The “brave people” of Ukraine defending their country against Russia’s relentless invasion have been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union’s highest honor for human rights defenders.
The prize is awarded every year by the European Parliament and is endowed with 50,000 euros.
MEPs paid tribute to the daily struggle of Ukrainians to protect their country’s independence and territorial integrity.
“In the last nine months, the European Parliament and the world have seen how Ukrainians have heroically defended their country, their freedom, their homes and their families,” said European Parliament President Roberta Metsola on Wednesday afternoon as she announced the winner introduced.
“But the Ukrainian people are also risking their lives for Europe to uphold the values we all believe in: freedom, democracy, the rule of law.”
“Nobody deserves this award anymore,” she remarked.
On behalf of the Ukrainian people, the award will be presented to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and civil society organizations of Ukraine.
Zelenskyi is unlikely to travel to Strasbourg on December 14, the date of the official Sakharov ceremony. The president has not left the country since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on February 24.
In response to the news, Zelenskyy said he was “grateful.”
“Every day on the battlefield against the terrorist state, Ukrainians demonstrate their commitment to the values of freedom and democracy [Russian Federation]’ he wrote on his Twitter account.
The Sakharov Prize winner was chosen by the Presidents’ Conference of the parliament chaired by Metsola from a pool of three finalists, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Colombia’s Truth Commission.
“This award is for the Ukrainians who are fighting on the ground, for those who have been forced to flee, for those who have lost relatives and friends, for all those who are standing up and fighting for what and what they believe in,” Metsola told MPs.
“I know that the brave people of Ukraine will not give up and neither will we.”
Even before the official finalists were announced, Ukraine seemed to be the front runner.
Ukraine’s bid was backed by the three main political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP), Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and Renew Europe, giving it a clear advantage over the other two candidates.
Since the invasion began, the Chamber has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine, urging national governments to impose tough sanctions on the Kremlin and step up arms supplies.
In early March, just days after Russian tanks crossed Ukraine’s borders, Zelenskyy delivered a stirring virtual speech to the European Parliament, urging his war-torn country to join the bloc.
“Prove you’re with us. Prove you won’t let us go. Prove that you are really European. And then life will conquer death and light will conquer darkness. Glory to Ukraine,” said Zelenskyy then.
The Ukrainian President was hailed as a hero and received a standing ovation from lawmakers. The translator of Parliament got emotional interpreting Zelenskyj’s words.
Ukraine’s campaign paid off in late June when the country was granted EU candidate status.
Nonetheless, Zelenskyy continues to appeal to EU leaders to speed up military support and micro-financial assistance as Russian forces step up attacks on civilian targets and key infrastructure.
Assange and Colombia
The finalists for this year’s Sakharov Prize included Ukraine, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the Colombian Truth Commission.
Assange, nominated by a group of 41 MPs, is an Australian activist facing charges of espionage in the United States over a vast trove of classified documents leaked by his organization more than a decade ago. The leaks uncovered evidence of war crimes, human rights abuses and torture.
From London’s Belmarsh prison, Assange is fighting a UK extradition order to the US. His lawyers say he is “being prosecuted and punished for his political opinions” and could face up to 175 years in prison if convicted in America.
Colombia’s Truth Commission, nominated by the Left faction, was set up in 2016 as part of the peace accord that ended the conflict between the country’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The commission was tasked with reconstructing the six decades of war, uncovering the facts behind the human rights abuses and giving a voice to the victims. The panel’s final report found an estimated 450,000 people were killed between 1985 and 2018.
The Sakharov Prize was established in 1988 to honor individuals and organizations working for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The annual award is named in honor of Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov, a champion of civil liberties in the former Soviet Union.
The first recipients were Nelson Mandela and Anatoly Marchenko. Last year’s award went to jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.