Greetings from the Secretary General
As is made very clear in the following pages, 2021 was not a good year for civil society and human rights in the area where the Norwegian Helsinki Committee is active. Pro-democracy protests in Belarus and Russia early in the year did not lead to any change. At the end of 2020, the infamous foreign agent legislation in Russia was expanded to include individuals considered to be engaged in political activities ‘in the interests of a foreign state’, and during 2021 a number of new organizations and individuals were designated foreign agents. As the year drew to an end, Memorial, the human rights organization per se in Russia, was closed down. In Central Asia, human rights breaches continue to take place, and in South Caucasus, the decade-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains unsolved. Also, in Central and Eastern Europe, democracy and civil rights are under threat. In Turkey, the authoritarian developments continue, including imprisonment of journalists, opposition, and human rights defenders.
But in our work, we see the strength of those forces that work against this negative development: whatever is left of civil society and human rights organizations in our partner countries, brave journalists and unselfish lawyers. And as the following pages will show, a number of accomplishments have been achieved by the Committee in 2021, not least in the work for freedom of religion or belief, and in documenting international crimes and human rights violations.
For the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, 2021 was a good year. A financial downward trend was replaced by a solid surplus, laying the foundation for financial security and predictability in the years to come, along with new long-term project financing. A comprehensive professionalization of our project management was carried out during the year, and the internal organizational structure was revised. Six thematic and geographic departments were reorganized into one large Policy Department under the leadership of Berit Lindeman, a Centre for International Justice led by Aage Borchgrevink and a Centre for Freedom of Religion or Belief under the management of Liv Hernæs Kvanvig. A number of new staff members joined the organization, across policy work, administration and communication. Importantly, we moved into new, modern premises in central Oslo, and when we were able in August to return to the office after nearly one and a half years of Covid-19 lockdown, there was indeed a feeling of a new start in the Committee.
For me personally, the highlights of the year were Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya’s visit to our office in August; the award ceremony of our own Sakharov Freedom Award in Oslo City Hall in October (received by independent journalist Anna Yarovaya on behalf of the laureate, historian Yury Dmitriev); and, of course, the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in December. Despite strict Covid-19 restrictions, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee was duly represented at the ceremony, alongside our close cooperation partner and famous Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina.
These lines are written in April 2022, and as we all know by now, the world has not turned into a safer place in the new year, with the horrific Russian attack on Ukraine starting in February. We can only hope – and fight – for peace and better conditions for civil society and human rights defenders in the time ahead.