal attacks. Next to Latin America, Ukraine, where volunteers carry out risky humanitarian tasks in conflict zones, is the most dangerous place in the world to fight for human rights.

Most of these murders are never investigated and few convictions are made. Furthermore, every time a human rights defender is imprisoned or killed many others are scared into silence. Therefore, an attack on one is an attack on us all. And therefore, those of us who live in democratic societies have a special responsibility to protect those who stand up for human rights where they are most under attack.

A plan for protection

When the Nobel Peace Prize laureates came to Oslo in December 2022, we asked them how we could help them succeed in their struggles for democracy and against autocracy. The resulting conversations led to "The Sunflower Declaration". Together with the laureates' organizations and other human rights experts, we have drawn up a plan for the protection of human rights defenders who are at risk, with specific recommendations for what governments, multilateral organisations, companies, businesses, cities and universities can and should do. Among these measures is a simplified system for visas that will enable human rights defenders to continue their work even if they have to flee their home country. Another measure is the expansion of the scheme for short-term stays in cities or at universities, such as the Oslo Breathing Space City  programme.

The Sunflower Declaration was launched at the Nobel Peace Center's conference HUMAN RIGHTS HEROES 31 August. The conference also marks 75 years since the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. And it is 25 years since the UN decided that fighting for human rights is also a fundamental right that we all share.

Five Peace Prize laureates

The HUMAN RIGHTS HEROES conference gathered five Nobel Peace Prize laureates and some of the world's foremost experts on human rights. This is the third year the Nobel Peace Center has organized such a conference on topics related to the previous year's Nobel Peace Prize. Together with a public festival on Oslo City Hall Square outside the Nobel Peace Center, the conference marks the end of the Nobel Peace Prizeyear, just a few weeks before the new prizeis announced. It is crucial that the spotlight the Nobel Peace Prizecreates continues to shine on anissue, such as human rights. This is why we want to use the opportunity the peace prize provides to put the laureates' cause firmlyon the international agenda.

When the two journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, we prepared a 10-point plan against online hate and disinformation. The plan, which was launched by Maria Ressa at the Nobel Peace Center's Freedom of Expression Conference in September 2022, has been signed by 12 Nobel Peace Prize laureates in addition to over 250 organizations and individuals, including journalist Carole Cadwalladr and authors Shoshana Zuboff and Margaret Atwood. The plan also featured in discussions held in the Norwegian parliament about a national ban on surveillance-based advertising last autumn.

Our hope is that The Sunflower Declaration will become a tool for everyone working to protect human rights defenders. The declaration has already been signed by twelveNobel Peace Prize laureates,in addition tomore than hundred organizations, cities, universities and businesses. And when a large, international business or organization signs such a document, it also means that they promise to include the protection of human rights defenders in their work wherever they have operations around the world.

In his will, Alfred Nobel wrote that the prizes awarded in his name should go to those who had "conferred the greatest benefit to humankind." When the award winners come together to fight for issues that are important for peace and democracy, and when they inspire international organizations, business and committed individuals to join them, their work and efforts can give even greater impetusto democracy and peace and benefits to humanity.