Why Germany is giving a peace prize to Russian women

This year's Aachen Peace Prize goes to a network of Russian pacifist women and human rights activist in Israel and the Palestinian territories

The prize is awarded to national and international activists each year on September 1, Germany's anti-war day (Photo: DW)
The prize is awarded to national and international activists each year on September 1, Germany's anti-war day (Photo: DW)
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DW

The Aachen Peace Prize is this year being awarded to a network of feminist pacifists from Russia who oppose their country's invasion of Ukraine. A group of human rights activists based in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories will also be honored at the 2023 ceremony held later today.

The Aachen Peace Prize was first awarded in 1988 by an association that grew out of the German peace movement and that unites various social groups, churches and trade unions. The prize is awarded to national and international activists each year on September 1, Germany's anti-war day.

In 2019, Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba was nominated to receive the award, sparking controversy. He was accused of anti-Semitism and the association's board of directors opposed handing him the award. Ultimately, Kotsaba apologized for his earlier remarks and declined the prize.

FAR network to receive Aachen Peace Prize

The 2023 laureates from Russia will be honored for speaking out against their country's war in Ukraine. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, few in Russia dared to publicly protest. The Feminist Anti-War Resistance (FAR) network was among those who dared to do so.

The network grew out of a feeling of powerlessness and a desire to do something, Russian FAR activists now living in Germany told DW. We are not publishing their full names in order to protect them from possible persecution.

One of the activists, Ekaterina, told DW that the network had helped her not to "break" during "the first months of the war when I was in [the Russian capital] Moscow."

Just one day after the invasion of Ukraine, the pacifist feminists published an online manifesto denouncing the war along with "patriarchy, authoritarianism and militarism."

This was followed by a number of other protests, for example when activists erected crosses in memory of the Mariupol massacre in 2022, when Russian forces killed thousands of civilians in the Ukrainian town. Other examples of their actions are the distribution of anti-war stickers and placing stickers listing the number of war dead over shop price tags. All these acts of defiance, however, are dangerous, as criticizing the war in Ukraine can lead to years-long prison sentences.

Secret anti-war newspapers

Today, the FAR network operates from abroad and from within the Russian underground. FAR activists are based in all major cities, Ekaterina told DW. The network is decentrally organized in order to protect those involved from persecution.

Their protests are staged carefully so as not to get caught. Some, for example, secretly distribute a pacifist newspaper in apartment buildings. Hidden between innocuous baking recipes are tips on how men can avoid mobilization, said Olga, who now also lives in Germany. Any man that doesn't go to war is wonderful, she told DW.

"This activism is just the tip of the iceberg," Olga said. "A large part of what the feminist anti-war resistance does isn't announced anywhere, only the participants know about it, and not even all of them." The network offers legal advice and psychological counseling, for example, she said, as fighting the war is a long-term effort.

"It is important to take responsibility and fight Russian aggression," Ekaterina said. In Russia, protests have often been led by women, and it has been that way in the past as well, she explained. In 2004, for example, the prestigious Committee of Soldiers' Mothers in St. Petersburg was also awarded the Aachen Peace Prize.

Providing legal counsel for Israelis and Palestinians

The other 2023 Aachen Peace Prize recipient is the Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), an organization that provides legal counsel to Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists.

"The Human Rights Defenders Fund works mostly in the background. In the sense that we really think of ourselves as the safety net for the human rights community in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories," HRDF's Arielle Sadie Gordon told DW.

HRDF lawyers provide legal assistance to Israelis and Palestinians involved in a variety of fields such as opposing Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, defending the civil rights of the Palestinian minority in Israel, fighting for LGBTQ rights and climate protection.

The Aachen Peace Award board also recognizes HRDF's commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

HRDF's legal experts can be reached via hotline whenever needed, for instance when Israelis or Palestinians are arrested by Israel's police or military during nonviolent protests, and when charges or court proceedings are pending. "They need to know that we are there for them," Gordon told DW.

Helping those who help others

Ori Givati of Israeli's non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence has been able to count on HRDF's help several times in recent years. "They are basically the organization that allows activism; it allows activists to feel confident that if something will happen to them, there is someone watching, watching your back and being there in order to give legal assistance, which is very much needed," Givati told DW.

Breaking the Silence gathers anonymous testimonials by Israeli army veterans about abuses committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Givati recalled a relief effort to repair a road for Palestinian villagers near Hebron in the West Bank. "Settlers called the military, the military issued a close military zone which means that basically they decide who can be present, and we obeyed it, we started moving out," Givati told DW. "But they still started throwing stun grenades and gas grenades on us and attacked us really, really hard." Givati was arrested and taken to a police station.

"When I arrived to the police station, I had legal counsel from the HRDF, I had a legal advice of the lawyer … and in the end the case was closed," he said, adding that HRDF's work is especially important in light of Israel's controversial judicial reform and the Israeli government's plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.

"We at the Human Rights Defenders Fund are very, very proud and honored to receive the esteemed Aachen Peace Prize for 2023," HRDF's Gordon told DW.

"We also are really glad that the international community is beginning to recognize the urgent work of human rights defenders on the ground in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories."

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Published: 02 Sep 2023, 2:56 PM
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